American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis

“…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 flesh gripping yours and maybe you can 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 toward it, I have now surpassed. I still, though, hold on to one single bleak truth: no one is safe, nothing is redeemed. …There has been no reason for me to tell you any of this. This confession has meant nothing.”

Okay. I didn’t hate this story, but come on: it’s a book where an author uses a stand-in character to gleefully explore every dark and misogynist impulse he’s ever had and pretend he’s making some kind of social statement. How else can you describe a book like that except, “ugh”?

Not that it’s bad, exactly. The first hundred pages, in fact, are pretty damn impressive. It’s one of those books that I wish I’d started without knowing anything about the plot, because the way Ellis gradually reveals Bateman’s psychotic nature is very well done. The first few chapters are basically Gossip Girl: we watch a lot of rich white people doing rich white people things, and our narrator makes sure we know what everyone’s wearing and how rich they really are. Bateman even seems, at first, like kind of a good guy: he’s reasonably pleasant, if snobbish, and early on we see him chide his friends for making racist jokes. But there are hints, little signs, that something is very, very wrong with Patrick Bateman, and the way Ellis builds the suspense to the moment where we actually see him attack and murder a homeless man is almost masterful. He prolongs the tension, not letting us actually witness Bateman’s true skill – torturing and murdering women – until almost halfway through the book. And the writing is impressive, clearly showing us the state of Bateman’s twisted and muddled mind, with events out of sequence and scenes that start mid-sentence, as if the narrator has blacked out. Because of this, the first half of the book is fascinating, and worth the truly horrific descriptions of rape and violence and ugly sex.

But then it all goes down the toilet as the story commits the worst sin a book like this can commit: it gets boring.

Once we’ve seen Bateman murder a woman (slowly, horribly, with Ellis not sparing us a single detail thank you very much for that, you sick fucker) there’s nowhere left for the story to go. Sure, Ellis can create new, more terrible ways for a woman to slowly die (and oh, he does) but it’s all just the same stuff over and over. There are hints of actual plots starting, like when a detective shows up to interview Bateman about a missing man (who Bateman has murdered), but these go nowhere. Even when cops actually almost catch him, once the scene is over we never hear about it again. Once Ellis plays his biggest card, there’s nothing left to hold our attention and he becomes a deranged child, showing us what he just dug out of his nose in an attempt to get us to react with disgust and validate his existence.

This didn’t need to be an entire novel. Four hundred pages is far too long to devote to what is, essentially, a particularly sick snuff film. Short story-length, maybe even novella-length, would have been more than sufficient space for Ellis to deliver his message – whatever it’s supposed to be.

Verdict: three out of five stars

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