On Reading American Psycho

This book was an experience. Bret Easton Ellis, for all his twitter mishaps, is a master at satire. It was bloody, hilarious, dark, helpless, disquieting. The copious amounts of blood spatter and gore and body parts aren’t easy to stomach. And yet I cannot imagine the book without it. The rampant materialism, the detachedness, the superficiality of the 80s yuppies culture is made fun of so much in this book. I alternated between giggling and shocked horror in reading this violent, mad work.

Patrick Bateman is both a likeable and horrifying character, he undergoes an existential crisis (Is evil something you are? Or is it what you do?), he is awkward at times, painfully sharp at others, cutting through the absolute bullshit some of the other characters spout. He is both human and inhuman. I don’t know if he really killed all those people, or whether they were wild imaginings of his very sick mind. He is without doubt, a psychopath, but a fully functioning one. One that is able to navigate Wall Street, give fashion advice, who goes for facial treatments and shiatsu massages. It is both chilling and comedic, wrapped up in the psychedelic descriptions of the 80s clubbing scene, of snorting cocaine and moo shu custard.

The first part of the book was dazzling but Patrick’s true nature is still obscured to us. The second half becomes progressively weirder, bloodier, as we see Patrick lose his grasp of reality, as he loses the last strands of control over his inhuman desires and motivations. Even he knows and starts to panic, quietly. The rest is a haze of drugged violence, decimating his final vestiges of morality. Inside what the world knows as Pat Bateman, is nothing.

…there is an idea of a Patrick Bateman, some kind of abstraction, but there is no real me, only an entity, something illusory, and though I can hide my cold gaze and you can shake my hand and feel my flesh gripping yours and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are probably comparable,  I simply am not there.

It is hard for me to make sense on any given level. Myself is fabricated, an aberration. I am a noncontingent human being. My personality is sketchy and unformed, my heartlessness goes deep and is persistent. My conscience, my pity, my hopes disappeared a long time ago (probably at Harvard) if they ever did exist. There are no more barriers to cross. All I have in common with the uncontrollable and the insane, the vicious and the evil, all the mayhem I have caused and my utter indifference towards it, I have now surpassed. I still, though, hold on to one single bleak truth: no one is safe, nothing is redeemed.

Yet I am blameless. Each model of human behaviour must be assumed to have some validity. Is evil something you are? Or is it something you do? My pain is constant and sharp and I do not hope for a better world for anyone. In fact I want my pain to be inflicted on others. I want no one to escape. But even after admitting this- and I have, countless times, in just about every act I’ve committed- and coming face-to-face with these truths, there is no catharsis. I gain no deeper knowledge about myself, no new understanding that can be extracted from my telling. There has been no reason for me to tell you any of this. This confession has meant nothing

But I am not convinced. Deep down, there is a shrivelled up, weak and bleeding part of Patrick that can feel something apart from self-professed greed and an urge to kill. The fact that he can assert that he feels nothing, this self-awareness, indicates that he does feel. There are moments of sparkling clarity in the book that serve to show the humanity in Patrick. His insecurity about his hair, his nervousness when meeting up with Bethany, his jealousy, his imitation of the trends of the 80s, his spouting of meaningless music reviews, these are all reflections of any of us. Trapped in the nightmarish, superficial world as he is, Patrick wants people to see him. Remember his conversation with Bethany, perhaps the only girl who ever saw and heard Patrick, the real Patrick, not the facade he puts up. He even confesses to her: “I…want…to…fit…in.”, admitting the “pleasures of conformity”.

I mean, does anyone really see anyone? Does anyone really see anyone else? Did you ever see meSee? What does that mean?

And when the people around him don’t see him, he pushes the boundaries. How far can he go until people see the “real” him? That deep dark nothing inside of him. He can’t believe it himself how easy it is to get away, as shown clearly in his killing of the child at the zoo. He experiments with cannibalism, all in an attempt to see how far he can push the boundaries of morality and still keep up the facade of being a human.

Jean and Bethany are possibly the only ones to get close to getting him feel something. And they are not part of the world he lives in everyday either. Jean and Bethany (and to me, the whole host of beggars he meets, the prostitutes he kills) are the genuine characters, and he simultaneously craves and is afraid of their ability to see him. The entire conversation he has with Jean at the end provokes some of his clearest and most intriguing thoughts. Jean, who is in love with him, is probably the only genuine girl in his life, and is the only one he considers being happy with:

I imagine running around Central Park on a cool spring afternoon with Jean, laughing, holding hands. We buy balloons, we let them go.

