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I am old enough to remember the furor that surrounded the publication of Bret Easton Ellis' American Psycho back in 1991.  I hadn't seen a shitstorm like that since the release of Salman Rushdies' The Satanic Verses (and when the leader of Iran calls for your head, you know you've ruffled some feathers), but this one seemed even more bewildering than Rushdies' Waterloo.  After all, this was America.  Free speech and all that, right?  Right?

I made plans to read the book on the sly; given my mother's sociological leanings, bringing something like American Psycho into the house was running the risk of getting to find out what it was like to sleep under a bridge for the next month or so.  The book was already radioactive as refined plutonium, and it hadn't even been published yet.  Ellis' original publisher, bowing to a growing chorus of protest from women's groups and their own female employees, scrapped plans to print the book and ate Ellis' $300K advance.  He then turned around and sold it to Vintage, thereby getting paid twice for writing the same book.  Nice work if you can get it, but at what a cost.

The violent content of the novel quickly became its calling card.  If a person was so inclined, they could call in to the National Organization for Women's hotline, press a button and hear women reading the more gruesome passages of Ellis' novel, although why a person would want to do such a thing was never adequately explained to me.  The author was crucified as a misogynist.  Death threats, some very inventive and accompanied by hand-crafted drawings, were included.  Ellis was banned from Disneyland.  A hue and cry went up calling for the book's banning.  So it goes.

Myself, I knew I had to get my hands on a copy of this book.  I subscribe faithfully to the adage that if society gets its panties in a collective bunch over a book, movie, album or piece of artwork, I make it an action item to view said item myself as soon as possible.  If something lands on the banhammer list, it more than likely contains information that people don't want you to know, and I don't know of anybody who ever advanced in life by keeping their head stuck in the sand.  I also knew that if I was caught with this book my left-leaning mother would have a horrible conniption (I had already been treated to no less than three rants about "that sick, twisted piece of shit Ellis"), so I made arrangements to get to a local bookstore early in the morning when it was published.  I found a quiet corner of the bookstore, settled down with a big bottle of Dr. Pepper, and dug in.

Several hours later I left the bookstore, feeling vastly confused.  On the one hand, American Psycho had promised horribly explicit content and on that count, it certainly did not disappoint.  Contrary to most people at that time, I was not intimidated by the book's extreme graphic violence; I was a veteran of Clive Barker and James Herbert, and those two Englishmen left no stone unturned horror-wise, all rendered in their cool, impeccable British prose.  Far from shying away from this book, I saw the implied grotesqueness in American Psycho as a macabre selling point.  It took a while to get to "the gross parts," but when that train started rolling, every stop was a nightmarishly memorable one.  More of the specifics of those anon.

On the other hand... as I mentioned, there was a bit of a build-up to the first horrific scene, and by my count, it took 130 pages to get there.  130 pages.  130 mind-numbing pages of some of the most boring... did I say some of the most boring?  I mean THE MOST FUCKING BORING GOD-AWFUL HORSESHIT I HAVE EVER SAT THROUGH.  I am a fairly fast reader so I was able to get through the book in one several-hour session, but when I walked out of the store in the evening, my head felt like it had been used as the pigskin in the AFC Championship Game.  Awesomely boring, bad writing tends to have that effect on me.

There was one positive thing I got out of the book; after slogging through the 400 pages of American Psycho, I no longer had the desire to view literary carnage.  Quite simply, Ellis raised the bar so high with his book that after I was done, folks, I was fucking done.  When asked of my opinion of the book, I said: "It was the most disgusting stuff I have ever read and also the most boring stuff I have ever read, so it was horribly brutal and mind-numbingly trance-inducing at the same time, which is not an easy trick to pull off.  Oh, and this guy is earning every single piece of bad ink he is getting, because that book fucking sucks on dry ice.  The end."

This was in 1991, and when American Psycho hit the stands, it landed on the New York Times bestseller list.  It also was universally perforated with a nailgun for exactly the same reasons I laid out above, except the critics took Ellis much more to task for his penchant concerning cartoonish violence than I did.  Ellis went into seclusion, the media moved on to the next story, and American Psycho became a vivid landmark in our cultural rear-view mirror.

