Thursday, February 10, 2022

Book 322: American Psycho


"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." 

Dates read: June 21-25, 2019

Rating: 6/10

The trouble with having grown up prior to the YA boom is that when I was a teenager, once you ran out of the Lois Duncan, R.L Stine, and Sweet Valley High books, there wasn't a lot left. That's a bit of an oversimplification (the excellent Speak came out when I was in 9th grade, and obviously the Harry Potter series as well), but not too much. So I read a lot of adult literature. Some of which was just too complicated for me (I gave up about 60 pages into Anna Karenina), some of which went over my head, but a lot of which enriched my mind and expanded my boundaries! As a result of that experience, I've always been strongly opposed to any sort of censorship of teen reading...making sure you know what your kid is reading and talk to them about it, sure, but the reading is the important part.

I didn't think I would ever read anything that would make me think that an age restriction for a book could be realistically justified. And then I read Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho. Patrick Bateman (older brother of The Rules of Attraction's Sean Bateman) is a New York City banking bro in the 1980s. It would seem like he has a pretty great life: his job is prestigious and pays well, he has a pretty fiancee, he works out regularly and is in good shape, he has a nice apartment. But what Patrick also has going on is a gnawing emptiness at his center, and violent urges he's not quite able to control. He lashes out at first against the powerless: poor people, prostitutes. But his need to hurt people escalates farther and farther until he's committing actual atrocities against even people he knows, while somehow still trying to keep it together enough to go to work and live his life as normally as possible.

I'm not usually overly puritanical about depictions of sex and violence in books. Sex and violence are (fortunately and unfortunately, respectively) parts of life. And I'd seen the movie! I thought I had a handle on what was in store. But this book doesn't just flounce right over the line of being gratuitous, it goes into actively stomach-churning territory. There are things I read in this book that gave me pictures in my head I will never unsee and honestly gave me heaves. And part of it, I think, is deliberate...besides being just gross, the book is also a razor-sharp satire. A recurring motif are Bateman's much-stressed-about trips to the video store, where he rents violent pornography which desensitizes him both towards normal sex and violence against women. Living in a culture where depictions of outlandish acts of sex and violence are easy to access means that it requires yet more extreme examples to achieve the titillating/disturbing effect...examples, of course, that the text itself provides. It's clever, if also very off-putting.

I had a really hard time deciding how I felt about this book. As a cutting send-up of the consumer culture of the 1980s, particularly in the heart of the NYC finance scene, it was extremely effective and often entertaining. The agonies about getting a table at the latest bougie restaurant serving the most unappetizing-seeming "exotic" food combinations were dead on. The way the book played with identity, with Patrick both constantly mistaking people he sees for people he knows and being wrong, and himself being called by the incorrect name, because as seriously as he takes his outfits (most of which are described in detail), the end result is that he looks just like everyone else, was smart and insightful. I would be pulled in and admiring the craft of it...and then there would be a gruesome murder and I would pulled back out again.

Even just skimming much of the over-the-top portions of the book (it gets worse and worse as it goes along), it was a reading experience I found really difficult. This book has age restrictions for access in several countries, and I'm actually not mad about it. I might have found one of the few things I actually don't think a teenager should read without an adult having to be a part of the process. I don't know that I would affirmatively recommend that anyone read this book, it's that messed up. Which is a pity, because the parts of it that are satirical are incredibly well-executed (pun sort-of intended) and effective. But the rest of it is just too much. Yes, it's worse than the movie. Much, much worse. If your interest in still piqued and you have an iron stomach, there is merit here. But be prepared. 

One year ago, I was reading: The Leftovers

Two years ago, I was reading: The Lives of Tudor Women

Three years ago, I was reading: Forest Dark

Four years ago, I was reading: Wonder Boys

Five years ago, I was reading: Between the World and Me

Six years ago, I was reading: Ahab's Wife

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