Tuesday, August 09, 2005

American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis

[Note: this is a review that I wrote a few years ago for class and recently found it in my files. Thought some readers might like to see it.]
As a novel, Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho is overrated. Not only that, but it is also a poor attempt at creating a work of art. I must admit that American Psycho has few — if any — redeeming qualities. The only redeeming quality I can think of is that it can be slightly humorous in its attempts at being artful. The greatest questions it raises are: how could any company consciously publish this and even then, how could it ever become so popular?

Most novels — at least the better ones — are easy to become engrossed in; this novel is not one of them. One of the reasons for this might be because I did not realize that it was a first-person narrative until the fifth page. There is also the wonderfully vivid descriptions of the appearance of everything that sounds more like an ad campaign than a story. I understand that the main character, Patrick Bateman, has an obsessive-compulsive personality and that in his high-class society image is everything, but his descriptions are excessive and boring. At one point he describes his morning routine in a five-page paragraph. I do not believe I have ever read such a long and meaningless paragraph in my life. If there is only one way to lose a reader it is by being excessively long winded. Usually when an author uses an abundance of description s/he will make it sound interesting or poetic to keep the readers’ interest; Ellis fails to do this in his approach.

The dialogue in American Psycho is not much better than the description. It is not drawn out exactly; it is simply repetitive and meaningless. For the first hundred or so pages Bateman and his friends only talk about image, restaurants, and having sex. None of these subjects are discussed tactfully or with much of a purpose. Usually dialogue is used to aid in character development, but in this case it is not necessary as all of the characters are almost identical. All of the men in the novel look similar, act similar, and have similar jobs. They are all self-centered, materialistic misogynists. Meanwhile all the women are beautiful, materialistic, and unintelligent.

In his character descriptions, Ellis fails to explain the motives for the pompous and sometimes stupid actions of the characters. He does not let the reader know of the characters’ pasts. There is also much confusion between the characters. First of all, many people call Patrick Bateman by numerous other names because he supposedly looks like ever other character. Secondly, because all the characters look and act similar, the reader has a problem remembering who is who. By doing so, he causes every main character to be unsympathetic. The only characters for whom the reader feels sympathy are the bums, waitresses, and murder victims.

Another problem I have found is that the novel is written in the present tense. I believe Ellis’ motive for this is to prevent foreshadowing and incorporate more suspense and surprise. However, I also believe that by doing so he is alienating the audience by leaving them in the dark so to speak. If Ellis’ purpose is to surprise the audience, he has failed. By portraying Patrick Bateman as an unsympathetic and almost repulsive character he evokes no emotion or surprise in the reader at the disgusting actions.

There are also some detail problems with the text. The character of Patrick Bateman is obviously obsessive-compulsive and yet he has a maid, eats out regularly, brings his blood-stained clothes to the dry cleaners, drinks heavily, and abuses cocaine. These do not connect well with an obsessive-compulsive personality. Simply with the drugs and alcohol, the character would have been dead from an overdose long ago. As for the maid and the dry cleaners, an intelligent murderer would not use either because of the threat of being caught. I understand that the maid and dry cleaners are a sort of status symbol for him, but it is just common sense that he would not use them.

One criticism of American Psycho is that it contains inappropriate graphic violence and sex. This is a valid criticism as it does contain a large amount of unnecessary graphic descriptions. The sexual content of the novel is more appropriate for an issue of Penthouse than a nationally distributed book. The graphic violence depicted seems to me to be a how-to murder and maim manual. I cannot decide whether or not this novel belongs in a library or an adult bookstore. The question is: Should this have been censored? The simple answer is “no.”

Just because this novel is disgusting and repulsive in content does not mean it should be censored on a national level. That would be defying the First Amendment rights of the author. However, the publisher of the novel should have used some discretion when considering the text. It is their job to eliminate works that do not fit their moral expectations or quality. But, since it was published it is the public’s duty to persuade people from not reading it because of its content. The best possible way to censor a work such as this is to not tell people of its violent or sexual content but rather to explain how poorly written it is. A work of this quality should not have been published simply based on the fact that it is not work of even mediocre quality. The only reason that this novel sold as many copies as it has is because people protested its publication and labeled it pornography. As right as these protesters were, they neglected to state that the novel was also poorly written. Simply by declaring a book disgusting, vulgar, or pornographic, etc. causes people to read it because “they want to know why it is disgusting, vulgar, etc.”

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