Friday, January 30, 2009

American Psycho

I don’t even know where to start to write about American Psycho. While I’ve been reading it, I’ve been thinking of different things I wanted to write, but now all of it is escaping me… where I am right now with it isn’t the same as what I was thinking while reading it.

I’ve been kind of stagnant with my reading lately, for a variety of reasons, one of which is that I just don’t feel interested in any of the books that I’m reading. Not that they aren’t good, or well written, I just don’t care. So, I was looking for something to jump start my reading again…something that would interest me, that I felt I could plow through fairly quickly, just to get me started again. Like so many other books, I’ve been meaning to read American Psycho for a long time – more than a year – and a conversation with Steve at the end of ’08 pushed it higher on my list. So, I thought, yeah, I’ll try this one. I read 100+ pages in one sitting, which is potentially a record for me because I read so slowly. It goes quickly, probably because 1/3 of it is descriptions of what people are wearing and what food they were ordering, which got really monotonous after the first 50 pages so I just started skipping that part. I know how important consumerism is to the story, but it’s not important enough for me to take the time to register whether someone is wearing a suit from Armani or Brooks Brothers, or whether they bought it at Barneys or Bloomingdales.

So, I’m sure everybody knows the plot: Pat Bateman, handsome, rich, asshole Wall Street yuppie by day, insane psycho killer by night. The first 100-150 pages are fairly mundane, giving us a back-drop of Bateman’s life: he likes cocaine and pills, goes out to eat and to clubs, has a lot of sexwith a lot of different women, goes to his job where he doesn’t really do anything, works out, watches tv and videotapes, listens to music, etc. All his friends do pretty much the exact same stuff he does – they are all equally vapid. Throughout this part of the novel, Bateman will interject things into conversations, like “You can’t come over because your neighbor’s head is in my freezer,” but nobody notices that he said anything out of the ordinary. In the rest of the book, things seem to unravel for Bateman. He kills homeless people, gay men, and Chinese delivery boys on the street, and the torture/murder he engages in at his apartment get increasingly strange, frantic and… ah, creative. But it’s difficult to know if it’s really unraveling or if he was this incautious about his er, hobby, or if Ellis just wanted to present the first part of the novel without the killings…to progress into them slowly.

The complexity of each killing seems to escalate. Then, there is the crazy scene where Bateman is spotted by a cop after killing a street musician. He outruns them, then kills a taxi driver, wrecks the car, and has a shootout with the police where a squad car explodes. He ends up on the floor of his office, helicopters circling outside, leaving a message with a colleague confessing to everything. But then everything is back to normal. With the escalation – and this scene in particular - it really sinks in that none of this might be happening at all…it’s probably all in Bateman’s mind.

The central question of the plot is just that: did Bateman really do any of this stuff at all? It’s left open, and there’s evidence to support both sides. The evidence that he did do it includes the cabby who robs him, who claims to recognize him from a Wanted poster for his cabby/musician/cop killing spree, and the real estate agent at Paul Owens apartment (where he murdered – and left the bodies of – two prostitutes). The evidence that he did not do it is the fact that the colleague he called to confess to claims that he had dinner with Paul Owen after Bateman supposedly killed him…however, there is a recurrent theme of mistaken identities – during the conversation about “the message” he calls Bateman by three of four different names, so it’s entirely possible that he didn’t have dinner with Paul Owen at all. Also, the sheer elaborateness of the killings are really unbelievable, and the fact that Bateman is so high on everything seemingly all the time, he could easily hallucinate it all. Seriously though, the blood was everywhere for the dozens of murders – on his clothes, on the walls, the sheets, the carpet, everything. He is constantly taking stuff to the drycleaners and arguing with them about the stains, and he has cleaning woman charged with dealing with the mess. And of course, we have dozens of people missing, and were last seen with Bateman. That nobody along the way would have said anything is ludicrous.

