Wednesday, October 21, 2009

265. American Psycho - Bret Easton Ellis

History: Published in 1991. The graphic violence and sexual content generated much commentary at the novel's release. The book was originally to have been published by Simon & Schuster in March 1991, but the company withdrew from the project because of the novel's content. Vintage Books purchased the rights to the novel and published an edited version of Ellis' original manuscript.
Ellis received numerous death threats and hate mail after the publication of American Psycho.
Feminist activist Gloria Steinem was among those opposed to the release of Ellis' book because of its portrayal of violence towards women. Steinem is also the stepmother of Christian Bale, who portrayed Bateman in the film adaptation of the novel. This coincidence is mentioned in Ellis's mock memoir Lunar Park.
It is generally sold shrink wrapped in bookstores.
Plot: Set in Manhattan and beginning on April Fools' Day 1989, American Psycho spans roughly three years in the life of wealthy young investment banker Patrick Bateman. Bateman, 26 years old when the story begins, narrates his everyday activities, from his daily life among the upper-class elite of New York to his forays into murder by nightfall. Bateman comes from a privileged background, having graduated from Philips Exeter Academy, Harvard (class of 1984), and then Harvard Business School (class of 1986). He works as a vice president at a Wall Street investment company and lives in an expensive Manhattan apartment on the Upper West Side where he embodies the 1980s yuppie culture. Through present tense stream-of-consciousness narrative he describes his conversations with colleagues in bars and cafes, his office, and nightclubs, satirizing the shallow vanity of Manhattan yuppies.
The first third of the book contains no violence (except for subtle references apparent only in retrospect), and is simply an account of what seems to be a series of Friday nights, as Bateman documents traveling with his colleagues to a variety of nightclubs, where they snort cocaine, drink a variety of alcoholic beverages, critique fellow clubgoers' clothing, trade fashion advice, and question one another on proper etiquette. Beginning with the second third of the book, Bateman begins to describe his day-to-day activities, which range from such mundanities as renting videotapes and making dinner reservations to committing brutal violence. Bateman's stream of consciousness is occasionally broken up by chapters in which Bateman directly addresses the reader in order to critique the work of 1980s musicians, specifically Genesis, Huey Lewis and the News and Whitney Houston.
In addition to describing his daily life, Bateman also speaks about his "love" life. He is engaged to a fellow yuppie named Evelyn, though he possesses no deep feelings for anyone; additionally, he frequently solicits sex with attractive women ("hardbodies"), manipulates his secretary's feelings for him, and tries to avoid the attention of Luis Carruthers, a closeted homosexual colleague who confesses his love for Patrick. Bateman also documents his relationship with his estranged family, including his senile mother, whom he visits in a nursing home, and his younger brother, a hedonistic college dropout (Sean Bateman, one of the protagonists from Ellis's earlier novel The Rules Of Attraction; Patrick Bateman himself also briefly appears in said novel).
As the book progresses, Bateman's control over his violent urges deteriorates. His murders become increasingly sadistic and complex, progressing from stabbings to drawn out sequences of torture, rape, mutilation, cannibalism, and necrophilia. His mask of normality appears to slip as he introduces stories about serial killers into casual conversations, and confesses his murderous activities to his co-workers. People react as if Bateman is joking with them, appear not to hear him, or otherwise completely misunderstand him ("murders and executions" is mistaken for "mergers and acquisitions").
As the book nears its conclusion, Bateman describes incidents such as seeing a Cheerio interviewed on a talk show, being stalked by an anthropomorphic park bench, and being ordered by an ATM to feed it a stray cat. Bateman's mental state appears increasingly questionable, and the events in the novel draw into question whether he has actually committed any of the murders he has described.
Towards the end of the novel, he visits Paul Owen's apartment, where he has been stockpiling mutilated bodies; to his amazement, Bateman enters a perfectly clean, refurbished apartment with no trace of decomposing bodies, but with many strong-smelling flowers, as though meant to hide a bad odor. He runs into a real-estate agent showing the apartment to prospective buyers. The estate agent asks him if he saw the advert in the Times. When Bateman pretends that he did, the estate agent says that there was none, and that he should leave and not cause any trouble.
Bateman confronts Harold Carnes, his lawyer, on whose answering machine he has previously confessed all his crimes; Carnes, who mistakes Bateman for someone else, is amused at what he considers to be a good joke. But Carnes reproaches Bateman for laying the list of crimes at his feet, and further says that Bateman is far too much of a coward to have committed such acts. Challenged by Bateman on the disappearance of Paul Owen – a colleague whom Bateman hacked to death out of professional jealousy – Carnes unexpectedly claims that he had dinner, in London, with Paul Owen a few days previously. The ambiguity is heightened by the fact that mistaken identity is a recurring theme throughout the book. Characters are consistently introduced as other people, or argue over the identities of people they can see in restaurants or at parties. Whether any of the crimes depicted in the novel actually happened, or were simply the fantasies of a delusional psychotic, is deliberately left open.
