Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Book Review: "American Psycho" by Bret Easton Ellis (1991)

Yeah … there was a lot of stuff that didn’t make it into the movie. A WHOLE LOT. [READER DISCRETION, STRONGLY ADVISED.]


“In what follows, I will describe a particularly interesting and highly recognisable type of child. The children I will present all have in common a fundamental disturbance which manifests itself in their physical appearance, expressive functions and, indeed, their whole behaviour. This disturbance results in severe and characteristic difficulties of social integration. In many cases the social problems are so profound that they overshadow everything else. In some cases, however, the problems are compensated by a high level of original thought and experience. This can often lead to exceptional achievements in later life. With the type of personality disorder presented here we can demonstrate the truth of the claim that exceptional human beings must be given exceptional educational treatment, treatment which takes account of their special difficulties. Further, we can show that despite abnormality human beings can fulfil their social role within the community, especially if they find understanding, love and guidance. There are many reasons for describing in detail this type of abnormally developing child. Not the least of them is that these children raise questions of central importance to psychology and education.”

-- Hans Asperger, “Autistic Psychopathy in Children” (1944)

“An accident has happened. An ambulance is parked at the curb. A pile of 
intestines lies on the sidewalk in a pool of blood. I buy a very hard apple at a Korean deli 
which I eat on my way to meet Jean who, right now, stands at the Sixty-seventh Street 
entrance to Central Park on a cool, sunny day in September. When we look up at the 
clouds she sees an island, a puppy dog, Alaska, a tulip. I see, but don’t tell her, a Gucci 
money clip, an ax, a woman cut in two, a large puffy white puddle of blood that spreads 
across the sky, dripping over the city, onto Manhattan.”

-- Patrick Bateman, “American Psycho” (1991)

Like most folks I’ve talked to, I thought the “American Psycho” film adaptation from 2000 starring Batman himself was pretty good -- not great, but certainly not terrible, either. It was a solid, above average film, but all in all, I thought it felt way toned down from whatever it was originally sketched out to be. It was like watching one of the later “Friday the 13th” movies, when you just knew all of the good stuff get censored out on the first submission to the MPAA.

With rumblings of a TV series remake and, if you can believe it, a new musical featuring the dulcimer tones of Duncan motherfucking Sheik, it dawned on me a few months back that, hey, I had never actually read the book the 2000 flick was based on.

Needless to say, unless the next adaptation is rated NC-17 times twenty, ain’t nothing going to do this source material justice.

The book begins with our protagonist, Ivy-league-educated Wall Street investment banker Patrick Bateman, on a dinner date. With everybody at the table talking about Reagan and AIDS, Bateman decides to let everyone know what his platform is, which is really a jumble of conflicting political rhetoric. Later, he tries to have sex with his friend’s fiancée (who’s zonked out of her mind on anti-depressants) and she tells him he needs to get a hair plug. Distraught, Bateman returns to his luxurious apartment, where he proceeds to beat off while thinking about half a dozen different women.

Then, Bateman gives us a downright autistic description of his home entertainment system, wardrobe and daily vitamin regiment. He and his pals meet up to tell some HIV jokes, but ever the sensitive type. Bateman admonishes one of his friends for his anti-Semitic comments.

Bateman has dinner with a Georgia businessman, describing all of the songs played at the restaurant, as well as its menu offerings, in excessive detail. This is a recurring theme throughout the book, which, in hindsight, seems to paint the main character as someone with criminal autistic psychopathy. At a club, Bateman plugs some headphones into his ears while his buddies buy coke. He tells a waitress she’s “an ugly bitch” and informs her that he wishes to play in her blood under his breath.

At his office, Bateman recounts that morning’s episode of the Patty Winters Show, which irony of ironies, was about autism. After displaying his encyclopedic knowledge of  furniture catalog prices, he asks his secretary out on a date (he forces her to wear high heels for the event, naturally.) At the gym, he avoids fat girls, calls West End guys “faggots” and talks about how much he hates breast reduction surgery. Before heading home, he returns his VHS rental copies of “Body Double” and “She-Male Reformatory.” He lets us know he’s whacked off to the power-drill kill scene in the former.