What I noticed throughout the novel was that as Bateman and all his friends continue to live their yuppy life, there are all these images of what is going on in the country and in NYC during the late ‘80s, specifically poverty. Bateman frequently encounters the homeless, and the musical Les Miserables is constantly coming up…everyone is listening to the songs, the posters and playbills are everywhere. I know this was a hit at the time, and was certainly big news, but there were other big musicals coming out at the time, and I think of the choice of Les Miserables was interesting. Bateman clearly hates blacks, but has no problem extolling the merits of Whitney Houston’s music. He also love’s Genesis, but most of the songs he describes seem to have a socially conscious overtone. One couldn’t expect Bateman to notice the irony of this as he has absolutely no inner life, but even if he did notice it, he wouldn’t care because he also has no feelings…no empathy, no compassion, no inkling of a conscience – nothing. “…there is an idea of a Patrick Bateman, some kid of abstraction, but there is no real me, only an entity, something illusory…My conscience, my pity, my hopes disappeared a long time ago…” There is something seriously wrong with the man…and I mean beyond the mayhem. He talks about being in pain, about there being no catharsis, and wanting to inflict what he is going through on the rest of the world. But what exactly his issues are is never explored.

I will start this thought out by saying I did watch and like the American Psycho movie, and under most circumstances violence – gratuitous or not – doesn’t bother me…except Saw, which is the only movie I have ever considered walking out of (and I should have). There was something about that that was just too much. I adore movies like Natural Born Killers, which, as strange/creepy/scary as this sounds, I used to watch a lot. So while I don’t seek out violent movies, if a movie is violent, I don’t mind. On the other hand, I don’t read a lot of violent books. I occasionally read books in which something violent happens, it’s typically not the focus of the story…I mean, the entire story is not encompassed by those violent acts. And I suppose I should clarify that there are two different kinds of violence here: war violence, which I do read, and murder/torture/serial killers violence, which I don’t read. They are two very different things. While war violence might, and does, upset me, it’s not the same as the other type of violence. The other type of violence is random, personal, and much more unsettling. These women are going to the apartment of someone they trust, and they end up decapitated or otherwise terribly mutilated. It’s very upsetting. And maybe there is also a difference between watching a violent movie – in which you are submerged into another world, and then brought back to your own life – and reading a book, which somehow feels more personal…whether it’s because one is submerged, then you’re back, but then you’re submerged again, etc…or maybe seeing something, being presented with something is different from having to read the words, which becomes a sort of movie in your own head, and it enters your thoughts in a different way. I don’t know what it was, but I definitely had a much stronger reaction to the novel than the movie. Maybe I’m a wimp…whatever.

When the book came out, there was a lot of brouhaha about the violence, with some critics saying there was too much, it was too graphic, etc., and others defending Ellis saying his portrayal of Bateman was authentic to character, and that to not detail the murders in such gut-wrenching, disgusting, but flat way would have been inauthentic. That’s just what he would do. And I get all that, and for the most part I agree. The description of the murders is completely true to the character’s voice. I also get that everything in the ‘80s Wall Street culture was what was on the surface – the clothes, where you ate, where you bought stuff, and that that is how people defined themselves (“Surface, surface, surface was all that anyone found menaing in…”). And that is the book Ellis wrote. And the descriptions of the violence are no more detailed, no more insightful, than his descriptions of music. It’s all flat. I get the joke – the point – of it. But my problem with the novel is that Ellis buried that point so well beneath a mountain of mutilated bodies that it’s really hard to get to. And in my opinion, the joke wasn’t worth getting anyway. Really, was there no other vehicle for this?

In the end, I feel….I don’t know – exhausted, unsettled by this book. I’m watching more carefully as I walk to my car after work, looking at people more suspiciously. Maybe that’s the lesson of the book? – that on the surface people can seem just like everyone around them, but they’re really not. But I knew that was true –so I didn’t need to spend the week reading this book to learn that. I’m just thinking, eh. Maybe I need to lower my expectations of self-perceived kick ass books? I’ll admit I came to American Psycho because it seemed subversive. Which, I suppose it could be considered, in some superficial way. But to really be worth it, subversive stuff should have a message…a point, and I just don’t think this book has one, or one strong enough. It’s going to go in the box under my bed, partly because I have absolutely no more space on my bookshelf (there are even piles to the ceiling on top of it) and partly because I’m done with it. Time to shut Pat Bateman out of my life. Am I wrong here people?