Fast-forward twenty years.  On a bored whim one day I Googled up "American Psycho book reviews," and was very surprised to find that there was a whole slew of essays and screeds published in the last year or so.  I had thought that perhaps there might be a bit of interest in the novel since it was the two-decade anniversary of its original publication, but I wasn't prepared for the dozens of people who had weighed in on the most disgusting, boring thing I had ever read.

If you go online and search for reviews on the book, you will find scads of them, and they break down into the two following categories:

Reviews printed in 1991, when it first came out.  These reviews are universally negative, and when I say universally, I mean universally.  To this date, I haven't found a single positive review from this time period, and pretty much the same things are cited over and over again.  The characterizations are flat/horrible/non-existent, the dialogue is plodding, the recitation of lists of details are mind-numbing in the extreme, there is no plot to speak of, the main character (when not being a raving homicidal torture artist) is a complete blank slate, scenes go on for pages and pages without anything happening, and when the Violence Fairy waves her magic wand, you go straight to Vomit Town.  The end.

Reviews printed in 2011-2012, to coincide with the twenty-year anniversary of its publication.  Almost universally positive, and when I say positive, I mean half these reviewers would probably cheerfully blow Ellis through their cable modem connection if they could, and the other half would settle for buying him a drink.  Phrases like "post-modern masterpiece," "uncompromising anti-hero" and "an existential deconstruction of the absurdity of life" make frequent appearances.  The end.

Okay, I thought, I'll give it a second shot.  I'm older now; I was 17 when I read the book, and now I'm 38, so I'm a lot more seasoned in terms of life experiences.  Maybe it just went over my head when I was a kid and let's face it, I was at least partially reading it for all the wrong reasons.  It's like watching The Passion of The Christ solely for the purpose of watching Jim Cavaziel getting the shit beaten out of him before being nailed to two pieces of wood.  Let's get a copy from the local library and see what we can see.  Ready... break!

So, who had it right?  First, let's discuss the book itself.

THE MAIN CHARACTER:  Patrick Bateman.  Bateman is a Wall Street shark; lean, mean and hungry.  We never really find out what it is that he does, but we know that at age 26 he is extremely financially successful, on the fast track to even greater success and devilishly handsome (Christian Bale played him in the movie, if you need a real-world reference point).  He is a borderline obsessive-compulsive and has hypervigilance, which results in him being able to recite, like a machine, every detail about the people surrounding him at any given moment, from what they are wearing down to what sort of mustard they order with their overpriced sandwiches.  He wears only the best clothes, drinks only the best drinks, eats only the best food and works out compulsively to achieve the perfect physique.  He is also a fucking psychopath.

THE SETTING:  New York City, the mid-1980's.  The height of crass consumerism, the pinnacle of cocaine abuse, the Reagan years that not everybody remembers so fondly.  It's an environment of not only keeping up with the Jones, but blowing them out of the water with your Lamborghini Countach.  Your watch is Rolex, your vacation is in the Hamptons, and your sex life is just like your work life; hard-charging and unprotected.

THE PLOT:  There is no plot.  Hope you enjoy vignettes, because that's all you're going to get.

HOW THE BOOK OPERATES, SINCE THERE'S NO PLOT:  Bateman goes to lunch and dinner reservations with a revolving cast of co-workers, all of which are completely interchangeable and sound virtually alike.  When he is not having long, drawn-out conversations with these nattering drones, he is working out, watching movies featuring some sort of torture and/or sexual bondage, and trying to figure out what tie combined with what shirt and what suit puts forth the best impression to a world he doesn't honestly give a shit about, because he has all the emotional depth of a mud puddle and will be the first to admit this.  Eventually he becomes so bored with how things are going that he starts killing animals and people (130 pages in, mind you), and then the book vacillates between scenes of Bateman and his cohorts having what seems to be the same lunch over and over again, and graphic scenes of shocking violence that would make Eli Roth, the writer/director of the torture porn classic Hostel, pee in his pants.  The police never get involved, Bateman is never caught, and 400 pages after starting this path of literary self-destruction, the novel ends with the words THIS IS NOT AN EXIT.

