Friday, 18 July 2014

The need to be repulsed (American Psycho by Brett Easton Ellis)

Finishing American Psycho does not mean finishing with American Psycho. I finished it several days ago and it still lingers in my head. And I don't know if it's in a good way or a bad way or someplace in between. The novel is narrated by 'yuppie' Patrick Bateman, a businessman who feels dislocated from the world around him and his business colleagues. Surrounded by expensive items, Patrick feels himself struggling to be content with the materialistic and money-driven conversations and lifestyles of his co-workers. So obviously he finds himself having horrifically violent and sexual thoughts which every so often he actually performs, which are described in explicit, visceral and excruciating detail.

So just to make it clear. Reading American Psycho is not a pleasurable reading experience by any means. However, I have always felt that a book can be interesting even if it's not fun or is especially difficult to read. Drawing from my post last week, I described Headlong Theatre's production of 1984 as "the perfect combination of intellectual stimulation and emotionally charged drama" and obviously, it is possible for something to be one of those things rather than both. Some books can be fun but not deep, some books can be interesting but not enjoyable, and others (those that tend to have some sort of legacy and timelessness) can be both. And that's fine by me.

But with American Psycho, I found my belief challenged. I can recognise the intelligence behind this book - Patrick's violent actions contrast with his monotonous day-to-day life; his obsession with materialistic value (he explains at considerable length his opinions on Whitney Houston, Genesis, and Huey Lewis and the News; he goes through every detail of his clothing and where he got it from; his morning routine centers around particular brands of hygiene products) paradoxically means he can never be satisfied; his callousness towards others is evident through his brutal and sadistic acts and his casual watching of The Patty Winters Show, a show about people who have suffered in their lives who he never engages or sympathises with but treats as entertainment. These are all interesting and well thought out ideas, but the violent acts themselves are so repulsive that it is difficult to try and keep reading the book from a solely intellectual approach.

Thus I was conflicted - there's a lot to admire in this book but it is so difficult to keep reading. Many times I had to stop and take a breath before carrying on. And even when there isn't a violent or sexually explicit scene, the world Patrick inhabits is depressingly materialistic and self-obsessed, although at least the blatant satire of this culture allows for some laughs. But it still left me asking the question, as I got closer and closer to finishing it: do I actually like this book?

It was as I was mulling over this question that I read Will Self's article from May. Now usually I find Self can be a tad over-blown and, (speaking as a pot about a kettle), pretentious at times. However, there's nothing wrong with his style of writing per se and his argument that audiences don't like difficult books is convincing. Not sure if I think it can be applied to the general public as a whole (but few arguments can), but it struck a chord with me as I wrestled with my opinion on American Psycho.

There can be no doubt that it is a difficult book. While the violence is horrific, it is clearly deliberately so and, to an extent, it is more understandable than the topics of conversation that Bateman finds himself involved in. His colleagues continuously and unashamedly objectify women, and describe them in terms of their attractiveness and sexiness - whether they're a 'hardbody' or not is often queried before women can be invited to dinners. They also casually speak derogatorily of small people (at a Christmas party, small waiters are hired to be elves), ethnic minorities, homosexuals, and the homeless. Apologies for sounding so politically correct but it is a direct antithetical response to how they are described in the book.

Now, not for one moment do I believe that the author is homophobic, racist, sexist etc. While it is not immediately obvious (it is several pages before he refers to himself as 'I'), the novel is written from Patrick Bateman's perspective and his narration is more coloured, as it were, than the other characters would be. Strangely enough, as I said above, Patrick is not the most despicable character despite his violent behaviour. He's certainly the most extremely violent, but to be honest I found them all as reprehensible as each other.

It is possible that this novel does what Catcher in the Rye does (a novel that has some very interesting, if unexpected, similarities to Ellis') by filtering the world through its self-centered character and subsequently making it seem worse than it really is. Nevertheless, it is the only version of this world we have and it seems clear to me that we're not meant to like it. Indeed, as I write this that I'm reminded of my greatest pet peeve about criticisms of Catcher in the Rye, and probably many other books: many say they can't like the book because they don't like Holden Caufield.

To me, it is obvious you're not meant to not like Holden but I still love the book, because Holden is so interesting even when I disagree with almost everything he says and hate him for the stupid things he does. But just because I don't like, agree or even sympathise with the content doesn't mean that I would consider a book bad. Maybe it's because I've been reading since I was little and I'm studying English Literature at university, but I think a book can interest me despite what it is about. A great book (and moreover a great film, piece of music, TV show, play, etc.) is one that allows you to understand and see another perspective on something that you are unfamiliar with or uncomfortable with.

As I said before, this book has lingered in my head days after I read it. While predominately it is the horrifically violent scenes, the brutal and dark comedy of the book also lingers. Indeed it is this satirical commentary that is the focus of the reviews quoted in my edition. Certainly, I can't deny it is there but I think that it is perhaps too obvious. The book is repetitive which, while justified, does occasionally get dull and make me want to say to Ellis 'Yes, I get the point, can we move on now?'. There is the argument that its repetitiveness is part of its point, but subsequently it treads a fine line between being clever and being pretentious.

To its credit, the book doesn't hold anything back and so strongly gets its point across, but that does mean it can feel like nothing happens. (Although I have to say the ending is appropriately anti-climactic that doesn't undo the good stuff in the book). So I don't think I'll easily resolve this debate, but that means I hesitate to recommend this book. If you don't like reading sexually explicit or horrifically violent scenes or read purely for superficial fun, I would suggest avoiding it. If you like being challenged in your reading and are willing to confront the evils mankind is capable of, then go for it.

I don't regret reading this book and in the end, it's made me think about things in ways I couldn't have considered before. And that has got to be a plus.

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