Oh, and it’s going to be a musical.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

John Updike 1932-2009

It came to me the other day:
Were I to die, no one would say,
“Oh, what a shame! So young, so full
Of promise — depths unplumbable!”
Instead, a shrug and tearless eyes
Will greet my overdue demise;
The wide response will be, I know,
“I thought he died a while ago.”
For life’s a shabby subterfuge,
And death is real, and dark, and huge.
The shock of it will register
Nowhere but where it will occur.

~John Updike

An obituary at the NY Times

Monday, January 26, 2009

List-o-Phile Monday

Last week, we began the 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list…2008 edition.

First part of the Added list

As I mentioned in last week’s post, the editors took out a lot of great classics of western lit (Dickens, Dostoevsky, Austen, etc – we’ll get to the list of what was taken off in about three weeks) and replaced them with a more world-lit-oriented list…a lot of Asian, Spanish, and Eastern European works were added. I’m sure that I’ll reiterate this when we get to the Removed list, but I’ll say it now also so you know where I stand with this. While on one hand, it’s great to see more obscure, “foreign” works of literature being put on this list – especially in light of the criticism from the Nobel people that America doesn’t participate in the world lit dialog and therefore don’t deserve awards – I also think that it’s detrimental to remove the Western greats in favor of foreign works. My reason is that so much culturally is drawn from those great works, that to have people think it’s ok NOT to read them is to create a huge vacuum. When you don’t have people reading A Christmas Carol, which is one of the many Dickens that was removed, at some point we will lose the reference to why someone is called “Ebenezer Scrooge,” and so many others. It’s part of our cultural heritage as English speakers, as part of the Western tradition, that I think is so sad to lose. Don’t get me wrong, I love seeing novels like This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, Barabbas, and War with the Newts added to this list, and while multi-culturalism is fabulous, cutting out Dickens in favor of it I think is going the wrong way. And to remove those Western greats when the list was already top-heavy with recent literature is very frustrating.

