The Tech - Online EditionMIT's oldest and largest
newspaper & the first
newspaper published
on the web
Boston Weather: 58.0°F | Partly Cloudy

American Psycho more than it seems

Bret Easton Ellis has his talents as a writer, there can be little doubt. He has an ear for dialogue, a flair for the unusual, and a scathingly sarcastic pen. What he doesn't have is the ability to create a structured plot or realistic and rounded characters. This never stopped anyone before, mind you; generations of mediocre writers have gotten by on talents equal to those of Ellis. However, Ellis himself has other plans. He wants to be noticed. He wants to be celebrated.

Ellis has written a book called American Psycho. His past two novels, Less Than Zero and The Rules Of Attraction, were very much novels about the 1980s and the insanity of that decade. To a degree, American Psycho continues that tradition. What sets it apart is the subject matter. The lead character in American Psycho is a Wall Street trader who likes to kill people. There is no method, no real explanation for this tiny character flaw. He just enjoys it.

Time and Spy magazines printed excerpts from the book before publication. Time chose a passage in which a woman is skinned alive, Spy a scene in which the narrator removes a victim's head and sodomizes it. Simon and Schuster, Ellis' publishing house, paid him a $300,000 advance on the book and then refused to publish the delivered manuscript after women in the firm and outside women's groups began protesting; before the protests the editors were simply performing the same revisions on the book that they would with any other novel.

Now, finally, Vintage Books has picked up the novel and published it with much fanfare. I asked The Tech arts editor to send for a copy and spent some time over spring break reading it. I was ready to tear it apart, I admit, but after reading it I now realize that tearing it apart is too easy. There's more going on here than what Spy or George Will's typically acerbic Newsweek column will have you believe.

When I first received my copy, I did what just about everyone else who has looked at the book has done. I flipped through it and looked for the "good parts" (or the "bad parts," depending on your point of view.) There are plenty of sick passages to be found in this book. Finally I sat down and read it from cover to cover. First, I can say that it is written in a quite readable style, apparently to compensate for the difficulty squeamish readers will have in reading the more, ahem, descriptive passages. It also tended to stay with me while I was reading it; I would see something during the day that would remind me of the novel, a good indication that Ellis managed to place the novel firmly in the real world, the world of America in the late 80s/early 90s. And finally, it scared the hell out of me much more than Stephen King or other "horror" novels I've read. That's worth something.

The book is interesting because it's written from the killer's point of view. The psycho in question, Pat Bateman, is also our narrator. This in itself would be fascinating, and Ellis claims that was what he found interesting about writing the novel all along. If that is true, then Ellis was completely right to put in some scenes of disgusting violence, because the serial killer's narration would dwell on these scenes.

One of the readings of the book labels it as misogynist garbage. Another says it is nothing but a serioues of gruesome killings from cover to cover. I wanted to test all of these theories. First of all, I took a body count. I only counted deaths that occur in the present of the story; any references to past killings or mutilations did not count. My final count was seven men and seven women killed. More interesting were the methods of killing. Men tend to get it quickly with glowing prose such as "The ax hits him midsentence, straight in the face, its thick blade chopping sideways into his open mouth, shutting him up." By the end of the paragraph, that killing is over.

On the other hand, the killings of women take much longer. Rather than quote from the book, I'll quote from my notes on the book: "page 217: Bethany, nail gun, scissors, dead; page 290: Elizabeth and Christie, butcher knife, two dead; page 304-305: Tori and Tiffani, skinned one alive, burst the other's eyeballs with match, two dead; page 328: inserts starved rat in girl's vagina, one dead; page 344: girl killed, made into sausage and meat loaf." Getting the idea?

Ellis, however, is not completely hopeless. It takes him until page 131 of his 399-page book to get to the first major act of violence, and until page 166 to get to his first actual killing (both of which, by the way, are men, apparently a deliberate ploy to make the book look even-handed in its treatment of the sexes.) Before that first killing and in between the subsequent ones, there is some very funny parody of 80s culture, and Ellis is dead on target. The call-waiting/answering machine culture takes its share of shots, as well as trash television: A running joke in the book is Bateman's favorite talk show, which discusses topics as diverse as dwarf tossing and home abortion kits.

There is a marvelous, if unappetizing, scene where Bateman steals a urinal cake from a restaurant bathroom, coats it in chocolate, wraps it in a Godiva box, and has it delivered to his girlfriend as they dine together in a fancy restaurant. She eats it, refusing to admit how awful it is because it came in a Godiva box. "I adore Godiva," she says, not understanding why Bateman won't join in. It's a very funny and shocking jab at people who see the label rather than the product. She gags, forcing it down, saying, "It's just so minty."

The funniest three chapters in the book are the "musical group" chapters, in which the narrator suddenly spends a few pages discussing one of his favorite singers or bands. Being a vapid soul, he likes only the most vapid bands; Huey Lewis and the News, Whitney Houston and Genesis are the three bands he discusses in the book. By taking these pop bands so seriously, so analytically, Ellis succeeds in showing just how soulless and transparent these bands are.

Bateman is constantly telling his friends what he does, but they are all so wrapped up in themselves that they don't hear him or don't believe what he's saying. After feeding his girlfriend the urinal cake, he tells her quite openly that "My need to engage in homicidal behavior on a massive scale cannot be, um, corrected." She responds to his admission by saying "Patrick, if you're going to start in again on why I should have breast implants, I'm leaving." Bateman calls another character and leaves a long, detailed admission of guilt on his answering machine. The man responds, "Bateman killing Owen and the escort girl? Oh that's bloody marvelous," forgetting about the "joke" immediately. It's black humor, and pretty funny at that.

So there are literary merits to the book, it does have a certain black humor about it. Should it be banned? Is it pornographic? Well, the night before I wrote this article I saw The Silence of The Lambs, an extremely popular film which has been critically acclaimed. During the course of this film, I watched a cannibalistic man take a bite out of another (live) man's face, and saw another man who starved women to "loosen their skins" so that he could skin them and sew together a suit of female flesh. Yet the only protest I've heard about Silence was in its negative portrayal of the skinning character as a homosexual, nothing about the treatment of women.

The only difference between American Psycho and The Silence of The Lambs is in the point of view. American Psycho is what Silence would have been like if it had been told from the Buffalo Bill character's point of view. Silence is acceptable because it is told from the female protagonist's point of view. Strong female characters exist in American Psycho, they're just seen through the sick mind of Patrick Bateman. How would Jodie Foster's character in Silence have fared from the point of view of one of the insane characters? Not very well, I'm afraid.

Ellis wrote American Psycho to get attention, and he got it. I've never read one of his novels before and probably never will again. It is not a great novel by any standard, but it is occasionally very funny, sometimes quite repugnant, and manages to make a weak but definite point about the 80s. It is a black comedy played to extremes, that is all, and the publication of American Psycho will not bring down the pillars of American society. To paraphrase Alfred Hitchcock, relax. It's only a book.

[gfwho]

Tech opinion editor Bill Jackson '93 thinks the people condemning this book may be American psychos themselves.

[gfsandwich,1,1.5]

American Psycho is what Silence would have been like if it had been told from the Buffalo Bill character's point of view.

[gfsandwich,1,1.5]

Ellis wrote American Psycho to get attention, and he got it.