Monday, July 11, 2011

American Psycho / by Bret Easton Ellis (*SEVERE GRAPHIC CONTENT ADVISORY)

Born in Southern California in 1964, Bret Easton Ellis' early life was, by any standard, one of affluence and overprivelege. And yet it was also one largely empty of compassion in which his family was never really "a family". He has on more than one occasion stated that his father Victor, a Hollywood executive and an intimidating, abusive man with psychotic tendencies, was used as a model for the character of Patrick Bateman. Flourishing early as a writer, Ellis published Less Than Zero while attended Bennington College in Vermont at the age of 21. His immediate later years saw him become friends with literary "Brat Pack" figures such as Jay McInerny, Donna Tartt (also a Bennington alum) and Tama Janowitz. Though Less Than Zero was a bestseller which brought much admiration and recognition from critics, ultimately his career has been defined by the polarizing novel American Psycho. A book (eventually) published in 1991 to a swarm of controversy and criticism, namely from notable Women's Rights groups like NOW and Violence Against Women where leading figures like Gloria Steinem and Tammy Bruce vehemently protested its publication, the book has never ceased to attract attention, much of it negative, and provoke conflict within literary and social circles. The 1999 movie adaptation only furthered the author's (as well as lead actor Christian Bale's) popular legacy among detractors as an exploitative artist. To be sure, the story and its themes cannot be easily separated from the staggeringly abominable violence contained within it. Yet a closer examination of the novel and at the author's trademark passive tone and affectless style may reveal some of the deeper, more intuitive (and, yes, perhaps even remarkable) delineations of the world in which we live.

"…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 even sense our lifestyles are probably comparable: I simply am not there."

26-year-old Patrick Bateman lives in New York City during the boom years of the 1980's. An investment banker on Wall Street, he works a job with an enormous paycheck to go along with the trust fund fortune he's inherited. All of his friends are the same. They all hail from the 'ruling class'. All have Harvard degrees and wear Brioni suits. They eat out at restaurants where thousand-dollar tabs are routine and "hardbody" waitresses serve them cocktails. Following dinner, they attend parties or nightclubs where they are always the VIP's and, if they so choose, can usually score some cocaine with ease. When Patrick or his friends get bored, increasingly frequent nowadays, they amuse themselves by counting the bums on the streets or comparing the cost of their patented business cards. As image is always important, it goes without saying that each wear not only the best clothing but apply themselves to pampering their skin, hair and nails to sustain their youth. Appearance and projection of success is of utmost importance at all times.

There is however a different side to Patrick Bateman. It is a facet of himself largely obscured by the consummately materialistic world of which he is a part of, but one which warrants attention never the less. Creeping through his thoughts and overcoming his sanity is an increasingly powerful urge towards murder and mayhem. Far more seditious than any vile fantasies of which his contemporaries joke about, Bateman's world is one in which the compulsion to kill, and not only to kill, but to torture and explore the boundaries of mutilation and torment is steadily entrenching itself as his reality. Though able to subdue his impulses initially and restrict his murderous appetites to the relatively safe subjects of prostitutes and beggars, Patrick soon discovers that he can no longer contain his habits. Consequently his passionate lust for destruction and violence is soon extended to those within his own circle as his conscience ceases to make distinctions of any kind whatsoever.

There's a lot to be said about this book, so much so that a separate section located here on another blog has been devoted to further elaborating just what the book (and the movie) really mean. For the overwhelming majority of persons who have only watched the movie and not read the book, the images of Christian Bale's blood-spattered face and "posing" will largely contribute to the popular opinion of the story as a curiously surrealistic, darkly humorous exploitation piece of the late nineties. To others who may have watched the movie more closely, the figure of Bateman may represent the poster-child of postmodern, white American male identity--essentially an individual whose subtle vanity, deceptive personality, overwhelming apathy and contempt born of greed and misogyny are emphasized in place of physcial machismo and a more open disposition toward the sexual appetite. The book is not the movie; nor does it really go the same direction as the film (which ironically was supposed to star Leonardo Dicaprio until some nasty letters from the same women's rights groups who'd originally opposed the book got through to his agent) and which, admittedly, is more of a sensationalized venue in the same overtly narcissistic vein as Fight Club, The Basketball Diaries or Boondock Saints. Those who label the movie as a sort of underground male fantasy aren't terribly far off. But the book is different. Taken in context, it's very much an existential iconoclasm, a self-examining literary piece of the purest sense which not only explores the power of choice and the inevitability of consequence, but exposes the contrast of separate realities within a severely damaged society. Ellis really is something different. With shades of Dostoevsky, Camus or Kafka, there's also a transgressive, more meta-fictional nature to his style (think Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting, even David Foster Wallace or Tom McCarthy). Within the context of the storytelling is the inevitable inconsistency of communication, a dissonance of reality amid varying states of consciousness. It's difficult to tell if what's happening is really happening or merely an illusion as motivations and characterization can be hard to ascertain (Ellis himself has said that the 'reality' of the murders/violence/carnage isn't necessarily supposed to be distinguishable). There's more reaction from Bateman over a peer with a better business card than over the killing of a small child, more despair at the inability of his local cleaners to clean his sheets than at hacking up his neighbor. Taken at face value, it's a confusing rundown of seemingly random reflections by a certifiable psychotic. And yet a closer look reveals a literary goldmine of self-reflective prose, a wonder of exposition hidden between the *deplorably-graphic-to-the-point-of-simply-unreadable content. (FIC ELLIS)

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