As always, list is in reverse chronological order and red (or a link) indicates that I've read it.
  1. The Back Room - Carmen Martin Gaite
  2. The Beggar Maid - Alice Munro
  3. Requiem for a Dream- Hubert Selby Jr.
  4. The Wars - Timothy Findley
  5. Quartet in Autumn – Barbara Pym
  6. The Engineer of Human Souls – Josef Skvorecky
  7. Blaming - Elizabeth Taylor
  8. Almost Transparent Blue – Ryu Murakami
  9. Kiss of the Spider Woman - Manuel Puig
  10. Woman at Point Zero - Nawal El Saadawi
  11. The Commandant - Jessica Anderson
  12. The Year of the Hare - Arto Paasilinna
  13. The Port - Antun Šoljan
  14. The Dispossessed - Ursula K. Le Guin
  15. The Diviners - Margaret Laurence
  16. Day of the Dolphin - Robert Merle
  17. The Optimist's Daughter - Eudora Welty
  18. The Twilight Years - Sawako Ariyoshi
  19. Lives of Girls and Women - Alice Munro
  20. Cataract – Mykhailo Osadchyi
  21. A World for Julius - Alfredo Bryce Echenique
  22. Play It As It Lays - Joan Didion
  23. Fifth Business – Robertson Davies
  24. Jacob the Liar – Jurek Becker
  25. Here's to You, Jesusa - Elena Poniatowska
  26. Season of Migration to the North - Tayeb Salih
  27. The Case Worker - Gyorgy Konrad
  28. Moscow Stations - Venedikt Erofeyev
  29. Heartbreak Tango - Manuel Puig
  30. The Cathedral – Oles Honchar
  31. The Manor - Isaac Bashevis Singer
  32. Z – Vassilis Vassilikos
  33. Miramar – Naguib Mahfouz
  34. To Each His Own - Leonardo Sciascia
  35. Marks of Identity - Juan Goytisolo
  36. Silence – Shusaku Endo
  37. Death and the Dervish - Mesa Selimovic
  38. Closely Watched Trains - Bohumil Hrabal
  39. Back to Oegstgeest - Jan Wolkers
  40. Gardens, Ashes – Danilo Kis
  41. Three Trapped Tigers - Guillermo Cabrera Infante
  42. Dog Years – Gunter Grass
  43. The Third Wedding - Costas Taktsis
  44. Time of Silence – Luis Martin Santos
  45. The Death of Artemio Cruz - Carlos Fuentes
  46. The Time of the Hero - Mario Vargas Llosa
  47. Memoirs of a Peasant Boy - Xose Neira Vilas
  48. No One Writes to the Colonel - Gabriel García Márquez
  49. The Shipyard - Juan Carlos Onetti
  50. Bebo's Girl - Carlo Cassola
  51. The Magician of Lublin - Isaac Bashevis Singer
  52. God's Bits of Wood - Ousmane Sembene
  53. Halftime – Martin Walser
  54. Down Second Avenue - Es'kia Mphahlele
  55. Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon - Jorge Amado
  56. Deep Rivers - Jose Maria Arguedas
  57. The Guide - R.K. Narayan
  58. The Deadbeats - Ward Ruyslinck
  59. The Birds - Tarjei Vesaas
  60. The Glass Bees - Ernst Junger
  61. The Manila Rope - Veijo Meri
  62. The Devil to Pay in the Backlands - Joao Guimaraes Rosa
  63. The Burning Plain - Juan Rulfo
  64. The Tree of Man – Patrick White
  65. The Mandarins – Simone de Beauvoir
  66. A Day in Spring – Ciril Kosmac
  67. Death in Rome – Wolfgang Koeppen
  68. The Sound of Waves - Yukio Mishima
  69. The Unknown Soldier - Vaino Linna
  70. The Hothouse – Wolfgang Koeppen
  71. The Lost Steps – Alejo Carpentier
  72. The Dark Child – Camara Laye
  73. Excellent Women - Barbara Pym
  74. A Thousand Cranes - Yasunari Kawabata
  75. The Hive - Camilo Jose Cela
  76. Barabbas – Par Lagerkvist
  77. The Guiltless – Hermann Broch
  78. Ashes and Diamonds - Jerzy Andrzejewski
  79. Journey to the Alcarria - Camilo Jose Cela
  80. In The Heart of the Sea - Shmuel Yosef Agnon
  81. This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen - Tadeusz Borowski
  82. Froth on the Daydream - Boris Vian
  83. Midaq Alley - Naguib Mahfouz
  84. Zorba the Greek – Nikos Kazantzákis
  85. House in the Uplands - Erskine Caldwell
  86. Andrea – Carmen Laforet
  87. Bosnian Chronicle - Ivo Andrić
  88. The Death of Virgil - Hermann Broch
  89. The Tin Flute – Gabrielle Roy
  90. Pippi Longstocking - Astrid Lindgren
  91. Chess Story (Royal Game) - Stefan Zweig
  92. Broad and Alien is the World - Ciro Alegria
  93. The Harvesters – Cesare Pavese
  94. The Man Who Loved Children - Christina Stead
  95. Alamut – Vladimir Bartol
  96. On the Edge of Reason – Miroslav Krleza
  97. The Blind Owl – Sadegh Hedayat
  98. Ferdydurke – Witold Gombrowicz
  99. War with the Newts – Karel Capek
  100. Ricksaw Boy – Lao She

Thursday, January 22, 2009

A Room With a View

A Room With a View (1909) falls into that category of novels, along with Henry James (not the writing, the setting), Jane Austen, etc.: The Very English Novel. The plot is simple: Lucy and her chaperon/older cousin Charlotte go on holiday to Florence, Italy. At their “pension,” they meet the Emersons – a father and son. The Emersons hear Lucy and Charlotte discussing the dismal view from their room, and the Emersons kindly offer to switch, as they have a very nice view, but don’t particularly care if they have a view or not. Charlotte is the epitome of The Proper Way to Do Things, and refuses for a time, as the Emersons are males, and as single female travelers, Charlotte feels it improper for them to accept as they would then owe the Emersons something. Eventually, realizing she had insulted the kindness of the Emersons, agrees to the room swap. One day, Lucy, Charlotte and a number of other “pensioners” – including the Emersons – all take a ride into the countryside. During a break in which the group separates, Lucy comes upon George Emerson (the son) in a field of violets, and he kisses her. Charlotte happens upon them and sees this. She whisks Lucy away, and it is clear that this is absolutely Not the Proper Way to Do Things. In order to escape “scandal”, the next day Lucy and Charlotte move on to Rome. So ends the first part of the book.

