Reviews from Lord Taylor of Glencoe
American Psycho: Bret Easton Ellis, January 27—February 6, 2016
My rating: ♦♦♦◊◊
American Psycho is technically brilliant. It’s a masterclass in writer’s craft that just misses the mark in terms of readability.
It tells the story of Patrick Bateman, a 1980s American banker who is superficially excellent: the money, the girls, the drugs, the lot. But he is deeply unsatisfied and turns to murder to plug the gap of satisfaction.
The violence becomes more and more extreme to sate his appetite, and maintaining a regular life becomes increasingly difficult.
Overlooking the small matter of explicit sex, hard drug use and gruesome violence, this would be a perfect English Literature text! The first person, stream-of-consciousness narrative places you directly into Bateman’s persona, helping you identify with him – perhaps making the reader even root for his sadistic surrogate. Bateman’s obsession with lists is indicative of the superficial worthlessness of materialism, where he cares so much more about who owns what than what this colleagues are actually saying (to the point that he misses whole chunks of dialogue). Pages and pages could be written about the dynamic between Bateman and his girlfriend Evelyn, or him and Jean-his-secretary-who-is-in-love-with-him.
One of the most intriguing aspects of the novel is Bateman’s unreliable narration. People are often confused and conflated. This leads to a broader question that is hinted at, and eventually screamed out: did Bateman really commit the crimes that he claimed? The ambiguity makes it an infinitely more complex novel, and your interpretation will be symbiotic with your understanding of Ellis’s message (or lack of, perhaps).
Despite these many strings to the book’s bow, American Psycho is a challenging read. Sensitivities on taste and decency aside (you should know what you’re letting yourself in for!), the unfortunate by-product of the narrative style I’ve described makes it incoherent and disjointed. Reading six-page inventories of a character’s flat, or never-ending descriptions of the branding on every dinner party guest’s clothes makes a point, but it does not necessarily make a thrilling read.
In order to truly appreciate Psycho, you must truly appreciate Bateman. You have to understand why he is so fixated on the things, on the descriptors, on what he can see. This isn’t bad storytelling, it’s deep characterisation and that’s what makes Psycho strong; but it’s necessarily at the expense of pace and, at times, plot development in general.
A complex capturing of post-modern zeitgeist, American Psycho perhaps embodies the very message it conveys: having all the right things is impressive, but not necessarily enough.