Sunday, 15 August 2021

American Psycho

Well now, well now. 

I'm always interested in classical works and books with cult status, and, in a rare twist, I've never seen the film of this one. Before I continue, I should make it explicitly clear that I love horror, so I will be reviewing it from the position of someone who enjoys this kind of story. If you find that strange, do check out The Frighteners: Why We Love Monsters, Ghosts, Death & Gore.

Patrick Bateman is 27 and works on Wall Street. He is handsome, sophisticated, charming, and intelligent. He is also a psychopath. And he is taking us to a head-on collision with America's greatest dream - and its worst nightmare...

Hands down, the most sexually explicit and graphically violent book I've ever read.

That said, it took me quite a while to get into. Other reviewers speak of the 'banality' of the story. There are pages of description of the designer brands that characters are wearing, what they're eating, the music they listen to, exercise regimes and dress codes. The opener is a discussion about sushi.

Pretty early on, I thought I'd made a mistake and that I was going to die of boredom. By the end, I had the sneaking suspicion Ellis might just be a genius. The juxtaposition of extreme violence with extreme vapidity was a real headspin, and, by the very end, I was even enjoying the musical monologues, especially the one where Bateman extolls the virtues of Phil Collins over Peter Gabriel. Between that and the sycophantic admiration for Donald Trump, the satire shines through. I can see how it might not wash with younger audiences for whom those cultural references no longer exist or (as with Trump) have been irrevocably altered. 

I can also see why the book garnered a lot of criticism and multiple bans. Apparently it's the, '53rd most banned and challenged book from 1990–1999 by the American Library Association'. Reminded me a lot of Filth by Irvine Welsh. There's a lot of very graphic, gender-based violence in there, and violence against the homeless and against animals, plus racial slurs. It's not easy reading. But, at the same time, I get the humour. Ellis went for it with both barrels. He's extremely blunt. He didn't so much say, 'I'm going to write a sex scene,' as 'I'm going to write sex,' there you go, you're welcome. Right, now for murder...

I'm of the camp: if you don't like this kind of thing, don't read it, but don't try to stop it from existing. Pullman puts it far better. A lot of people seem to have approached Ellis asking him to explain the book and his reasons for writing it. He's given a few different answers. I think it might be better if he gave none. Why should he? A piece of art is there for your personal interpretation. It's not for an artist to apologise for what you see in that piece of art. You can close a book at any point, you can stop a film at any point, you can read the blurb beforehand and make an educated decision about whether this particular story is right for you or not. But the irony of sending death threats to an author for writing something you consider to be too violent... 

It's a work of fiction. It's not fact. 

I was about to quote Pratchett, 'Stories of imagination tend to upset those without one,' but, admittedly, with American Psycho, there's sections that are likely to upset people with imagination - especially a vivid one.

“I think people think that anyone who could write the books I’ve written must be a real son of a bitch, a real asshole.” Writing a book is, he insists, a totally selfish activity, and that’s how it should be. - RollingStone Interview

Ian Banks tackled the issue of separating the author from the art well, and it's disheartening to hear that the literary community would attack him for his literary technique. I don't understand that at all. He was clearly very successful at what he set out to do. 

Looking at the film stills and YouTube clips, I can't help thinking that Christian Bale was a master stroke of casting. He really does look the part. It made me laugh that there was a Craig McDermott in the character list, which is my cousin's name - though 'our Craig' isn't anything like that, except maybe the fitness, he does crazy triathlons and cycles through the Lake District. He's definitely not a psychopath, though.

So, in summary, I thought this was a good book. Pretty challenging in many ways, which is refreshing. It's been a while since I had to sit and consider whether I liked a book or not, I'm usually pretty quick to judge. It's rare that I change my mind halfway through. I think it's important, as an artform, that we show we can write anything. The entire breadth of human emotion (or lack of), action and reaction. In that respect, there should always be room on the shelf for books like American Psycho. Though, as I mentioned with James Herbert, and looking at the ever-decreasing list of large publishers, I think it's unlikely it would have found a commercial publisher today. 

It's a crazy read. 

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