American Psycho – Bret Easton Ellis – Book Review

Forget Bateman. Let’s talk about Ellis.

I’m rather late to this party as American Psycho was published in 1991, almost 30 years ago (mfg), nonetheless it’s one hell of a party still (no pun intended). I’d like to start by taking my hat off to Ellis. Reading him is an absolute mindfuck – the good kind, undoubtedly.

Ellis’ skill as a writer is infinitely elegant, seductively surprising, utterly engrossing, self-controlled, awe-inspiring. He’s a great one, no doubt. It became clear 50 pages in, realizing how masterfully he constructed the build-up, how he controlled the rhythm of the story, how he laid the irresistible traps the reader will so willingly fall into later. I mean, a writer who so flawlessly attempts to manipulate you that you look forward to forfeiting your experience as a reader in order to let him have his way – that’s hot stuff. Please and thank you.

Patrick Bateman is a shadow and he knows it. He’s the carcass of a man rotting underneath the trademarks of an era: exacerbated consumerism, postmodern alienation, overwhelming emptiness, excessive face peelings. He’s the fulfillment of a specific idea of masculinity: young, rich, fit, unattached, aggressive, the alpha male with no grip on himself. The dream. The nightmare.

More than that, he obliviously plays God, slaying people left and right. The murder scenes are brutal (will get back to them in a moment), however, even more so is Bateman’s perception and handling of the people he does not kill. He’s disconnected, he’s absolutely incapable of understanding alterity as such – Does anyone really see anyone? he legitimately asks himself. He’s utterly obsessed with a self he lacks, involved with a self he fails to assemble again and again. This failure enrages him, depresses him, makes him anxious, confuses him. He feels for himself but there’s nothing up for grabs. He’s lonely, he’s bored, he’s numb. Maybe this is news to me only, but Ellis goes to show that people who make one suffer, suffer too. The spectrum differs, but the pain is there. Nobody is free, nobody is forgiven, not even those who inflict pain upon others. Hey there, human condition.

Bateman is the embodiment of a very comical personal tragedy, the fundamental identity crisis of our times – If I were an actual automaton what difference would there really be, he rightfully asks himself – allowing Ellis to go to the very edge in exposing him. And he is as unforgiving towards Bateman as Bateman is towards his victims. That’s another choice that makes Ellis an uncompromising writer.

We know Bateman is an unreliable narrator based, for example, on his perception of how many times his sexual partners climax during intercourse with him (oh, Patrick darling, please). It’s in presenting Bateman as an unreliable narrator that Ellis takes away his credibility and at the same time fully benefits from the (inevitable) identification a first-person narrative triggers in the reader. He plays Bateman and wins. He plays the reader and wins. And that’s impressive because you cheer him on while he does that. The complicity between the reader and the writer is on point in this book. It needs your cooperation more than any other narrative in order to work.

It’s surprising and unnerving how the murder scenes affect you. I guess at this point it’s much easier to swallow visual than descriptive violence. We have so much more training in that area. Several times I felt physically sick reading through the gore and the slaughter. It’s funny how your mind does things to your body and Ellis makes no discount on that effect. It would have been cowardly to do so. Resorting to moderation would have been a compromise and we know by now he’s not that guy. Thank God.

I’d like to distinguish between two nuances of Bateman’s murderous actions: on the one hand, they are violent (yeah, no shit). No, not the way you imagine. No, not the way you can handle or think you can handle. They are violent far beyond that. Ellis goes there. He must go there the way a mountain climber must attempt to reach the summit. He could be at home watching the Patty Winters Show, but he’s risking his life for a rush of authenticity. Ellis crosses the line because his point has always been past that very line.

Apart from violent, Bateman’s actions are deliberately cruel. They are meant to hurt, to humiliate, to annihilate the other. The intention and voluptuousness of inflicting pain is so much more unbearable than the violence he actually inflicts upon his victims. I know Ellis is human, but at this point, I’m starting to doubt it. He knows stuff and he knows how to express it, he knows how to structure it so it gets to you. And it does get to you.

There are chapters and paragraphs in the book so beautifully intense that I started to wonder if Ellis ever wrote poetry. For sure he must have written music reviews because the dissociative chapters on Genesis, Whitney Houston, and Huey Lewis and the News are some of the funniest, most poignant, absurd, hallucinating pieces of literature I have read in my life. The chemistry between those interludes and the rest of the book is mind-blowing. It’s here where the stylistic versatility of Ellis comes to shine. And it blinds you.

Don’t go looking for wisdom, don’t go looking for a spoon-fed diagnosis about evil and its consequences, nor the nature of the human psyche (you bought into that Dostoevsky motto, didn’t you?). You’re not going to get it. Moreover, you’ll be doing the heavy lifting on your own. Ellis is a player. And a very good one, for that matter. He rarely goes underneath the surface, while diligently laying out its maddening lack of meaning, exposing you to it. Are you into reading 300 pages of New York restaurant menus, designer brands, cocaine trips, pushups, and violent murders in order to arrive nowhere? In order to arrive at no philosophical redemption? No answers to the questions the book asks? Are you into jokes with no punchline? Into suffering without relief? Take a seat. Make do with frustration. Rejoice in the anticlimactic dimension of this masterpiece. Catharsis? Sure.

This is no detective fiction. We know who did it. We know why he did it. And we know that he holds this very particular mirror up to society, to us, to me and you. At a certain level as a reader, you can’t help but feel for him what you felt for Milton’s Satan. The very moment you feel that you know the siege Ellis’ laid to your resistance has been completed.

And God, does he deserve to win.

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