Ben Winch's Reviews > American Psycho

American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
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Feb 13, 12

bookshelves: american, anglo, problematic

I don't usually bother giving negative reviews here, but I feel it's time to nail my colours to the mast and identify a few problematic titles. Problem #1: American Psycho.

It's funny how many people qualify their glowing reviews of this book with the words 'I didn't enjoy it but...,' as if it contained some bitter but necessary medicine. Maybe I'm old-fashioned, but I would have thought even a disturbing book, movie, song or painting should at least be enjoyable on some level if it's to gain its audience's love, and if it can't gain that love then it's certainly not worthy of glowing reviews. To me, American Psycho is damn near loveless, its murder scenes especially, and I don't buy the line that there's anything medicinal in those scenes either.

What we have here is 2 books, or better, a book and a bunch of uninspired self-consciously provocative crap tacked onto it for the sake of controversy. Ellis said it himself: for the most part, American Psycho was just him writing out his frustration at his life, which corresponded closely, for the most part, to Patrick Bateman's; the murder scenes were added later. This is a telling admission. While there's something mildly enjoyable about Ellis ripping apart (in prose) the yuppies he obviously knows so well, the tone changes entirely every time a character is ripped apart for real. Satire? Yeah, parts of American Psycho are satirical, but not the violent parts - they are flat, vacant, bland. And it's a sad thing, that this young, lost, numbed writer felt the need to dress up his comedy of manners in wolf's clothing. You can imagine why he did it. Not for money necessarily, but from the same misguided notion that leads his fans to believe there is something medicinal in torturing themselves by reading this shit: the poor sap thought he was writing something 'important'! Well I'm sorry, but the only important thing about American Psycho is that it illustrates - by its existence, by its success - something deeply wrong with the society that gave birth to it. Any dickhead with a halfway decent grasp of prose could have written this splatter-porn; on the level of artistry it's dull as dull can be. But it illustrates something: the banality of evil. Brett Easton Ellis is no more a psycho than you or me, nor does he demonstrate any deep knowledge of what a psycho might be. But by parading his numbness, his naivety, his insensitivity, he demonstrates how a human might unwittingly do evil. And to my mind, there is something evil in what he's done, by seeking to legitimise this shit. In the end, there's only one question that's important here: does the world need more violence-for-violence's sake? I say absolutely not. And this is coming not from a wowser or an anti-violence lobbyist, but from a diehard fan of Clockwork Orange and Reservoir Dogs. One reviewer points out that the uproar over American Psycho is ridiculous given the number of malevolent, misogynistic slasher films on constant display in our culture, and to an extent I agree. But what I find reprehensible in American Psycho is the pose - that this is somehow above those slasher films - when Ellis himself has admitted that all the conceptual justifications only occurred to him after he was demonised, as a way to talk himself out of trouble.

Is Brett Easton Ellis a mysoginist? To me he's more like a parrot, repeating the refrain of a sick culture. Well if you need a parrot to remind you what's wrong with clinical descriptions of excessive violence towards women then this is the book for you. For my part, I'll take Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me any day if I feel like a glimpse inside psychosis. And - wrong as this may sound to some of you - I'll enjoy it. Because art is meant to be enjoyed. Yes, it can change you, hurt you, get under your skin, but only if you love it. Personally, I wonder how anyone could love American Psycho. An absolute piece of shit and probably the worst book I have ever bothered finishing.
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Comments (showing 1-23 of 23) (23 new)

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Ingrid Interesting points! I have to say that while I enjoyed his views on 80's New York the violence didn't sit right and seemed more metaphorical to me.


message 2: by Ben (new) - rated it 1 star

Ben Winch Ingrid wrote: "Interesting points! I have to say that while I enjoyed his views on 80's New York the violence didn't sit right and seemed more metaphorical to me."

Thanks Ingrid, glad we agree. The thing about the violence-as-metaphor explanation is when you describe something that minutely it undermines whatever power it has as metaphor. He could have basically cut every time the violence started and so long as we knew it was coming the metaphor would have been more powerful. But I shouldn't let myself get wound up again... Deep breaths...


message 3: by Keith (new)

Keith I always enjoy your critiques Ben, however in this instance I would venture this point. 'Art' in my books, has very little to do with tangible objects, like books, for instance. Those objects may be seen to be evidence of an aesthetic 'journey' or undertaking, or even that which is cast aside, in passing.