There are more things I can talk about. Patrick’s reaction to Luis Carruthers, how disarming it is to be the object of homosexual love. Patrick’s insecurity about his hair. He talks about this “nameless terror”, worrying about the Fisher account, his obsession with fashion and securing reservations. His blatant confessions (real or imaginary?) of insanity to the bland characters around him, and the pervasive subculture of self-absorbedness, superficiality, materialism and suppressed violence. The mindless world he cannot escape, and we ask ourselves, in a world such as that, how could one not go insane? The only thing more terrifying that Patrick is the world and culture that made him.

Surface, surface, surface, was all that anyone found meaning in…this was civilization as I saw it, colossal and jagged…

This book is a must-read. I have to go return some videotapes now, so I end with the words from the beginning and the end of the book:

ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE.

THIS IS NOT AN EXIT.

P.S. More gems from the book:

I stare into a thin, web-like crack above the urinal’s handle and think to myself that if I were to disappear into that crack, say somehow miniaturize and slip into it, the odds are good that no one would notice I was gone. No… one… would… care. In fact some, if they noticed my absence, might feel an odd, indefinable sense of relief. This is true: the world is better off with some people gone. Our lives are not all interconnected. That theory is crock. Some people truly do not need to be here.

Where there was nature and earth, life and water, I saw a desert landscape that was unending, resembling some sort of crater, so devoid of reason and light and spirit that the mind could not grasp it on any sort of conscious level and if you came close the mind would reel backward, unable to take it in. It was a vision so clear and real and vital to me that in its purity it was almost abstract. This was what I could understand, this was how I lived my life, what I constructed my movement around, how I dealt with the tangible. This was the geography around which my reality revolved: it did not occur to me, ever, that people were good or that a man was capable of change or that the world could be a better place through one’s own taking pleasure in a feeling or a look or a gesture, of receiving another person’s love or kindness. Nothing was affirmative, the term “generosity of spirit” applied to nothing, was a cliche, was some kind of bad joke. Sex is mathematics. Individuality no longer an issue. What does intelligence signify? Define reason. Desire- meaningless. Intellect is not a cure. Justice is dead. Fear, recrimination, innocence, sympathy, guilt, waste, failure, grief, were things, emotions, that no one really felt anymore. Reflection is useless, the world is senseless. Evil is its only permanence. God is not alive. Love cannot be trusted. Surface, surface, surface, was all that anyone found meaning in…this was civilization as I saw it, colossal and jagged…

Everything failed to subdue me. Soon everything seemed dull: another sunrise, the lives of heroes, falling in love, war, the discoveries people made about each other. The only thing that didn’t bore me, obviously enough, was how much money Tim Price made, and yet in its obviousness it did. There wasn’t a clear, identifiable emotion within me, except for greed and, possibly, total disgust. I had all the characteristics of a human being – flesh, blood, skin, hair – but my depersonalization was so intense, had gone so deep, that the normal ability to feel compassion had been eradicated, the victim of a slow, purposeful erasure. I was simply imitating reality, a rough resemblance of a human being, with only a dim corner of my mind functioning. Something horrible was happening and yet I couldn’t figure out why – I couldn’t put my finger on it.

I laugh maniacally, then take a deep breath and touch my chest- expecting a heart to be thumping quickly, impatiently, but there’s nothing there, not even a beat.

P.P.S Here are some brilliant reviews that helped me understand this book further: here, here, herehere. Also, a vlog.

I am aware of DFW’s criticisms of it as expounded in the second last link: “In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness. Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it. You can defend Psycho as being a sort of performative digest of late-eighties social problems, but it’s no more than that.”

I can’t help but question DFW’s definition of “good art”, though he is, after all, entitled to his own opinion. Does good art have to be a beacon in the dark for us? Is there no value to nihilistic art? What is “good” art? This is intensely subjective. Isn’t Bret pointing out the flaws of society, reminding us that materialism, superficiality, the surface can lead to nowhere good, isn’t that a valuable lesson to learn?