Monday, January 31, 2011

American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis

In a lengthy letter to Cormac McCarthy during the drafting of Suttree, McCarthy’s editor, Albert Erskine, cautions that a number of scenes are unnecessary and repetitious. They are peopled, Erskine warns, by meaningless characters who add nothing to the story’s depth that has not already been explored elsewhere. McCarthy, an iconoclast if ever there was one, is not a man to be overly concerned with editors’ comments, but he did listen to Erskine on this occasion. Not only whole scenes, but entire characters are excised from the final version of Suttree. And these excisions are not, whatever Erskine’s reservations, examples of inferior writing: on the contrary, one scene, in particular, is a viciously funny depiction of the dangers and violent aftermath of excessive drinking. It is hilarious. But Erskine was right: funny as it is, the scene only replicates what McCarthy had already provided elsewhere. So it was deleted, and the version of Suttree that was finally published is a masterpiece. Of course, in McCarthy next novel, Blood Meridian, he comprehensively forgot the lesson that less is more and gave us slaughter after slaughter, each bloodier than the last, each less lingering in the memory.

And so to American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis. American Pyscho is one of the few books of the past twenty-five years that could claim to be on a par with Blood Meridian in its depiction of violence. Not in the scale of violence, perhaps, but judge Holden did have a handy genocidal war to call on for a supply of unwilling fodder, while Patrick Bateman was a pyscho alone in pursuit of his deadly ambitions. American Pyscho is a gripping novel which would have been well-served by an Erskine-like editor pointing out duplication and concomitant lessening of impact through a number of repetitive scenes. It is, in truth, in great need of some judicious culling of its extraneous material. Too many set-pieces are too similar, the progression into full-frontal insanity is too slowly realised, too frequently exposed – as though Easton Ellis couldn’t trust us to work out for ourselves that feeding a starving rat up a tube into a woman’s vagina is not the action of a wholly rational being – and the whole feels a good fifty to seventy-five pages too long. I do not suggest this on grounds of taste, but purely in terms of writing craft. The violence is, indeed, excruciating, but there is just too much of it: the point is made, then re-made, then re-made.

On the subject of taste, however, I have a confession. When it was first published, in 1991, I was a young and idealistic stock librarian, who read all the fuss about American Pyscho (though not, of course, the book itself) and persuaded the powers that be in my authority that the book should be banned. This was long ago, when political correctness was more important to me than free speech, and before I understood it is not the duty of librarians to censor books or judge what people should and should not read. When one frustrated reader had the temerity to point this out to me, I replied tartly (and on the basis of no evidence whatever) that American Pyscho was not a good book and would not be even be remembered in twenty years time.

So, twenty years on, let us consider the modern classic American Psycho. Now that the initial furore has died down it is possible to have a more objective discussion of the book. Is it a great novel? Perhaps not. But it is a very good one. It might be argued that it has major flaws – plot development or characterisation, in particular – but these are, it seems to me, almost certainly intentional. And it also has great strengths. The chapter in which the private detective interviews an increasingly spaced-out Bateman is magnficent. It is handled to perfection. The little reveals and gradual unfoldings are perfect. You get the sense of watching someone being slowly reeled in, someone who is all the time aware of the fact but unable to do anything about it.

Above everything, though, American Psycho is extremely funny, one of the most laugh-out-loud books I’ve read in a long time. In its central character, Patrick Bateman, we have an excoriating critic of the shallowness of modern times. Some of the set-piece scenes are masterclasses in comic writing, timing and dialogue. The sheer monstrosity of its ensemble cast, their insular self-centredness and inability to perceive anything other than from their own shallow viewpoint, is reminiscent of Wodehouse at his best, with his cavalcade of Drones Club buffoons and chinless wonders. The running gags – the mind-boggling banality of the features on the Patty Winters show each morning, Bateman’s paranoia about returning his rental videos – add a humorous counterpoint to the ever-growing horror.

Much of the outcry about American Pyscho when it was first published centred on the extremity of the violence against women. It was deeply misogynist, the claims went. It was disgusting, perverted, wallowing in a pit of pornographic violence and excess. Yes, if you take certain passages out of context and read them in isolation, all of those criticisms might apply. But consider the novel as a whole, consider the messages and themes that lie beneath the extreme violence of the plot, and American Psycho is a serious attempt to chronicle the dead-end that certain aspects of American culture had come up against at the end of the last millennium. Anyone who thinks this novel is anti-women, or pro-violence, or condoning a cartoonish approach to sexualisation, simply hasn’t read it properly. Patrick Bateman is a psychopath. He is spiralling out of control, hallucinating, growing increasingly dependent on a cocktail of drugs and alcohol, requiring ever-more gruesome fixes of violence to overcome his fin-de-siecle ennui. He is, then, the most unreliable of unreliable narrators. For any sensible reader to interpret his words literally is really inexcusable. It is lazy reading, pandering to one’s own prejudices, reading what one wants to read, not what is actually in the text. American Psycho is a rallying call against the sort of violence and mindless self-gratification that so suffuses its pages. It establishes a monstrous world of privilege and careless disregard, and slowly, completely and perfectly inflicts on it the destruction it so richly deserves.

I checked my old library authority’s online catalogue earlier. American Psycho is now in stock. There are only two copies, which is a shame, but it's two copies more than they had in my day. I’m very pleased about that.

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