Entertainment, on the other hand, is a different ball game. The mandate of an artist has no connection with decorating someone else's imagination, that enterprise is the province of the entertainer. In short, Art, as I discern it, is mostly as nebulas in form as it is in definition. Sentient satisfaction is of no concern, to the serious commentator, again, that is a problem for the storyteller.

" ... meant to be enjoyed' is a curious presumption, even within the realms of commercial purveyance, are you sure of that ?

Take care mate, keep up the good work.


message 4: by Ben (new) - rated it 1 star

Ben Winch Hi Keith,

Well I knew that statement was gonna be controversial. Let's just say I'm not a proponent of the 'art needn't be beautiful' argument, but that my conception of beauty is broad enough to include Beckett's 'Unnamable', the works of Thomas Bernhard, Joy Division's 'Closer', all works that focus on the deepest states of despair and could hardly be said to pander to any notion of 'entertaining'. (They've all got ugly things in 'em, too.) I wonder if you could be preaching to the converted? The word 'enjoyment' seems a sticking point - maybe I chose it too carelessly. A sense of awe, of profundity, of the uncanny - a word that embraces all of these would be better. But that said, don't we enjoy all those feelings on some level?

Hell, far be it from me to seek to define the limits of art. I can be a tad flippant, I'm aware of that. But if my only response to a book/film/etc is disgust then I'm not gonna praise it just from some received notion that it's addressing society's ills.

Not sure I've taken the twist out of the rest of your argument but I'll think on it. 'Art' is a dangerous word, I guess.

Thanks for the feedback and I'm glad you're enjoying the reviews.


message 5: by Ben (new) - rated it 1 star

Ben Winch PS - Keith:

The bit I don't get: that 'art has little to do with tangible objects'.

A dictionary definition of art: 'The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture. Works produced by such skill and imagination'. So are we not talking about the same thing here?


message 6: by Keith (new)

Keith Probably not. Dictionaries are of little value when it comes to questions of aesthetics’/art/philosophy, or anything much for that matter. If you concede that a concept requires word definition, you place yourself in a position of infinite regress. I will ask you to define the terms you are using, to define your terms, ad infinitum. So, please, spare me the dictionaries. Words themselves are notoriously constraining and take form only by their contingencies to other words. They, words, are a good example of how tangible form is bereft of essence, and arguably a poor extension of an aesthetic notion.

If this 'art' we speak of is only surface text ( text including such things as the Gallery/Bookshop/Writer etc ) and there is no implied essence beyond that, then any old stroke of pen or brush will suffice. If the 'artist' is only the human medium rendering paint or ink, for no other reason than the decoration of other peoples imagination, then 'art' becomes entirely superficial.

If there is something beyond the application of ink on paper, then I would ask You, how those two entities are linked. i.e. the tangible object ( words images etc ) and the creative power ( or so we imagine ) beyond the rendered object, and, the obvious question, is the first object, the idea or creative power, a necessary precondition ? And if it is, can an idea be transported, unscathed, and thus rendered up ?

Art, I would submit, is beyond words, and images, if ART resides anywhere, we can only seek it in introspective contemplation. The phonic substance of voice will always, in my view, give lie to Art, and the pretentious hand, however well intended, only mock it.

tc mate. K


message 7: by Ben (new) - rated it 1 star

Ben Winch 'If you concede that a concept requires word definition, you place yourself in a position of infinite regress.'

I think we might be in that position right now. The shit is deep. Too deep for this forum, especially if the dictionary is off-limits.

I will limit myself to saying I don't think there's anything intrinsically shallow in trying to reach other people via their imagination - actually I think the opposite. But that the best way of doing this might be via introspection I wholeheartedly concede.

Peace, brother, and thanks for your thoughts.


message 8: by Keith (new)

Keith Thanks for your comments Ben, and yeah maybe I had a bit of a reaction to the use of the word 'art'.