Pat buys some lesbo mags, which causes him to have an inexplicable nosebleed. He goes on a tirade about how much he hates Iranians and he refers to his date as  “restaurant whore.” During dinner scenes, he always tells us how much the food costs. He lets us know he hates smoking, but just to piss off his date, he smokes her cigs when she walks out of the room. He argues with the Chinese operators of a dry-cleaning business, and tells one of his apartment neighbors that his sack of bloody clothing is actually chocolate syrup.

During dinner, Pat talks about how much he admires Ed Gein while all of his pals say really misogynistic things about “hard bodies.” Meanwhile, Pat waxes nostalgic on the last Patty Winters episode. On another double date, Pat fantasizes about killing the couple and mutilating a child with acid.

At home, Pat watches XXX movies on Diet Pepsi and Halcion. He tells us he buys his music on “all three formats” and argues against condom “receptor rips.” At the video store, he experiences a panic attack (symptomatic of sensory integration disorder, perhaps?) and rents “Body Double” for the 37th time.

We get our first kill of the tome when Pat decides to beat a homeless man and his dog to death on the street. He then gives us a Wikipedia-worthy overview of the Genesis discography and discusses how much he enjoyed a recent episode of the Patty Winters Show on toddler murderers.

He tells us how much he hated going to a U2 concert in New Jersey (hey, this Pat guy may not be so bad after all!) and reveals his plans to torture gerbils with hydrochloric acid. He defiles a “Les Mis” poster with vomit and lets us know his all-time favorite CD is “The Return of Bruno” by Bruce Willis.

A Patty Winters show on juggling Nazis makes Pat clap before his TV set, and he is utterly disgusted by a gay colleague’s advances. He retaliates by going out and killing a gay old man and his dog, and picking up two hookers for a lengthy night of sexual horror.

For those of you that have seen the film and wonder what exactly Pat did to them, well … be careful what you ask for.

"A half hour later I’m hard again. I stand up and walk over to the armoire, where, next to the nail gun, rests a sharpened coat hanger, a rusty butter knife, matches from the Gotham Bar and Grill and a half-smoked cigar; and turning around, naked, my erection jutting out in front of me, I hold these items out and explain in a hoarse whisper, “We’re not through yet…” An hour later I will impatiently lead them to the door, both of them dressed and sobbing, bleeding but well paid. Tomorrow Sabrina will have a limp. Christie will probably have a terrible black eye and deep scratches across her buttocks caused by the coat hanger. Bloodstained Kleenex will lie crumpled by the side of the bed along with an empty carton of Italian seasoning salt I picked up at Dean & Deluca."

At a company Christmas party, Pat talks about wanting to hear the Talking Heads, and he and his girlfriend Evelyn leave to go buy cocaine and have unisex bathroom trysts. At another dinner, he talks about Uzis while everybody else at the table is discussing furs.

Prior to sex, he tells one of many conquests that he once beat up a homeless woman requesting bus fare to Iowa because “she was too ugly to rape.” He then butches one of his colleagues with an axe, probably because he said he enjoyed Iggy Pop’s new commercial sound.

He and a dinner date talk about whether or not Patrick Swayze has become too cynical. Then, he nail guns her to the living room floor, maces her until she pukes and orally rapes her … then he saws off her left arm and proceeds to bash her face in with it.

After another Wikipedia article (this time, on Whitney Houston), a detective shows up and interrogates Pat about his missing colleague. Let loose, Pat tells us he hates summer because of the re-runs; he then drugs two girls’ drinks and forces them to make out in front of him. After rough sex, he butchers one and electrocutes and mutilates the other. Without giving away too much, let’s just say the passage includes the terms “areolas” and “pair of pliers” used quite frequently.

At a department store, one of Pat’s gay suitors causes a scene. Pat then heads to the zoo, where he calls a janitor the “n-word,” feeds quarters to seals and stabs a five-year-old in the throat. Pretending to be a doctor, he intentionally guards the kid so he’ll bleed to death. Ever the bleeding heart, Pat later said he regretted the slaying -- after all, how much fun is it when the person you kill has no history to eradicate?