I sat down with American Psycho and started from the opening line, "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here..."  Fifteen pages later, I looked up and said to the empty room, "I was fucking right the first time."

I don't think words can adequately convey just how goddamn boring this book is, but I will give it a try.  Think about the last time you had a talk with somebody and they proceeded to tell you about every single detail of their day up until that point, and all you could think was, "Please, please, please shut the fuck up in the name of all that is holy, or I swear to God, I will stab you in the throat with whatever sharp object I can get my hands on and failing that, I'll use my teeth and if I am recording this conversation and play it at my trial, no jury in the world would dare convict me.  Shut up, you blithering asshole, shut up!"  That's what Patrick Bateman is like as a narrator.  Quite by accident, Bret Easton Ellis has created the ultimate weapon in the war on terror.  If you translated this book into whatever language was spoken by your suspects and played it for them at full volume for three days, even the most devout suicide bomber would crack.

Reading the scenes that are not about grotesque murder is like having the Neiman Marcus catalog recited to you each and every time a new person enters the room.  Correction; having it read to you by somebody stoned to the gills on Xanax.  There is no attempt to cleverly introduce items or people; they simply appear, have their wardrobes described in painstaking detail, spout banal dialogue (which if you are particularly unlucky goes on for upwards of a dozen pages), and then the scene ends with nothing of note having taken place or having set anything up for the next scene.  Because there's no plot, remember?  Can't set anything up for the future if there's no future to look forward to.

The defenders of Ellis will say, "This is exactly the author's point!  He's making the case that rampant consumerism makes zombies of us all, that we become totally interchangeable and are only differentiated by the business card designs we carry!  It's all so banal and flat and shallow because that's what the whole point of this book is!  It's brilliant post-modernistic writing, done to show what nihilism and crass greed will bring us all to!  Don't you get it?"

Yes, I do.  Furthermore, and I cannot state this point enough, IT MAKES FOR HORRIBLE READING.  It's the literary equivalent of somebody saying, "Let me show you how horrible being an asshole is," and then proceeding to fuck up your entire weekend with bad, boorish behavior that makes you want to cave in their skull with a brick.  Like I said before, I don't think I can overstate enough how boring American Psycho is when Bateman isn't carving somebody up.  It's 384 pages of horrible lunches, painstaking roll calls of the designers these thoroughly unlikeable people wear, sex and drugs that nobody seems to enjoy, and ruminations on such artists as Whitney Houston and Huey Lewis and The News (I'll admit, as a big Huey fan I perked up for that one and he seemed to get it right, so Bateman could possibly have a good career as a music critic if he ever stopped carving folks up).

Oh, and of course things wouldn't be complete without a review of the violence.  I said that the book is 384 pages of crashing, unmitigated boredom, which leaves 16 pages of the kind of stuff that permanently killed my Hellraiser fixation, no small task.  When American Psycho was published the various women's group went bonkers, railing against the book as an example of the kind of misogynistic carnage our culture regularly churns out.  Despite the fact that most of the victims in this book are indeed women, I would actually submit that there is no misogyny in the book; in order to have hatred for a group, you have to have strong feelings about them, and Bateman doesn't care about anything other than his wardrobe and business cards.  The reason why most of the victims are women is a pretty simple one.  Bateman is young, good-looking and rich, so it makes it really easy to lure women back to his apartment, where he proceeds to make Saw look like a children's story.  In all honesty, Bateman is an equal-opportunity killer.

