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.


Anonymous said...

Its ironic that I stumbled upon your blog just minutes after I read American Psycho. I have to agree with you on the character that is Pat Bateman and say that he was a very disturbed individual who sheltered many of his deranged thoughts and emotions by killing innocent very trusting people. I believe it may of had something to do with is up bringing. It is obvious he comes from a rich family and perhaps realized that money cannot buy you happiness or sanity for that matter. The only thing I disagree with you on is the book not having a point. I believe this book has a strong point th puts to surface everything we were brought to believe or know from experience which is everything is not as it seems. I think his conversation with jean points out exactly the point and message of the book. Bateman craved to give and receive emotion but could not thus creating this frustration within him. He realize the only thing he got any rise from was when he killed people which helped him to feel like a normal human being which is what he has craved his entire life

Kristin said...

If the only thing that made Bateman feel human was killing people, and killing people in more and more horrible ways, that is first of all saying that Bateman really did kill all those people, which I highly doubt. If the first layer of the novel is that everything is not as it seems - meaning, here is this seemingly "perfect" (or 1980s yuppie perfect) guy who is really a psycho killer - then I think there's a second layer of the same thing, only this time he's really NOT a psycho killer, only someone who THINKS he's a psycho killer.

That aside, I will reiterate what I wrote in the post, which is that whatever one may see as the "point" of the novel (or the main theme), Ellis put it so far beneath a pile of violence and mutilated bodies that really isn't worth sifting through to find it.