'If you concede that a concept requires word definition, you place yourself in a position of infinite regress.' - meaning that words themselves, if not defined by some other means, are only defined by each other. The infinite regress would be the result of having to define the words used to define words, etc.

I guess what I was trying to point out is that art, as concept, is beyond form, and therefore beyond any explanation that I have ever read.

There is nothing, 'shallow' in writing for entertainment, it's just that there is a difference between art ( in my opinion) and entertainment. That difference being the indifference of the artist, compared the vested interest of the entertainer. Splitting hairs ? I'd like to refer you, if I may, to Marcel Duchamp, check him out if you don't already know of him. I'd be interested in you thoughts.

Take Care buddy.

K


message 9: by Ben (new) - rated it 1 star

Ben Winch I'll look further into Duchamp - have been reading a little on Dada lately. Only thing is, I would have thought he was highly entertaining?

I don't think you're splitting hairs, it's just that I've heard variations of this argument about 'indifference' so many times before (you can't avoid them in the 'indie rock' scene), and I've always found them defensive and overtly idealistic. Some of my favourite writers were hardly published if at all in their lifetimes, but I doubt they ever stopped hoping. Music wants to be listened to; prose wants to be read. I doubt there are many artists who are indifferent to whether or not they have an audience, and those who are are not automatically the more serious ones.

I suspect what we're arguing here is not a definition of art but our own philosophies of it - our tastes - and that's really the spirit in which I meant my statement in the first place: that I'm in favour of art that is enjoyable, against snobbery, and for the idea that the pursuit of beauty is partly a moral quest, that anyone (like Brett Easton Ellis) with no or little grasp of beauty isn't qualified to torture his audience in the name of higher ideals. Again, I know that this is gonna be controversial, but what can I say? When you're communicating in these little soundbites you kind of have to do it with slogans.

Sure, there's a difference between art and entertainment, but they overlap - it's a continuum. But on the other hand, what do I care? I just used the word art as a generic term to cover the 'artforms' with which I'm most familiar: creative writing, music, film, theatre, painting. Call it something else if you like.

Lucky we didn't get into a discussion of what constitutes 'literature', eh?


message 10: by Keith (new)

Keith Hahaha yeah! Or philosophy or love or god or any number of, what I call, vexations.

Sure, there are always many ways to look at a problem. I still side somewhat with the authors prerogative to construct with lax indifference. Let's face it, popularity is an indictment, at least as far as incisive commentary is concerned. Whether you like it or not, every author/painter, whatever, needs to dumb down in order to become commercially viable. The average god basher knows jack about theology, the average politician , fa about Marxism/Pragmatism/Liberalism and people by and large are bound together by confederations of ignorance,and a tacit agreement not to ask. ( the difficult questions ).

On Duchamp, I would counsel that you read him for his own sake. The so called Dada movement was only a port of call for old Marcel, the man was a noted genius. I guess one theme he had that I consider important was, not 'what is art ?' but, 'what makes art?'. Duchamp bought a bottle rack from a supermarket ( using it's total lack of aesthetic appeal as his only criteria ) and 'placed' it in a gallery, thus, he said, the power of the gallery would, ( and has ) conferred the status of 'art' upon, what was, a very cheap and ordinary object. I saw Bottle Rack once, and they weren't planning to throw it out in the rubbish. So, what changed ? Nothing in the object, if it was 'art' in the gallery, was it art when it was in the supermarket ?

I saw a pair of pliers, once, lying on the floor, behind a panel in an installation, I have never known, from that day to this, whether or not I was looking a 'art'. What do you think ? What makes you favorite book(s) art ?


message 11: by Ben (new) - rated it 1 star

Ben Winch What makes my favourite books art? The stubborn pursuit of the beautiful and the magical. Like Poe, Kafka, Borges: rather than turning away from paradoxes or blank spots in their comprehension they focus on them. They're explorers of consciousness, I guess. But at the same time they're brilliant craftsmen, with the ability to transmute ugly, banal or grotesque subjects via the beauty of their prose.

