American Psycho, by Bret Easton Ellis, is probably one of the most exhausting books I’ve ever read. I feel a little torn on my overall feelings toward it, so am going to first list what I appreciate Ellis attempted to accomplish while then sharing why — for me — it didn’t work.
First off, know that this is a book of utter extremes. The sex and violence are taken to levels that make Chuck Palahniuk look like he’s writing Dr. Seuss stories. Misogyny, rape, cruelty, cannibalism, sadism, torture. If you’ve got a light stomach, you’re better off settling for some lighter hors d’oeuvres.
This, however, is NOT the focus of the book. What I liked about Ellis’ approach is that it’s the Wall Street yuppie mentality of wining and dining and knowing where a tie-clip should be on your tie or what type of socks should be worn with a cashmere suit that SCREAMS psycho. The real American psycho isn’t the mass murderer, it’s the guy who’s concerned with having the latest stereo or getting in to the newest restaurant or who’s handling “the Fisher account.” In a way, this book is really about coming to terms with the fact that we’re ALL psychos, that we’ve lost touched with things that matter, and in today’s world, it’s a message that probably bears repeating.
The other thing that Ellis excels at with this novel is in the way his subject matters are treated. Patrick Bateman’s blood pressure remains the same whether discussing the newest Huey Lewis and the News album or cutting off a prostitute’s head with a chainsaw. The ease with which the scene changes occurred was fascinating and provided a truer picture of his psychosis than the over-graphic nature of the scenes themselves.
Why it didn’t work:
Ultimately this is a book in which nothing happens.
Well how could you say that, considering all the murders and scandalous undertakings you’ve described so far in your review? And are you sure YOU’RE not the psycho, considering you’re now talking about yourself in the third person?!?
This book is like watching someone play with a yo-yo for ten hours. Sure, they may be able to do some cool tricks and pull off some impressive feats, but ultimately that ball is just going down and back up over and over again. The conversations are repeated a hundred times as the same group of friends discuss fashion, or where they want to eat, or what “hard-body” they want to get with. We have the same chapters where Bateman reviews the latest albums or discusses every feature of his new stereo. We have the same inner monologues replaying, along with the same senseless crimes and acts of violence, and the characters Bateman surrounds himself with are so analogous – from both his Wall Street friends to the women and prostitutes he dates – that one scene becomes a mirror image of another. I understand and can appreciate what Ellis was trying to say in writing the book this way, it was just extremely boring.
I think this is a large part of why both the sex and violence were so alarmingly graphic, but rather than adding complexity it too became more white noise, with one scene attempting to top the other. With a “less is more” approach, using subtlety instead of shock-voyeurism, I think not only could the same message have been attained, but there could have been a story here that moved in an actual direction. Whether Bateman’s episodes of violent destruction and self-actualization are all in his head or actually realized isn’t as important as the need for the story to go somewhere. By the time we got around to the third or fourth album review, I was looking for someone to murder myself …
Obviously the shock-factor is a play that’s worked for the author, in getting his work recognized. Whether it works for the reader is another story entirely. For this reader, sadly it did not.