Posted by: chartroose | July 23, 2008

American Psycho

I heard the news today, oh boy!  It seems that Christain Bale is in some sort of domestic abuse trouble.  He was arrested (and released) after allegedly assaulting his mother during an argument at a posh British hotel.  I’m not usually into the gossip thing, but I am interested in Christian Bale, and I have been ever since seeing him in “Empire of the Sun” years ago.  Now, after reading Will’s review of “The Dark Knight,” and enjoying his snarky comments about Bale’s performance, I began to remember that I wrote a review of American Psycho months ago and never posted it.  The movie version of “American Psycho” stinks, and I thought Bale’s performance in that movie was terrible.  He was the worst possible choice they could have made for the role of Patrick Bateman–the absolute worst, but, then, I thought the novel should never have been made into a movie in the first place.  Some novels need to stew in their own juices for eternity.  American Psycho is one of those novels.

Here is my review of American Psycho–the book, not the movie:

https://i2.wp.com/media.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/photo/2005/08/18/PH2005081801315.jpg

I’ve been thinking about Bret Easton Ellis quite a bit lately due to the “angry young man” reading phase I seem to be going through.  American Psycho propels the angry young man novel to new heights.  It depicts the angry young man as “bad lad,” and the protagonist of American Psycho is a very, very bad lad indeed.

There was a huge public outcry when American Psycho was released.  Reviewers admonished people not to read it.  It was labeled subversive and misogynistic and utterly without merit.  It was said to be filled with gratuitous sex and violence, and Ellis was panned as being a “media whore” who wrote the book so he could have his fifteen minutes of fame.

Well, that was all the impetus I needed!  I flew to the nearest bookstore and flew home with a pristine copy.  I read until the wee hours of the morning and finished it the next evening.  I decided the novel was total trash and stuck in my bookcase, thinking I would probably end up throwing it away later on.  Disposal of the novel never happened though, in fact, over the next several days I found myself pulling it off the shelf and rereading entire passages just to make sure that I was recalling them correctly.  I had American Psycho on the brain, and it was not an enjoyable experience.  Even though it was creeping me out, I just couldn’t get it out of my head.  It was the most disturbing book I had ever read.

It’s been at least fifteen years since I’ve read American Psycho, but I remember quite a bit about it.  I can recall entire sections of this novel, probably because I reread them so much.  Last night, as I was thumbing through my copy in preparation for this post, I started feeling the same repulsion and fascination that I felt when I read it way back when.

Now for the nuts and bolts: American Psycho is not a good novel, but it is an important one.  It’s satirical, but not in a comical way.  Satire does not always have to be comical.  The protagonist, Patrick Bateman, is a successful Wall Street wunderkind by day and serial killer by night.  He is a textbook sociopath.  Mutilation and torture arouse him, and violence soon becomes the only means through which he can achieve sexual climax.  The novel draws parallels between Bateman’s career as a cutthroat stockbroker and his career as a gruesome murderer.  American Psycho is trying to tell us that capitalism is as violent and merciless as Patrick Bateman, and Bateman’s disregard for women as anything but body parts to be abused and discarded is a mirror reflection of modern society’s objectification of women.

Here’s a passage that displays some of the novel’s themes quite well:

“…I didn’t work out this morning because I’d made a necklace from the bones of some girl’s vertebrae and wanted to stay home and wear it around my neck while I masturbated in the white marble tub in my bathroom, grunting and moaning like some animal.  Then I watched a movie about five lesbians and ten vibrators.  Favorite group: Talking Heads.  Drink: J & B or Absolut on the rocks.  TV show: Late Night with David Letterman.  Soda: Diet Pepsi.  Water: Evian.  Sport: Baseball.” (p. 395)

I believe quite a few feminists had conniptions about American Psycho, and I can totally see where they were coming from, but I also think they didn’t want to understand it.  The novel deserves to be read critically and objectively.  At its core, American Psycho is a story about the thoughts and actions of a thrill killer.  In order to make Patrick Bateman believable (and detestable), Ellis had to write dispassionately and graphically.  The violence, especially those passages containing sexual violence, had to be written with the same cold hardness that any sexploitative slasher film uses during its most graphic scenes.  There can be no feelings; serial killers have no feelings.  At a deeper level, Bateman’s detached views of everything: from his wardrobe to his career to his relationships to the way blood spurts after cutting a victim’s legs off with a chain saw, symbolize our own detachment.  We have become so inured to graphic sex and violence that very little moves us.  In order to become aroused from our stupor, we require a steadily decaying diet of violence and depravity.