As to this dumbing-down-to-become-commercially-viable schtick, well Jeez, that's another argument I've heard a bit too often (mainly from my cynical old man). Maybe it's true for the most part, but surely there are examples of the audience 'coming to' the artist. I don't think Bob Dylan going to #1 with 'Like A Rolling Stone' was a result of his dumbing down, for eg. Or Borges becoming the first major international literary success in modern Latin America. Or even those authors (Walser, Pessoa, Kafka) who weren't popular until after their deaths; they were uncompromising, but they still reached their audiences eventually. If I translate your ideal of 'lax indifference' into slightly less extreme terms I get something like my own practice: I do what I want, whether or not I see a market for it; I sit on half-finished manuscripts for 10 years and upwards because I don't think they're ready; I record song after song even though I don't see an outlet for them. But I'm always thinking, 'How would I respond to this if I were my audience?' or perhaps better, 'Would I like this if it wasn't mine?'
I think indifference to trends and market demands is pretty crucial, and I certainly do seem to fear success and do very little to work towards it; I'm also suspicious of zealous self-promoters. But an attention to craft for the sake of an ideal/imaginary audience, I think, is a beautiful thing.

As to the bottle rack, I love it, it's brilliant, but I do question what happens when the museum is no more. Greek statues survived the culture that created them; can the bottle rack? A text is a text for as long as the language survives, theoretically. So no, I don't know if the bottle rack is art, but the act of putting it in the gallery is. But even if it is art, it's only one type of it, and to apply the same standards to all art seems pointless to me. Once I saw British actress Tilda Swinton in a 'performance' called 'The Nothing' in London, which consisted of her lying in a glass case in a gallery. When I moved to knock on the glass I was stopped by a guard. For some reason, that fact (of my being stopped from interacting) seemed to me a despicable cop-out and made the whole thing facile and pointless. Was it art? I don't care or know, but I hated it. A cheap shot.


message 12: by Keith (new)

Keith I'm fairly sure Duchamp would agree that if Bottle Rack were thrown in a garbage bin, outside the Gallery, it would lose if's status as ART.

He was fond of saying, " There is no difference between life and art " whatever you take that to mean. I'm certain that Duchamp was attempting to point out the contingent nature of our perception of ART as opposed, to art, if you follow me. Most people need to be told what object is ART, ( there by the placement in the Gallery ) the object, Duchamp pointed out, is often irrelevant. The link between art and object is subjective and nebulas, enough to make the object an inferior representation, at best. The ART is really non existent, what exists is a parallax view, and that view is warped to suit the viewer.

Yves Klein's empty room is, in theory, the ultimate art form, by that reckoning.

On the dumbing down, you make a good point, however in my favor, Poe Kafka Borges, I would add Zola, Genet, Nietzsche and Faulkner , are great examples of how not to become rich as a writer. ( Maybe Borges is the exception ) They produced stunning works, I just would not like to be trying to pay the rent waiting for them to sell, en mass.

Fair enough though, I take your point, there's only so much intellectualism a decent pot boiler needs to be a 'good read' , Conrad's Heart of Darkness is a fine example of story telling, it implies more than it says in words.

The untouchable glass case is upsetting, hating an experience does not necessarily render it invalid, although it sounds like a bit of a jerk off to me, and there's tons of that about.

Mate I appreciate you comments and responses, I think we are closer to agreeing than this ungainly form of exchange would grant us. You right, slogans are the go. Take Care K


message 13: by Ben (new) - rated it 1 star

Ben Winch It sounds to me as if Duchamp had found one of those 'blank spots or paradoxes' I referred to earlier, though his was a particularly dizzying paradox because it concerned the intrinsic nature of art - hence a spiralling art-about-the-nature-of-art (or nature-of-ART) vortex. Deep.

Yeah, I think we're not far from agreeing on a lot of points, though we each have our specialities.

Nice sparring with you Keith.


message 14: by Keith (new)

Keith Thanks mate, I feel like I've learned, or re learned quite a bit via our discussion.

You're right of course, there's nothing 'wrong' in being entertained, or providing entertainment, and the term artist is not so sacred that is cannot be applied to whoever chooses to employ it.