The second part of the book is Lucy with her family at their English house. Lucy has recently become engaged to pompous jerk Cecil (after having refused him multiple times before). Cecil happens upon the Emersons in a gallery somewhere, and tells them that he knows of a house for rent in Lucy’s neighborhood. Cecil does this in order to play a trick on the landlord, not realizing that Lucy is so “well acquainted” with George. Of course this causes issues. Charlotte is in a panic about it. George Emerson comes for a visit, and when they are alone he again kisses Lucy, who is not pleased. There is a discussion/argument about Cecil’s shortcomings (as in, he’s a pompous jerk, and Lucy isn’t suited to marry a pompous jerk). Lucy realizes that what George said about Cecil is true, and she breaks off their engagement. Of course he does it because she really likes George, but won’t admit it. She decides to run away to Greece with some of her English friends from Italy in order to escape the situation. But right before she leaves, she runs into Mr. Emerson (George’s father), and after a long speech, she realizes that she really is in love with George. They get married, go to Italy, and live happily ever after. The End.

There isn’t much to say about A Room With a View. That’s the plot, and if you think that sounds like something you would like, then you’re in for a treat. If it’s not something you’re interested in, you’ll probably be bored.

Forster, like most authors, seems to have been an interesting character. He turned down a knighthood because it wasn't "good enough" for him. Well known to be gay, he joined Virginia Woolf in protesting the suppression of Radclyffe Hall's Well of Loneliness. During a stay with the Woolf's at the time, he and Virginia had a discussion in which he stated he found lesbianism disgusting because he didn't like the idea of women being independent of men. This line of thought, I believe, comes across in A Room With a View...but it's being a fairly standard romance, that's typically the case, and Forster certainly wasn't the only person of his time - or any time - to feel that way.

This is my second foray into Forster – my first was my last year’s reading of A Passage to India. I had the same reaction to both novels: I wouldn’t say that I was disappointed, but I wasn’t thrilled with them either. I was so unthrilled, in fact, that it has taken me more than a week to come up with much to say about it. Some people are fierce about Forster…he has many devoted fans. But so does Henry James. I understand why someone would love this book – it’s plot is easy to identify with, and it’s fairly straightforward. I also understand why someone would adore Forster in general as well, but I think it takes a certain personality, and I don’t possess that type of personality. I say this about a lot of novels, particularly ones from the first decade or two of the 20th century…it’s not bad writing, it’s not bad plot…it’s just not for me.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Booking Through Thursday

Today's Booking Through Thursday:

But, enough about books … Other things have words, too, right? Like …songs!

If you’re anything like me, there are songs that you love because of their lyrics; writers you admire because their songs have depth, meaning, or just a sheer playfulness that has nothing to do with the tunes.

So, today’s question? What songs … either specific songs, or songs in general by a
specific group or writer … have words that you love? Why? And … do the tunes that go with the fantastic lyrics live up to them? You don’t have to restrict yourself to modern songsters, either … anyone who wants to pick Gilbert & Sullivan, for example, is just fine with me. Lerner & Loewe? Steven Sondheim? Barenaked Ladies? Fountains of Wayne? The Beatles? Anyone at all…

Ok...I LOVE music. I have always loved music. I mean, it's not just something I want to hear on the radio or whatever...I'm PASSIONATE about the music I like. I don't even know where to begin to start about lyrics I love. Thumbing through my mp3 player - which has 4,000 songs on it, I immediately had a list of like 50 songs I could put on here. So, maybe I'll just put them all on here...I'm not going to bother with reasons for the most part. Maybe a little. These aren't just songs that I like the lyrics...these are lyrics that mean something to me - they remind me of a person, a situation, a feeling, etc. These are important songs. Even though two are by Britney Spears.

