American Psycho
By: Julian on June 10, 2008  |  Comments ()  |  Share 
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Writer: Bret Easton Ellis
Publisher: Picado
Year: 1991
Pages: 399
I would consider myself fairly widely-read. However it was only a few years ago I picked up my first Bret Easton Ellis novel (it was Glamorama), a work that was so pervasively sexual, gruesomely violent and vapidly hedonistic that I felt grimy just keeping it on my bedside table. Talk to Ellis connoisseurs though and they'll tell you that Glamorama's nothing and American Psycho is really what crowned the author enfant terrible of contemporary literature, and they'd be right. Probably the only (relatively) mainstream work to be slapped with a 'Category One' classification by the OFLC, restricting it to over- eighteens and effectively prohibiting its sale in Queensland (though not its importation), American Psycho is an acerbic take on the hollow eighties yuppie culture, with a bit of the ol' ultra-violence thrown in. I'll never forget the first time I really encountered the public American Psycho animosity – as a Queenslander scouring some second-hand bookstores before doing the Internet thing, I asked an elderly cashier if she stocked it. Her reply, levelled and cold: 'we don't have that sort of thing here'.

Ellis introduces us to Patrick Bateman, a twenty-six year old who works on Wall Street. He's one of the regular suits – goes out to flash restaurants with hysterically pompous friends, has indiscriminate and frequent sex with callgirls (behind his girlfriend's back, of course) and listens to the era's pop tunes with the ear of the most pretentious critic. By night, though, Bateman has killing to do – and it's something he does well.

Even with a few plot distractions like a pesky girlfriend Bateman's eager to get into a threesome, or a few sceptical yuppie types he drops hints of his psychopathy to, Ellis never loses focus. At almost 400 pages, American Psycho is a relatively hefty volume, but there's rarely a dull moment – not even when Ellis peppers the novel with in-depth music criticism (his retrospect of Huey Lewis and the News spans seven pages) that appears to merely thrust American Psycho into the appropriate era. As far as whether or not this is an easy book to pick up, there are times that the novel is compulsively readable as a psychological thriller, and (more frequently) genuinely nauseating as a horror shocker.

Which brings us to the violence. Make no mistake – American Psycho is probably one of the most morally contemptible and shockingly profane books I've ever read, and anyone who tries to convince you it's tame is lying. And I'll also confess this – I found it much too much. This is on a par with, say, De Sade's The 120 Days of Sodom in the depravity stakes. Like the antagonists in the Marquis's hideous 1785 tour-de-force, sex and violence is intrinsically linked in Bateman's world – one second sleeping with a hooker and the next carving her up with an axe or worse, with perhaps one or two words depicting any sort of change in direction. American Psycho's controversy is well documented and began even before the novel's release when the original publisher Simon & Schuster terminated Ellis' contract and refused to publish the work, saying 'it was an error of judgement to put our name on a book of such questionable taste'. Vintage released an edited manuscript that same year to appalled reviews – critics slammed American Psycho as 'vile', 'pornographic' and poorly written, with feminist groups accusing Ellis of misogynism after reading some despicable excerpts of Bateman's objectification, brutal torture and murder of women. Ellis' uncut version has never hit the presses, and it's more-than-a-tad sickening to think that you're reading a truncated work given its content. American Psycho became a hit in the United States, selling 100 000 copies in the first fortnight of release and earning it a place on the renowned New York Times' bestseller charts – because of obscenity, the Times refused to acknowledge the novel's position on their list, the first time any such action had been taken. 

It's important, though, to put all of this into context. It'd be prudent to note that while the novel is graphic, most of the criticisms stem from interested parties reading Web excerpts, naturally the worst-of-the-worst, and engaging in sanctimonious and very, very vocal vilification. Violence is a mere by-product of the banal and clinical existence Bateman lives.  Material possessions are tantamount to life, and Bateman name-drops the designers of his suitcase, jackets, shoes and anything you care to mention in the novel's exceedingly intelligent indictment of capitalist greed. There are also moments of genuine hilarity – case in point is when Bateman wearily asks a pal if he knows of Ed Gein. The response? 'Ed Gein? Maître d' at Canal Bar?' It's entirely apathetic stuff and about as pathological and steel-cold as you can get. 

At its core though, American Psycho could be read as a black comedy, a savage and caustic salute to eighties hedonism and excess behind a mountain of cocaine and slutty girls. With this novel, which succeeded Less Than Zero and Rules of Attraction, Bret Easton Ellis became one of the most important American authors of the past thirty years. For this reviewer, the re-readability factor of this inherently nasty piece of work is, to paraphrase, pretty much zero – it's often hard work to get through, and Bateman is not an easy character to stick with for 400 pages. Regardless, American Psycho is a quintessential work of transgressional fiction and despite its notoriety, it's sure to stand the test of time as one of contemporary literature's most significant novels.
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