American Psycho, like A Clockwork Orange and other postmodern nihilistic satires, has no need to be on anyone’s top 10 list.  We don’t have to like it, but we do have to appreciate what it is trying to tell us about ourselves.  In my opinion, it should be regarded as one of the most important indictments of modern society’s narcissisim and inhumanity ever written.

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Responses

  1. I admit, I’ve never read the book or seen the movie (and Christian! Assaulting your mother? Geez) but the objectification of women is not a modern concept. Not that I want to understand the motivations of someone who hacks apart women for the hell of it either. I’ll just dismiss him as a sociopath that ought to be put down.

    I don’t think we’re inured to violence – I think people crave it. There’s certainly enough historical evidence to back it up. We just dress it up differently nowadays.

  2. Carrie–I think we do crave violence, and I also think we’re desensitized to it. As my post about childhood games shows, I think we start early wanting to hurt others and to be hurt in turn. It’s one of the more awful aspects of human nature.

    You’re right about the objectification of women not being a modern concept too–it has always been around. It’s just more out of the closet now. People are pretty disgusting, aren’t they?

  3. This is on my TBR list. I’m not sure when I’ll get to it, but it’s there. Along with a few others of his that look interesting. Thanks for the great review! It’s nice to see something besides, “. . . And I immediately threw this book in the trash.”

    Lezlie

  4. Thanks, Lezlie! I really had to think about this novel before I finally decided it had merit. One of the biggest bookish arguments I’ve ever had was about the value of “American Psycho,” and that has to mean something, doesn’t it?

  5. I’ve seen the film which I didn’t like which has led to the book remaining unread on my shelf. I seem to have a problem with Bale. For example, the new Batman film just fills me with dread. But your review has sparked a new interest in picking up American Psycho again. I’ll forget silly actors and get back to the page.

  6. First, yes, we must remember: allegedly. We’ll see what develops, certainly, but in the meantime…

    So, on American Psycho: it seems we have diametrically opposed opinions of it–I loved both the book and the movie, for entirely different reasons each.

    Then again: ‘love’ is not precisely the word.

    But also again, you got me thinking so hard about this I did another blog about it. It’s really about American Psycho and Fight Club and how there is meaning there, and it does have value, and I’d argue with anyone that it is a good book, no matter how trashy it may be, because since when are the two mutually exclusive. Lest we forget, Shakespeare and Dracula were both their times’ equivalent of “trash,” and we see where they are.

  7. Stephen–Yes, do give it a try and let me know what you think. Perhaps you’ll toss it in the garbage and call me all kinds of names. I’ll be waiting to hear what you have to say.

    Will–You’re right, both Am. Psycho and Fight Club have value, and I’m hoping they both will be able to stand the test of time.

  8. I have to say that I started reading this some years ago but couldn’t finish it. Not because I think it’s trash, because I think I did get was he was trying to do, but because the graphic sexual violence was making me feel sick.

    I am incredibly squeamish. I can’t watch films with blood and gore in them, and though my tolerance is higher in the written word, I just couldn’t read another page of AP. I gave it to a friend instead, who appreciated it much more!

  9. What a great, thoughtful post. I haven’t read it or seen the movie but I am very intrigued. One of the best bookish arguments I ever had was about a nonfiction book written by the CIA guy who coined the term “serial killer.” Why oh why do we find this extreme violence so fascinating? Well, maybe not all of us do. But, um, I do. When I was a kid I felt the same way about accounts of horrific child abuse, like Sybil.

  10. Kirsty, yes, it was pretty sickening, which is why I surprised myself by being able to look past all of the gross parts. I remember seeing Mr. Ellis defend the novel on Charlie Rose years ago. He seemed like an okay guy, and I kind of felt sorry for him.

    Julie, I swear, we must be related. I was fascinated by Sybil too, and reread some of the more graphic scenes several times.

  11. Great review of this one. It’s been on my wishlist for a long while now, and it’s good to hear a bit more about it before I dive in. Definitely sounds like one of those books I might not “enjoy” but would most definitely appreciate.

  12. That’s a really classy review of American Psycho. I think readers tend to underestimate the fantasy dimension of the novel, the way that Easton Ellis troubles the reality of what happens, so that much of what is most offensive could have been a sick fantasy. I agree absolutely that it’s not a good book but an important one. It represented the culmination of a tendency towards graphic sex and violence and outspoken comment on the sacred cows of the time – feminism being a notable one of them. And then it went on to have a huge impact on cultural media – that tendency has by no means gone away, in fact in the movies, it’s become even stronger in some ways. I really appreciate the way you don’t make a snap judgement on this novel and think about what it’s trying to do.

