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