Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Bret Easton Ellis' American Psycho

I’m probably not saying anything here that other critics (i use the term loosely in my case) haven’t said elsewhere, but here goes… I’ve wanted to review American Psycho for a while, but for some reason haven’t got round to it – now is the time. It's the story of a businessman and psychopath called Patrick Bateman. I probably read it about three or four years ago and, although it wasn’t always the 'most readable' book, it was always gripping enough and 'true literature' in the sense of the risks it takes, coupled with great technique. I’m not going to go into a full review here, i just want to talk about a couple of things i still think of, even after all this time.
            Number one is the structure of the thing, i.e. the chapters and passages. It seems so blunt, so textbook, to break up plot with the dense, extended descriptions of products and consumables, but also so absolutely natural in context. It makes one feel tense (especially as the more ‘gritty stuff’ kicks in, around the ‘Dry Cleaners’ chapter), as it’s like a closed door against overtly compelling material. We can hear sounds coming from behind it, but it’s not going to open until we read through.
            Of course these chapters serve another vital function, which is the satire of the yuppie culture in the late eighties and early nineties. Such a long reflection on, say, Whitney Houston’s albums, and to an even greater extent the model of hi-fi they are played on, neatly encapsulates the terror of capitalism (as it is today, at least) and the reaction to it. ‘Adverts’ are a way of keeping people fearful, making them feel afraid and ill-equipped in the world. How can ‘citizens’ take control? By spending money! But to spend it you gotta make it etc etc… I don’t want to get too political here, but Bateman seems to represent some sort of microcosm of the world. To me he’s an exaggerated response of insecure masculinity – ‘I have it all, I have the best, I know what I’m talking about, I’m in control’.
The main criticism of these passages is that they’re “boring,” but that’s the point in a way, nor would they work if they were ‘interesting’. They represent the quiet delirium of modern madness where consumerism, seemingly benignly, replaces ‘normal human function’ i.e. love. In terms of narrative it’s like a sweater thread being pulled at, i suppose; the process itself is slow and uninteresting, but it’s what the process eventually reveals that makes it more than worthwhile.
So these chapters both split up the narrative and make the whole novel more cohesive in terms of thematic content. ‘Boring’ just doesn’t add up here.
Second, i just wanted to talk about the much famed ‘gruesome bits’. I felt like a changed person after reading them: a genuine (if mild) post-traumatic discomfort. It lasted weeks. It coloured my thoughts for a while, not necessarily with fear but not necessarily with hatred either. Come to think of it, i’m not sure what i thought. I think mainly there was a kind of emptiness, a more visceral cynicism or something.
But hey, it passed. I was back to the ‘normal functioning’ human being that i am soon enough. Sure i’m weak, but i’ve got to say that you need an iron stomach and a heart of ice to not feel at least a little off-kilter after reading this. I don’t want to put you off, that’s the thing. This is brave literature at its peak, you have to have a deal of commitment to read it that you wouldn’t, say, with Dan Brown…
How the hell am i going to close this? Well i’m glad i read it. From a writer’s perspective it made me more comfortable with taking on whatever’s necessary and treating it more like clay: a material – not something with inherent moral certitudes. As a reader it certainly challenged my idea of ‘readable’. I felt such shifts in ‘comfortability’ with the writing matter that i have never since come close to. But it wasn’t mere sensationalism. Despite it being far from a didactic  narrative, i’ve learnt things. Maybe about how human humanity is, maybe about how human i am. Whatever it is, it's palpable.
Peace and love x

No comments:

Post a Comment

Just keep it clean (ish)!