  • I was born by the river.../and oh just like that river I've been running ever since

  • Gypsy, sitting looking pretty/A broken rose with laughing eyes/You're a mystery, always running wild/like a child without a home

  • Time, time time, see what's become of me

  • I used to be disgusted/Now I try to be amused

  • [Thanks dad for having this record around] To those of us who knew the pain/of valentines that never came/and those whose names were never called/when choosing sides for basketball/It was long ago and far away/The world was younger than today/when dreams were all they gave for free/to ugly duckling girls like me

  • One day I'll wish upon a star and wake up where the clouds are far behind me/where troubles melt like lemon drops a-way above the chimney tops/That's where you'll find me

  • Be brave little one/Make a wish for each sad little tear/Hold your head up though no one is near/Someone’s waiting for you

  • Well, I ain't gonna think about you/Cause it ain't no use no more/I'm gonna make it fine without you/Just like I did before/I'm on my way/Tomorrow's gonna be another day

  • Wanna die in Beat City/Run, run, run/Wanna hang with girls and shoot my gun.../Wanna die in Beat City/Go, go, go/You can't come with me 'cause you're just too slow/Inject the stars make them glow

  • I was central, I had control, I lost my head/I need this.../Crazy what you could've had...

  • Time it was oh what a time it was...It was a time of innocence, a time of confidences. Long ago it must be, I have a photograph, preserve your memory, they're all that's left...

  • Darling I'm killed/I'm in a puddle on the floor/Waiting for you to return

  • I must confess, that my loneliness is killing me now/Don't you know I still believe/That you will be here...

  • But these cuts I have/They need love to help them heal

  • I don’t know/Only god knows where the story ends for me/But I know where the story begins/It’s up to us to choose/Whether we win or lose/And I choose to win

  • [Cannot even THINK of this song without tearing up] Where have all the flowers gone?/Girls have picked them every one/When will they ever learn?

  • Animals strike curious poses/They feel the heat, the heat between me and you

  • Today there is no day or night/Today there is no dark or light/Today there is no black or white/Only shades of gray

  • Hear that lonesome whippoorwill/He sounds too blue to fly/The midnight train is whining low/I'm so lonesome I could cry

  • Out on the road today I saw a deadhead sticker on a cadillac/A little voice inside my head said/Don't look back/you can never look back.

  • I dream about magnolias in bloom and I'm wishing I was there

  • Is it my turn to wish you were lying here...

  • I heard there was a secret chord that David played and it pleased the Lord, but you don't really care for music do you?

  • My love must be a kind of blind love/I can't see anyone but you/Are the stars out tonight?

  • But touch my tears with your lips/Touch my world with your fingertips/And we can have forever

  • Why live life from dream to dream and dread the day when dreaming ends?

  • Has anybody seen a dog dyed dark green/about two inches tall with a strawberry blond fall/sunglasses and a bonnet/and designer jeans with appliques on it?

  • One day soon I´m gonna tell the moon about the crying game/and if he knows maybe he´ll explain/why there are heartaches/why there are tears/and what to do to stop feeling blue when love disappears

  • And everytime I try to fly/I fall without my wings/I feel so small/I guess I need you baby

  • Whenever I'm alone with you/You make me feel like I'm free again/whenever I'm alone with you/you make me feel like I'm clean again

  • Days may be cloudy or sunny/We're in or we're out of the money/But I'm with you always/I'm with you rain or shine

  • Oh thinking about all our younger years, there was only you and me...

  • Karma police, I've given all I can, its not enough/I've given all I can, but were still on the payroll

  • And where will she go and what shall she do when midnight comes around/She'll turn once more to Sunday's clown/And cry behind the door

  • [When my grandma used to sing me this song when I was a kid, I thought it was hilarious] I`ll go home and get my panties/You go home and get your scanties/And away we`ll go...To Niagara in a sleeper/There`s no honeymoon that`s cheaper/And the train goes slow...Someday, the stork may pay a visit/And leave a little souvenir/Just a little cute `what is it,'/But we`ll discuss that later, dear.

  • [I have two theme songs; this is from one of them] You're losing all your highs and lows/Ain't it funny how the feeling goes away?

  • [This is the other] I'm a-walking in the rain/Tears are falling and I feel the pain/Wishing you were here by me/To end this misery/And I wonder...Why she ran away and I wonder where she will stay, my little runaway

  • [If I had a third theme song, this would be it] I wanna be free/Like the blue birds flying by me/like the waves out on the blue sea/If your love has to tie me/Don't try me/say goodbye...

  • Just hold onto your life down to the wire/Out from the dragon's jaws and into the fire
I'm sure tomorrow I'll think of 50 more to add. Props to anyone who can guess song and artist for these. I tried to pick more obscure parts of the songs, but some are pretty obvious.