books: american psycho by bret easton ellis (02/16/2024)

borrowed this book from a friend and have a lot! of! thoughts!

so number one: no i have not seen the movie, and i probably won't watch it because i don't like movies. anyways. 3/5.

i absolutely could not put this book down and skipped class to read it in 2 days. that said, i guess i was going into it expecting more out of it than what it was. i was expecting literature and what i got was ultimately very entertaining pulp. i read a description of all ellis's other books at the back and it seems like he's exclusively focused on churning out romances and thrillers about rich young people who live in big cities and do lots of drugs. now i haven't read any of those other books so this isn't, perhaps, a valid judgement, but i think it's clear when you put it in the context of the other books ellis has written that this novel is meant to shock and entertain, and that any message it has is fundamentally secondary to all the freaky deaky shit.

does it have a message? again, i was going into it expecting a sharp social critique of the kinds of people capitalism rewards, and the kinds of violence capitalism ignores for the benefit of its white male champions. american psycho is not that. yes, it does seem that ellis is pointing out how we ignore and make excuses for violent misogynists in our midst, with everybody consistently ignoring the narrator's obsessive talk of murdering women (although it's not entirely clear if he really says those things out loud.) but more than that it seemed to me that this book was ellis's i-hate-yuppies manifesto. so much of the novel is spent on "look how stupid all of these wall street guys are oh my god i hate them so much." not that making fun of wall street guys is, like, punching down, because fuck 'em. BUT i got the impression that the thought process that birthed this novel was less "i want to examine the type of personality that succeeds among our society's capitalist elite, and push that model of success to its logical extreme by having a narrator whose total psychopathy and brutal violence towards 'lesser' individuals goes ignored" and more "i hate having to go to all these fucking dinner parties in manhattan and what if one of these guys was a crazy serial killer? and boobies were there?"

i make that point because, despite the first-person style and the veneer of introspection this novel has over it, it pretty much fails as a character study. why? because the text, to me, reflects no substantial knowledge or research concerning mental illness/neurodivergence. it seems like ellis threw evey symptom in the dsm-whatever into a crock pot and boiled it with no salt or seasoning. now maybe some of the narrator's personality quirks come from research about actual serial killers. that is a blind spot of mine. BUT i am guessing, on instinct, that it did not. the narrator--and i say 'the narrator' because i am actually unsure if the person speaking is patrick bateman or someone else writing dark!patrick bateman fanfiction in his diary--has a level of knowledge about menswear and pop music that can only come from total obsession. he talks about these subjects endlessly and at inappropriate times. he cares so much about suits that he gets upset and emotional when people have opinions on suits that differ from his. he often struggles to communicate about subjects that are not these 2 things. he's occasionally flustered by very simple questions. he cries at inappropriate moments. he has difficulty reading other people's behavior and predicting how they are going to behave as a result. all these things are suggestive, rather than the psychopathy or aspd referenced by the book's title, of autism. so i felt a little like the book was doing a disservice to autistic people by portraying "won't shut up about suits, to a degree that even his suit-obsessed peers seem to think is odd" as a freako weirdo trait. the narrator also experiences dissociation/depersonalization, hallucinations, obsessive-compulsive behavior, and mania. (here i will point out that none of these things make a person inherently violent!) granted, some of these issues could be caused by all the coke he does, but it really does seem like the narrator has author-inflicted symptoms disease. like, ellis has no idea what the hell is actually wrong with (the alleged) patrick bateman and it shows. really i think the thought process was "WOOOO IM GONNA MAKE THE FREAKIEST SCARIEST GUY EVER" and you can see why i take issue with "let's give him every symptom of every mental illness i can name" as a strategy to accomplish that.

and that's the thing-- "bateman" isn't scary. i think this novel could have been extremely profound had it taken the route of, hey, here's this man who has no empathy for those he considers lesser, who's a violent misogynist, who's addicted to coke, who's so rich he doesn't have to work but chooses to because he values working, who's been set loose in a densely-populated area surrounded by potential rape/murder victims, and who will never face consequences because he is a rich white man and his victims are poor sex workers who society considers disposable and unimportant. that is a fucking scary scenario because it is real. there are plenty of those people, and society rewards them. and there are way, way fewer autistic schizophrenic sociopath murderers who are also running around everywhere screaming incoherently and eating dead jellyfish off the beach. scenario one is a way more realistic scenario and scenario two is...less so. especially because one kind of doubts that someone who struggles to communicate to the extent that the narrator does would be as successful on wall street as he is.

with all that out of the way, my next point about the book is that i debate the extent to which the gratuitous descriptions of sex/murder were necessary. yes, they help to underline that for the narrator, violence is banal and mundane. yes, it makes sense that the narrator fixates on sexual encounters and describes them this way. but the instances of violence we are exposed to are still curated by the author because, notably, patrick bateman is not a real guy and actually bret easton ellis wrote this book and made all that stuff up. there are a lot of murders the narrator commits that we don't get to see. what's special about the ones we do? in the beginning of the book, it's tense and frightening as we try to draw our own conclusions about whether or not the narrator is a killer. then it devolves into explicit, masturbatory depictions of torture. the intent seems to be pure shock value. some of the stuff the narrator does seems to have been ripped straight from a gory b-movie. even if we go with the interpretation that the narrator is just making all this up, it's still not pleasant to read what are then detailed sex/torture fantasies. nothing about the nature of the sex/torture itself lends anything to the book's message, making ellis a participant in the misogynistic culture he might be trying to critique, a culture which positions women as bodies, objects for men to nurture or hurt at their discretion.

stuff i liked: the stream-of-consciousness writing style. the unique character voice. the suspense, trying to figure out to what degree he was hallucinating his murders. trying to figure out who he actually is. the gradual revelation of just how unstable he is. at one point he swallows a bunch of crack whole. and i was like damn dude. go off.