Bateman's OCD about noting details does not take a break when he starts busting out the nailgun and power drill, though, and this is where American Psycho really makes its hay.  No perversion is spared, as though Ellis went through the Serial Killer Checklist and made sure that every horror was included.  Skinning alive?  Check.  Rape?  Check.  Necrophilia?  Check.  Cannibalism?  Check.  Wearing parts of the bodies?  Check.  Until Jeffrey Dahmer came along, the only item left off the list was creating an altar out of the skull of a victim, but hey, you can't hit every fastball down the center of the plate, right?  I will say for the record that there are things in my head from reading this book that I will never, ever be rid of, and I am very unhappy over this fact.  Bateman is a highly inventive torturer, and what he does with a hungry rat, a Habitrail tube and an unfortunate victim is probably if not the literary asshole of Western civilization, at the very least within farting distance.  These are the sorts of lurid scenes that NOW made available on their hotline if you called in circa 1991, and I feel very badly for whomever it was that had to spout that swill into a dictaphone.

There is a final element to the whole stinking stew that turns it from being simply a bad book into a hallmark horrendous one.  As the book goes on (and on and on and on), it becomes clear that Bateman is losing some of his grip on reality.  Weirdly, the police never seem to catch on to what he is doing, and his neighbors never complain about weird smells or power tools at 2 AM.  Near the end of the book, he reveals to his cronies that he has in fact murdered one of their co-workers, to which one of them laughs and says, "I just had lunch with him ten days ago."  Is this because the people are so interchangeable that Bateman can't tell who it is that he split open with an axe?  Or... is it because none of it ever really happened at all, and all the horror only took place in Bateman's mind?

When I read this part, I wanted to punch Bret Easton Ellis.  When I was in college creative writing class, my professor told me, "If you ever end any story with 'and they got hit by and truck and died--the end,' or with 'and he woke up and it was all a dream--the end,' I will fail you without mercy and without recourse.  That is horrible, sloppy writing and it is a cheat to the reader."  Ellis' defenders say this is a brilliant move, because it makes the unreliable narrator even more unreliable and also means that the horrible violence we have been a witness to never really happened, nobody got hurt and so everything is good.  Brilliance and all that, right?

If you honestly believe this is a great move, you are a fucking donkey and should never be allowed to review anything ever again.  Period.

I think it should also be mentioned that this is Ellis' third novel in a row that deals with shallow, self-absorbed people who do a lot of drugs and sex, don't enjoy any of it, and drone on for pages and pages about the nothing of everything.  Ellis wrote Less Than Zero in 1985, when he was 20.  The Rules of Attraction was published in 1987, and American Psycho landed in 1991.  You can make the case that this is a young writer still finding his way, and maybe that will swing some weight, except I believe that if you keep writing books that feature the same kind of horrible characters time after time, it may in fact be because you are incapable of writing good ones.  To date, Ellis has published six novels and one collection of short stories, and has shown as much literary growth as your average Saguaro cactus does in a calendar year.  Pair that with the fact that in 27 years to date that Ellis has only published six novels and one collection of short stories (and three of those books were done in six years, making the second half of his back catalog achieved at a glacial pace), and as a writer myself, it is honestly beyond me how anybody could stand up for him.

American Psycho serves as sort of a literary bellwether for would-be reviewers; if you give this novel a positive nod, you should immediately be fired from being paid to pass judgment on things, or at the very least, you should be ruthlessly mocked.  It is a horrible, boring, repulsive novel, and everybody involved with its creation should be ashamed of themselves.  As I said before, it's virtually impossible to convey how stunningly boring the vast majority of this book is, so I won't try to do so again.

Maybe the critics have been wrong for the last quarter of a century; maybe Bret Easton Ellis is just a shitty writer.  And yes, this is an exit.


( 2 Bullseyes — Fire Your Guns )
GIna Panelli
Aug. 15th, 2012 05:14 pm (UTC)
What you said.
I wish I was as good with words as you are so I could have a super fantastic response, but I am not and I don't. So here is my super fantastic 10am reply, I agree with you. 100% on all counts, I agree.

Edited at 2012-08-15 05:15 pm (UTC)
Aug. 15th, 2012 05:17 pm (UTC)
Re: What you said.
Many thanks, lady! Go ahead and share the link around if you like; I'd be interested to hear the opinions of others, and I think the more people know what this book really is, the better off we are as a society.
( 2 Bullseyes — Fire Your Guns )