Notes from Overground

Book Review: American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
(For those that haven’t seen the film of the book or the book of the book)

 “I just hate that whole self-involved thing that modern male American writers do” said my friend, a well-read literature student, as we were discussing Bret Easton Ellis over beer one day. There was a mixture in our group of those that had read Ellis’ work and liked it, those that had read it and hated it and those that hadn’t heard of him.

But trying to argue that Ellis is the natural evolutionary outcome of the Jack Kerouac’s and Dr Gonzo’s of this world seemed sort of void to me. It’s not that Ellis himself comes across as narcissistic; rather he has an uncanny ability to penetrate the thoughts and feelings of those that are. Either that, or we may want to start getting quite worried about Mr Ellis.

 ‘American Psycho’ tells the story of Patrick Bateman, a young investment banker who works on Wall Street during the late 1980’s and early 90’s. A yuppie living in a narcissistic consumerist void. Shallow, charming, attractive, sauve, egotistical, hedonistic, privileged. Oh yes and also possibly a delusional maniac who tortures animals and people to death for kicks.

Ellis has managed to perfectly portray the expected mindset of such a person should they exist – the endless paragraphs where Patrick is describing, in meticulous detail, the designer clothes that he and his friends wear each day; the extreme fitness and health regime Patrick follows; the anal descriptions of musicians and albums; the sense that nothing quite fits together.

The book is graphic in its violence, especially the sexual violence and sadism involving women. It’s not an easy read and some bits do turn your stomach, even if (like me – frequent reader of books entitled ‘Animal Rights & Pornography’ or any book by Bukowski) you think nothing could shock you. I remember turning to my friend after reading a particularly gruesome part where Patrick murders a prostitute by electrocuting her through her breasts until they explode all over the curtains, and asking my friend to read the chapter. When she had finished she turned to me (disgusted) and said, “How fucking sick would you have to be to write this!?”

Yet the genius of the character is that one is never quite sure if what he is experiencing is real, a delusion or a mixture of both. The violence is a superficial way of satirising a capitalist consumer society (particularly in the faceless and impersonal Wall Street) where one person can get totally lost and try to fill the void with objects and vanity, thus turning himself into an unrecognisable demoniac fiend in the process. A living hell for Bateman, a living hell for everyone.

It seems that Ellis’ point is that, in a society such as the one that was emerging during the 1980’s (and which is emphatically captured by the author), it wouldn’t take a stretch of the imagination to acknowledge that a person like this could exist – and could even exist unnoticed.

And the satire doesn’t come without out-and-out humour. Perhaps one of my favourite parts of the book is where Patrick sits in a club opposite a girl he perceives to be a bimbo, and she asks him what he does; “Well, murders and executions mainly” replies Patrick outrageously, to which the girl proceeds to ask him what it’s like to work in ‘Mergers and Acquisitions’.

The book is messed up, un-pc, unappetizing and also pure genius. No wonder American Psycho is considered a modern classic. Self-involved? Maybe. Talented? Absolutely.

 If you can stomach it, this is one book that simply needs to be read.

: PM
Pic: Christian Bale & an average day in the life of Pat Bateman

3 thoughts on “Notes from Overground

  1. Ooooh, this book’s a very hard read. I usually read fast but this one was a hard one to get through. What kept me going was some of the bizarre humour juxtaposed with the horrific stuff being described in explicit detail.

    My fave chapter is when Patrick goes on a tangent and daydreams about going out in the park with Janet (his secretary) and dreams about balloons and holding hands.

    The best thing about it is it subtleness (!). With all the explicit stuff, I like how it really is up to the reader’s judgement to think any of the following:

    a) Bateman gets away with all that because he’s rich
    b) Nobody can properly identify him (he mentions a few times he has lost all sense of being), so it could be just a random deranged yuppie doing all the things
    c) It’s all in his head.

    It might be Easton Ellis’ most known book. My personal fave would be Rules of attraction, though, just love that one.

    I have problems with Glamorama… but let’s save that for the eventual and inevitable book reviews will start dishing out more regularly!

    Thanks for writing this review, PM!

  2. Rules of Attraction is my fave too! And again, Ellis gets into the mindset of the narcissist perfectly there too (‘rock n’ roll, deal with it!’).

    American Psycho is his most known work but I feel it is probably more known for being controversial than just a great work of fiction. I hope people aren’t put off reading the book by seeing the film because the book is quite different in temperament and much, much better.

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