Monday, 14 January 2013

#12: I Have To Return Some Videotapes - American Psycho: Satire Never Felt More Bloody

Before reading Bret Easton Ellis' American Psycho I was initially worried at how graphic and violent the book was going to be. Sure I've read pretty bad stuff in the past such as Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange, but nowhere within Burgess' dystopian novel is a rat inserted in to a woman vaginally; something to which I was forewarned and something in which the idea turned out to be much more horrific than the actual execution (for want of a better word). However, while American Psycho is indeed explicit and quite often brutal, it isn't just a novel about the dismemberment of others. It is a tongue-in-cheek black comedy which tackles the issues most prominent for the “yuppies” of 1980s America, in which image is everything and conspicuous consumption is the route to a successful and happy life.

The novel is (unusually) told from the perspective of Patrick Bateman, an investment banker on Wall Street who moonlights as a serial killer, rapist and occasional necrophiliac. Throughout the narrative his veil of sanity slowly but surely falls, in theory revealing his sadistic side to his peers who in turn are so wrapped up in their own lives and own self-obsession that they fail to notice anything unusual about their friend.

The main focus of the novel is Bateman's descent in to madness, brought about by his ironic disdain for the shallowness of his lifestyle. He is meticulous about what people where, with Ellis describing clothes, food, and technologies in an almost obsessive/compulsive manner. However scratch below the surface, look past the grisly façade and underneath is a sarcastic and almost bitter social commentary that revels in America's obsession with commodities. A prime example is a chapter early in the book in which Bateman and his friends (who all look and act more or less the same) are comparing almost-identical business cards and bragging about their differences. This chapter foreshadows Bateman's later anger and rage, as he begins to sweat over an apparently better example of business card his friend had made up.

It's easy to look at American Psycho and dismiss it as trashy airport literature with a gratuitous amount of violence. Those that focus on the violence within the novel should probably read it again or climb down from their high horse and read between the lines. What Ellis has done is personify that rage and anger everyone has felt towards colleagues and co-workers and allowed it to manifest itself, albeit hyperbolicly, within Bateman. There are chapters, especially towards the last third of the book, that are really quite gruesome, but they're nestled in between monologues about 80s pop acts such as Whitney Houston, and Genesis which are in turn side by side with lunch meetings and shopping trips. It's the banality of Bateman's life which both draws attention to his blood-lust and acts as a platform for the snappy point-scoring dialogue enjoyed between he and his friends. At first the aforementioned chapters on pop-music may seem like filler chapters, offering a brief respite from his twisted acts of violence. However the intensity and the attention to detail with which otherwise shallow and meaningless pop music is discussed is a direct reflection of “yuppie” culture and the esteem in which they hold such unimportant or ephemeral objects or acts such as lunch at a new restaurant; drinks at a new club or just what exactly was on the The Patty Winter's Show that morning (dwarf-tossing, anyone?)

The novel is without a doubt, a black-comedy, with plenty of laugh-out-loud moments punctuating the violence. A particular stand-out chapter comes towards the end, in which Patrick is having dinner with his fiancée Evelyn. He gives her a chocolate-dipped urinal cake, wrapped in a Godiva box. She eats the entire thing, refusing to admit to how disgusting it is claiming she “adores Godiva”. This is a direct example of people who value labels over the end-product and is a perfect summary of who it is that Easton Ellis is making fun of throughout the novel.

Throughout the story Bateman makes constant reference to just exactly what he is. A homicidal maniac. Even telling a girl he is in to “murders and executions”. These people are so wrapped up in their equally shallow lives that they don't listen to one another, as exhibited with the girl hearing it as mergers and acquisitions, and later his fiancée taking a further admission from Patrick as him telling her she needs breast implants.

Further to the self-obsession that runs riot throughout, each and every male character within the film is an almost carbon-copy of each other. This leads to a standing joke in which names are confused constantly and are used more or less interchangeably, with Bateman's own lawyer even calling him Davis after an admission of his abhorrent acts.

While this book certainly won't be to everyone's taste. If one can overlook the violence that's perpetuated throughout, they will find a tongue-in-cheek social commentary which is still fairly relevant today. The reliance on commodity is something which even people of my generation can surely rely on, albeit not to such an extent as Bateman. The transient kicks that Patrick gets over the purchase of a new stereo or business card are something that even in today's current financial climate is still happening. Dark, grisly and completely tongue-in-cheek American Psycho is a modern classic that anyone with an interest in satire or fiction will be appreciate.