Tuesday, November 14, 2006

American Psycho

by Bret Easton Ellis

A truly great work of art in any medium, be it a novel, a piece of music or a film, can leave you with a feeling that permeates into your day to day life. Most of the time these feelings are happy ones; wonder, hope or belief in the goodness of humankind. Not too many good artists set out to make their audience's lives worse, but some of them do, and those that are good enough produce an experience so unpleasant that it casts an ugly pall over everything you see in the real world afterwards.

And so we have American Psycho, not only do it's unbelievably gory torture scenes pop into your head at inappropriate times (try attending a design meeting at work when images of a woman being tortured by having a car battery attached to her nipples while her eyes are burnt out with a cigarette lighter keep popping into your head), but its whole perspective of modern life as shallow, worthless and without compassion, leaves the reader with a lingering morbid depression.

Of course from an unemotional point of view it's a very good book. I certainly appreciated the clever way it was constructed. Our protagonist, executive and serial killer Patrick Bateman, seems like a normal rich arsehole at the beginning of the book and to start with the story is a goofy black comedy about shallow yuppie idiots. As we make it further through the tale more and more evidence of Bateman's true nature is dropped and the book becomes more and more gruesome. By the halfway point we start getting snippets of Bateman's murders in flashback, and then we begin to see them in more and more detail from a first person perspective. At the same time Bateman's psychosis becomes more and more pronounced, and the novel climaxes in a murder scene so disgustingly gory that I can't even bring myself to mention any of the details here.

All the meanwhile Bateman's idiot colleagues and brainless girlfriends carry on performing the same repetitive running gags (not being able to remember anyone's name correctly, not listening when Patrick tells them to their faces about his crimes) right up to the end. Their unchanging stupidity contrasted against the continually escalating horror scenes makes it seem as though our murderous protagonist is somehow admirable in comparison to them, as he at least realises what a pointless mockery his life is and rages against it (although perhaps killing people in unbelievably horrific ways is not the most ideal way he could have chosen to express himself).

So while it's a very intelligently constructed book it's very hard to read and its bleak theme, that our modern lives are devoid of meaning and that too much leisure and aimlessness is driving us to self-loathing and cruel inhumanity, is not likely to make anyone feel better about themselves for having read it. And yet for some strange reason, I am glad I read it. It made me feel bad at the time but once I'd finished it I felt like I'd learned something or gained something from it. Of course, I fucked if I can explain what that 'something' is...


Joel said...

G read it a few years back and was pretty disturbed by it too (and she particularly mentioned the car battery/cigarette lighter thing).

I've got Glamorama by the same author, but it didn't hold my interest beyond the first few chapters.

Jon said...

Yeah the battery/cigarette lighter scene is very memorable, but it's still not the worst.

I'm definitely going to read more by this guy though. I'll probably get to Glamorama some day.