Blair's Reviews > American Psycho

American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
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Apr 10, 11

bookshelves: favourites, read-on-kindle, contemporary
Read in April, 2011

As far as I can tell, there are two ways to interpret this book. The first is as a hysterically funny, incredibly dark satire on the excess, greed and materialism of rich young Americans in the late 1980s. The second is as a hideously misogynist extended fantasy about the abuse, torture and murder of women. It's the second interpretation that raises issues for me. I am a feminist, and proud to say so; yet I absolutely loved this book. So is it possible to be a feminist and still enjoy American Psycho?

My (personal, subjective) answer to this question is yes. I can understand the objections others have raised and, unsurprisingly, I found the violent scenes intensely disturbing and difficult to read, and skimmed over the worst parts in the same way I'd squint at the screen during a particularly bloody film scene. The titular psycho, protagonist and narrator, Patrick Bateman, is undoubtedly a horrifically misogynist character - both in terms of the hideous things he does to women and in the minute details of the ways in which he perceives and judges them. The female characters (pretty much all of them, one by one) are objectified in the ultimate way - desired, fucked, tortured, dissected, even eaten. The violence is often juxtaposed closely with graphically detailed sex scenes or fantasies, with the two flowing into one another until they begin to seem almost inseperable. To me, this feels like a damning comment on the links between pornography, the consumer of pornography's view of women, and violent behaviour. And after all I've read about the author's motivations in writing the novel and other readers' and critics' reactions to it, I'm fairly sure this is how it's meant to be read.

The story is so obviously an allegory that, to be honest, I find it hard to understand how anyone could take it seriously as a fantasy of violence. Bateman announces his crimes to colleagues and girlfriends at numerous points, with these confessions become more blatant and more desperate as the book goes on - yet it seems nobody ever hears him, or their own self-absorption and greed is advanced to such a level that they don't notice or care. The character becomes more and more of a blank canvas as the book goes on, a development underlined by the fact that he is constantly being mistaken for someone else, or spotting an acquaintance and not being sure exactly who it is. The men melt into a homogenous blur of Brooks Brothers suits, Valentino ties, slicked-back hair and nonprescription glasses; the women into an interchangeable mass of blonde hair, big tits, whiny voices and Carolina Herrera silk blouses. In the end it doesn't seem that Bateman is actually a character as much as an amalgam of these people: their obscene greed, materialism, lack of empathy and empty selfishness - mixed in with astounding naivety and ignorance - concentrated and personified.

There's no realistic way Bateman could continue to get away with the crimes he commits - so frequent, so violent, so obvious - and as a result it becomes clear that either they are symbolic, or they are the fantasies of the character himself, an expression of his inward/outward anger and hatred. As the narrative becomes ever more surreal and descends into madness towards the book's conclusion, the latter theory begins to seem more and more likely. Bateman's supposed victims seem to reappear; he is involved in an impossibly lengthy police shoot-out which yields no retribution; he begins to step outside himself, narrating from a third-person perspective. The only incident in which he is identified as a killer by someone else appears, at second glance, to be a straightforward robbery. At the very end of the story, the reader is left to make up their own mind about the truth of events, making this a classic example of the unreliable narrator genre (I really should create an unreliable-narrators shelf here, I love them so much).

This book is, as its reputation suggests, a harrowing read at times, but it's also truly hilarious in parts - the endless repetition, the lengthy passages solemnly appraising the back catalogues of dreadful 80s bands, the meticulous descriptions of ludicrous meals and label-laden outfits. I loathe gratuitous violence and 'torture porn' films but while the violent scenes in this book are arguably unnecessary in their detail, they are contained within the context of a viciously intelligent satire. I wavered between admiration, amusement and repulsion throughout many of the earlier chapters, but I really loved the ending; the build-up and the subtle changes and the conclusion itself, all so brilliantly done. Altogether I thought this was an absolutely fantastic, if not always 'enjoyable', book and I don't feel bad about saying so.
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Comments (showing 1-6 of 6) (6 new)

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message 1: by Lewis (new) - added it

Lewis Bullock Fantastic review. I'm struggling with the intentional blandness and monotony of Less Than Zero, but this review has given me a bit of faith to persevere and read American Psycho also. Thank you :)

Blair Thanks, Lewis. I haven't read anything else by the author, but I'm really interested in doing so after this, though I think I may give Less Than Zero a miss!

message 3: by TLW (new) - added it

TLW I totally agree with you on this one. I didn't actually realise that people read it as a misogynistic fantasy rather than an allegory (my idealistic feminist self talking there)Have you seen the film? The ending is less, ambigious. (I watched it with my dad when I was about 16, slightly awkward times)

Lila Lamrabet your review has compelled me to re-read it. I read it a very long time ago and from what I recall, found it a bit disappointing. however, this was nothing to do with thinking it was misogynistic, and quite frankly i simply don't understand how anyone can interprete it as anything but a dark satire. but anyway yeah, will be re-reading it again with fresh eyes, i have a feeling it will appeal more now.

Blair Lila and Tamsin, I agree and I'm relieved that others think the same! I certainly wouldn't have interpreted it like that myself but when I began reading around I found that it had caused a lot of controversy amongst feminist readers and I felt a bit unsure about whether I 'should' have enjoyed it so much. But I DID, so there you have it. Also, I haven't seen the film but have just bought the DVD; it's on my 'to-watch shelf', so to speak!

Catie Great review, Blair. I fully agree with everything that you wrote!

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