More fun follows. He makes a hooker’s head into a Jack O Lantern and he mercilessly pummels two hookers. He saws the lips off one and mutilates the other with acid before decapitating her and literally skullfucking her on camera. He finishes off the other lass by melting her eyeballs with a lighter and yanking her innards out through her mouth.

Using a makeshift trap, he captures a humongous sewer rat. After describing the new wave of HDTVs (considering the book came out in 1991, that’s really ahead of the curve, when you think about it), he does some coke, ties up his latest victim, spreads brie on her womanly parts and … well, you can paint your own portrait here, I suppose.

At a Halloween party, Pat dresses up as a “serial killer,” complete with suspiciously realistic-looking blood-drenched apparel. He feeds Evelyn a chocolate coated urinal cake and breaks up with her, because he feels she is emotionally unstable.

You know what this book has been lacking thus far? A graphic description of cannibalistic acts!

“A few of her intestines are smeared across one wall and others are mashed up into balls that lie strewn across the glasstop coffee table like long blue snakes, mutant worms. The patches of skin left on her body are blue-gray, the color of tinfoil. Her vagina has discharged a brownish syrupy fluid that smells like a sick animal, as if that rat had been forced back up in there, had been digested or something. I spend the next fifteen minutes beside myself, pulling out a bluish rope of intestine, most of it still connected to the body, and shoving it into my mouth, choking on it, and it feels moist in my mouth and it’s filled with some kind of paste which smells bad. After an hour of digging, I detach her spinal cord and decide to Federal Express the thing without cleaning it, wrapped in tissue, under a different name, to Leona Helmsley.”

Pat then makes human sausage, while humming the tune to some cartoon he can’t recall. With a .357, he guns down a few random bystanders. Since his silencer failed, the cops are alerted and start chasing him down. From there, the book switches to a third-person narrative. Pat guns down a cabbie, officer and hotel clerk . Cue a Wikipedia article on Huey Lewis and the News.

After beating off to the Patty Winters Show twice, Pat visits his mom in her retirement villa. He works out, letting us know he keeps sliced vaginas in his locker. In terms of an explanation for his behaviors, the closest the book ever gets is a brief passage where Pat insinuates he may have experienced some abuse at a boarding school. The quote below, from the tail-end of the book, is more or less Pat’s only attempt at a mea culpa:

“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 toward 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 behavior 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 can be extracted from my telling.”

Pat then beats up his new girlfriend, because she won’t go to Aspen with him. Then he gets robbed by Iranians (the irony!) and says an ATM machine told him to feed it stray cats and that a park bench once followed him home. The book ends with Pat, at another ritzy restaurant, glaring at a sign reading “this is not an exit.”

I really don't feel like getting full of myself and giving you what is undoubtedly the nine billionth dissertation about the book being an allegory for consumer excess and corporate America misogyny, so I'll keep my post-read thoughts brief.

Whether you want to read "American Psycho" as an allegory for Reaganomics or a general criticism of the 80s as a whole, it's ultimately a rich character portrait of a rather unsavory maniac, whose diction and obsession with minute details so eerily mimics those of actual psychopaths that you kinda' have to wonder why this thing isn't praised as some kind of forensic psychology masterpiece. The same way "The Yellow Wallpaper" retroactively became a landmark work of fiction about postpartum depression, I think it's only a matter of time before scholars reflect on "American Psycho" is a pioneering tome about hyper-violent autism.

By now, you should know whether or not "American Psycho" is your personal cup 'o tea. If you have a taste for really gross and violent stuff and you don't mind a bit of a scattershot narrative, you'll probably enjoy the book quite a great deal. And if the sight of a nosebleed makes you cringe, and you think stealing a kiss constitutes sexual assault?

Yeah, you'll want to steer miles clear of this one, I am afraid...

1 comment:

  1. the excesses on Wall Street are paid for with the blood of innocent live all over the war torn world so it's apt that the hero of the book is a psychopath.

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