The opening lines of the book have Bateman staring at graffiti on a Chemical Bank building, reading "Abandon all hope ye who enter here", a reference to the gates of hell portrayed in Dante's Divine Comedy; the book ends with a similar scene, as Bateman sits in a bar, staring at a sign that reads "This is not an exit," a reference to Jean-Paul Sartre's play No Exit.
Review: I hated reading this book. I skipped over much of it, especially toward the end. The torture and sex became more disturbing, I found that I actually hated myself for reading it.
But what a book! So well written in it's satire of this person, this culture that it was actually funny at times. It is an extraordinary graphic description of obscene violence, which is spliced with reviews of horrible 80's music (another example of satire, I hope), and with endless, repetitive descriptions of 80's fashion, dialogues between Bateman's friends about where to eat for the evening, descriptions of the food in various restaurants... backed up with episodes of such extreme sexual violence it literally makes one nauseous. He conducts business meetings, goes to upmarket restaurants, and commits rape and murder. The novel registers no difference between these acivities. Depravity, it suggests is so finely woven into inte fabric of contemporary life that it is no longer possible to see it or depect it, to know when capitatlism stops and brutalization begins.
Bateman's crimes and his indifference toward them is what abuses the reader and is the reason it caused such fury in so many readers. George Corsillo, the artist who designed the covers for Ellis' first two books, refused to do the cover for American Psycho, stating "I was disgusted with myself for reading it". This is a sign of great literature, that the book has such a profound effect on the reader.
American Psycho is a book that alienates its readers. It is an "ugly" book. Its
objectionable content discourages one from paying the close attention to details, which is needed for a better understanding of the book. Here are some examples of how the critics allowed their taste to prevent them from understanding a powerful work of art.
The first sentence of the book is: "ABANDON ALL HOPE ALL YE WHO ENTER HERE is scrawled in blood red lettering" (1, emphasis added). Then, the last sentence of the book is: "and above the doors covered by red velvet drapes in Harry's is a sign and on the sign in letters that match the drapes' color are the words THIS IS NOT AN EXIT." Notice: he doesn't say the letters on the sign are red; he says they match the color of the drapes, and the drapes are red. Why doesn't he just say they're red? Blood red? Because the flesh has been replaced by the picture of it. Reality only exists on the surface. The text has replaced its subject. Bateman finds that his insane world-view fits in perfectly with his environment.
He has not at all deviated from the American Dream. Patrick Bateman never faces any consequences for his actions, and they become unreal.
In American Psycho, Bateman's insane outlook replaces reality; the surface fully substitutes reality. Bateman never bothered feeling for his victims. In turn, Ellis never really defended the book, made no excuses for it, no apologies, and has since become so much more of a celebrity, his perception taking over his original identity.
Here's a rundown: Bateman is twenty-six, so was Ellis when American Psycho was published. Both Ellis and Bateman lived in New York and were rich. Less Than Zero made him famous at age twenty-one and "caused a strange and massive rift."
In American Psycho, Bateman's identity is a complete blank. He knows that people are replaceable and not very important, and he proves this to himself by deleting them throughout his life. Then at the end of the book, when he tries to bring his crimes into view of the public, he can't. No one believes him. He resorts to believing that it doesn't really matter whether they happened or not.
On the back cover of the book there is a picture of Ellis next to a description of Bateman. Ellis has also stated that American Psycho was his most autobiographical book so far.
It's when Bateman locates his prey, however, that American Psycho turns genuinely disturbing. The countless and obsessively detailed scenes of carnage roll on without purpose or emotion, leaving the reader numb to the narrative but appalled by its creator.
Picture the most explicitly degrading porno movie imaginable. Add Charles Manson with a shop full of torture instruments.
Opening Line: "Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here" is scrawled in blood red lettering on the side of the Chemical Bank, near the corner of 11th and 1st, and is in print large enough to be seen from the back seat of the cab as it lurches forward in the trafic leaving Wall Street, and just as Timothy Price notices the words, a bus pulls up, the advertisement for Les Miserables on its side blocking his view."
Closing Line: "And above one of the doors covered by red velvet drapes in Harry's, is a sign. And on the sign in letters that match the drapes color, are the words "This is not an exit".
Quotes: "I'm coming back from Central Park where, near the children's zoo, close to the spot I murdered the McCaffrey boy, I fed portions of Ursula's brain to passing dogs."
Rating: Excellent - I do not recommend this book to anyone, but it is an excellent work of art.

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