  13. Andi–I certainly hope you do appreciate it. After all of the comments, I looked up some of articles that were written when the novel came out. People REALLY bashed it, and I felt sorry for Mr. Ellis. It seems like he spent quite a bit of his time defending “American Psycho.” It’s a wonder he ever wrote another novel after that.

    litlove–Yay! I’m so glad you read and responded to this, because I respect your intelligence so much! You’re totally correct; at the time it was published, “American Psycho” absolutely did mirror our fascination with graphic ickiness and it also influenced the way we regard these things in the media. I really am going to have to reread this, because I think I’ll feel the same way and maybe even garner some fresh insights as well.

  14. If the novel is not a good novel and yet an important one, does that mean that it tells us more about Bret Easton Ellis’ morality, as a reflection of his generation, than about Patrick Bateman’s? Does it mean that the author, instead of the subject, be condemned? I can understand perfectly not liking this book, or even hating it, but Ellis completely inherits this character; do understand that the novelist is not mysogynistic like Patrick Bateman, he is a self-proclaimed moralist. In ‘Lunar Park,’ his latest, a biography, he goes through the process of his writing this novel. It deeply disturbed him. After publication he refused himself the status of ownership, the ability or privilage to go back and re-read it. There was ‘well, something evil about it,’ said Ellis. I think the point about society being ‘inured’ to violence was more to do with a modern sanitization of violence, say for example with teen slasher flicks, than with people not seeking or habituating toward violence. My reason for believing that some of these comments are inaccurate with regards to this point can be traced back to the initial backlash against American Psycho the novel. If society is not inured to violence, why is there still continued and forceful retaliation? People respond with hostility not because they are or are not inured to violence, they respond because the text is unacceptable. Yes, Bateman is a mysogynist, a murderer, a rapist, but how else who a person who is all these things be expected to behave? The reason for American Psycho being a great novel and a great piece of art, not transgressional (it is probably too brutal and naked to be described as merely transgressional), is not only due to the absolute inheritance of Bateman’s character by the author, but is in the author’s ability to form actions so unreal, and yet conceivable, that its causing offence and widespread critical condemnation was inevitable. I know that by reading American Psycho as a novel, and without the burden of hype, that it is purely a matter of taste, but in my opinion it continues to be misunderstood and entirely undervalued.

  15. P.S. Christian was fucking brilliant in the film version!

  16. Dean–

    You make some great points about Ellis, and I agree with them totally. He wrote this as an indictment of society, not as a reflection of himself. I felt very sorry when I saw him interviewed (years ago) regarding the book, and he wasn’t allowed to even begin to defend himself. The interviewer really raked him over the coals. It was deplorable, it really was.

    Now, about my critique of the novel–I stand by what I said. We ARE inured to violence, and novels like “American Psycho” are controversial for many reasons, one of the main ones being that they make intelligent people like us take a look at ourselves and we don’t like what we see. Most people who read the book can’t see past the slick and violent veneer of the plot to its deeper condemnation of society. The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that “Psycho” should be considered a masterpiece.

    I didn’t like the film, so I didn’t like Bale in the the film. I think he did the best he could with what he had to work with. How can a movie adaptation ever do justice to the book?

    I wish you had a website–I’d go check it out!

  17. […] 29, 2008 by chartroose This is really strange, or at least I think it is:  my post on American Psycho has had about four times more hits on this blog (around 2,000) than any other […]

  18. “The novel deserves to be read critically and objectively.”

    No, it doesn’t. Trash is trash. The mere fact that someone wrote and some publisher published it means nothing. Have the guts and independence of intellect to reject this crap and denounce it publicly. I do: why don’t you?

  19. A masterpiece? Hardly! Utter unmitigated trash, written by a depraved degenerate posing as a writer. The joke is on the publishing world that any one takes this ‘Ellis’ person seriously.

    It is an outrage of the higher order, and I intend to denounce this book in as many ways to as many people as possible.

  20. “American Psycho, like A Clockwork Orange and other postmodern nihilistic satires, has no need to be on anyone’s top 10 list. We don’t have to like it, but we do have to appreciate what it is trying to tell us about ourselves. In my opinion, it should be regarded as one of the most important indictments of modern society’s narcissisim and inhumanity ever written.”