Keep up the good work Ben, if you ever want to discuss the dreaded philosophy, ( or anything else ) , please feel free, I'm thinking that you are well into philosophic thinking, your understanding is such, and it could not be any other way. I trust that you curiosity will lead you the way that suits you best.

Always good to receive messages from you, I am leaving for QLD soon, staying with my sister for a while, I will look forward to seeing your entries on this site.

Thanks mate

K


Jenn(ifer) Great review. My big problem with this piece of garbage is how utterly monotonous it was. And dull as dirt. Yes, I found a book filled with heinous violence dull. I was not outraged, though maybe I should have been. I was just... bored. A far worse crime in my book...


message 16: by Ben (new) - rated it 1 star

Ben Winch Dull, dull, dull - you're right, Jennifer. As usual, it's more the hoo-ha around the work than the work itself that disgusts me. I mean, dude, you wanna write some slasher porn, that's cool, but be a man and fess up to it!


message 17: by Liam (new) - rated it 1 star

Liam Brilliant, brilliant review- you have put beautifully into words what a grotesque & sickening travesty that book is; something which I've been attempting, and repeatedly failing to accomplish, for years. The only thing I would add is that Bret Easton Ellis was prostituting his talent when he wrote 'American Psycho'. I thought at the time, and still think, that 'Less Than Zero' & 'The Rules Of Attraction' were excellent...


message 18: by Ben (new) - rated it 1 star

Ben Winch Thanks muchly Liam. Unfortunately I've never read any of his other books, and it could be I never will after this introduction. 'Grotesque and sickening travesty' - you said it, friend.


message 19: by Brin (new) - rated it 5 stars

Brin It still stuns me that literary people can fail to get a point quite so spectacularly.

You say dull but with it's banality this book has more depth than 99% of books I've read. The themes and concerns raised within it were, and still are extremely relevant to modern capitalised society, especially post banking crisis. Our world is run by Psychopaths.

To call it 'slasher porn' shows a remarkable inability to read between the lines.


message 20: by Liam (new) - rated it 1 star

Liam Brin wrote: "It still stuns me that literary people can fail to get a point quite so spectacularly.

You say dull but with it's banality this book has more depth than 99% of books I've read. The themes and conc..."



Bullshit. Specifically, bullshit of the hipster variety. Bret Ellis missed being a "literary enfant terrible" and, to paraphrase Stanley Crouch, albeit out of context, he wanted money...


message 21: by Ben (last edited May 27, 2013 10:45PM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Ben Winch Hey Brin, maybe we just see depth in different places. Me, I don't read fiction to understand things like 'modern capitalised society, especially post banking crisis'; I can get that from non-fiction, usually in more potent form. I read fiction for what only fiction can give me.

That said, as I've acknowledged in the review, Ellis knows yuppies and does a fair job of satirising them; I just don't see what that has to do with gratuitous violence. You say 'our world is run by psychopaths'. Granted that's true, an author can still make that point without the gore.

If you can find anything between the lines of those slasher scenes you're a better reader than me. An overarching conceptual justification (which, as I've said, Ellis concocted after the fact) doesn't work on a line-by-line basis. Line-by-line, I don't see anything in those scenes but an uninspired attempt to titillate.

Thanks for stating your case politely though.


message 22: by Mana (new) - rated it 2 stars

Mana I loved this review because it articulated everything I hated about American Psycho. Have you seen the film adaptation? I saw it before I read the book- something I almost never do. The film is far better in my estimation. I could rant a lot about this book. Maybe I should reread it and reevaluate my opinions but I doubt they will change.


message 23: by Ben (new) - rated it 1 star

Ben Winch Hi Mana. Yeah, I saw the film, and I agree it was better. Not that I loved it, but it didn't sicken or anger me like the book did. Incidentally I saw it after I'd read the book.

As to re-reading and re-evaluating your opinions, if you plan on ranting I guess it couldn't hurt: 'know your enemy,' they say. But remember there's heaps of other books out there! Maybe Bret Easton Ellis just ain't that important.


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