    No, it isn’t. It isn’t about ‘us’ or trying to tell us anything about ourselves. It has nothing to do with the Reagan era or culture or anything else. It’s simply a sick mind playing tricks on publishers. Don’t fall for it!

  21. “Yes, Bateman is a mysogynist, a murderer, a rapist, but how else who a person who is all these things be expected to behave? The reason for American Psycho being a great novel and a great piece of art, not transgressional (it is probably too brutal and naked to be described as merely transgressional), is not only due to the absolute inheritance of Bateman’s character by the author, but is in the author’s ability to form actions so unreal, and yet conceivable, that its causing offence and widespread critical condemnation was inevitable. I know that by reading American Psycho as a novel, and without the burden of hype, that it is purely a matter of taste, but in my opinion it continues to be misunderstood and entirely undervalued.”

    I can’t believe anyone with any humanity could write this.

  22. Mike–Thanks for your response. My reaction to “…Psycho” was similar to yours at first. It took me awhile to get beyond my gut reaction and see it for what Ellis meant it to be. I think it DOES have value, and that it IS important.

    What really amazes (and disturbs) me is the obsession people continue to have with the novel and the movie, especially the movie. I’m assuming that most people don’t understand that it’s a social satire and that it’s meant to CONDEMN society, not to glorify sociopathy and murder. Thus, I find their continued fascination with this story to be scary indeed.

    There are people out there, mostly young men, who worship Patrick Bateman. They have web pages devoted to this imaginary character. They write stories about him. They make amateur films about him. They may do worse things in Bateman’s name. I sure hope not!

    The novel is fiction. The movie is fiction. It’s too bad some of these “…Psycho” fanatics aren’t fictional too.

  23. “I can’t believe anyone with any humanity could write this.”

    Not siding with the “real-life” Patrick Bateman character, not even with fictional one, and after much consideration maybe not with the author, my problem isn’t so much with the content (events) as with Bret Easton Ellis’ prose (after much consideration, remember), because it (his prose) is streaming instead of constructive, whereas the content can be interpreted as pro-humanist instead of nihilist. This stance is supported by the author, a man who hated his father (absent), was raised by women. The film, notably directed by a women, only amplifies the feminist aspect. Forget criticism, murder is just that- sometimes nihilistic, and in Bateman’s case, ugly, depraved, homophobic, misogynistic and everything else you can think of, none of which I support. Whether the novel was written with cynical, immoral motives (you know, sales, whatever) or with genuine ones, I swear that’s the bottom line. If anyone’s interested in extended critical thinking on a potentially redundant subject, check out this youtube interview (try 32:30 minutes in):

  24. You raise a few valid points, and with some make them well. Particularly that feminists do not seem to attempt to understand the novel. I studied it as my A level English Literature text, and compared and contrasted to A Clockwork Orange, instead of doing the class texts, because it was fascinating. Most notably they seem to miss the elementary importance of the fact that he may not even be a killer, never mind a serial killer, this is the whole essence of the story. Is reality, reality, does anything I do matter, and how can I escape? And he either does it through such acts, or through his imagination.

  25. However, your opinion that Bale was miscast and a poor actor is highly unfounded, he delivered an unbelievable performance, in a film that spans genres and flirts with such surreal concepts it must have been hell to work in. Everything the book wished to convey about his character was achieved, and that is no mean feat. Bale is a highly talented actor, his performances as batman were phenomenally understated but equally fantastic, and in the prestige I believe he was incredible. However it should be noted he ballsed up Terminator pretty bad, and I think he should have accepted the casting as it was before.

  26. To chartroose:

    No, I rad as much of this filth as I could stand (a couple of pages) and it is trash. there is no more justification for taking it seriously, than there would be for taking a two-year old’s babblings seriously.

  27. well i personally thought the movie version of American Psycho was quite good and very true to the book. i love how they put in all the quotes and stuff as voiceovers (though the voiceovers seem rather pointless in the context of a movie…) and i imagined Christian Bale as Bateman while i was reading the book (which MIGHT have something to do with me seeing a DVD of the movie with Christian Bale as Bateman…) i thought he was a good Bateman, at least by appearance…but when i watched the movie, i thought the way he played him in the movie doesn’t fit with the way i thought Bateman would act AT ALL…so that’s, well…bad…and i always thought the color of his face looked kinda weird in the movie…
    anywaaay i am not really in the position to comment on how a great actor looked weird in a 10 year old movie when i writing a huge comment on a blog post posted 2 years ago…XD
    xx


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