Sunday, 25 August 2013

A difficult and disgusting descent into the mind of an American Psycho

From The Week of August 19th, 2013

Superficiality is a dangerous and pernicious force. For in deadening our spirits, draining meaning from our dreams, and attenuating our connections to the world, it robs us of the capacity to have both genuine emotions and authentic relationships. It allows us to skim along the surface of existence without ever plunging down into life's depths, the dark, challenging undercurrents where truth abides. This is reason enough to avoid it, and yet, this is nothing next to the damage superficiality does to cultures, to civilizations, infecting them with a kind of euthanizing, materialistic hunger that cannot be easily uprooted. For once superficiality has been embraced, the humiliation inherent in rejecting it, in being forced to acknowledged that it was, even for a short while, accepted practice, is too much for most to bear. This is the lesson taken to remarkably disturbing heights in Brett Easton Ellis' notorious classic.

It is the dying days of the 1980s and New York city is a cesspool, a collection of alleys spewing trash, of streets clogged with the homeless, and of clubs laden with narcotics. Crime, fuelled by the rise of Crack Cocaine, is rampant, a cancer that eats away at the soul of one of the world's foremost metropolises. And yet, for all of their destructive power, these are but venial sins when set against the awesome greed of Wall Street, an assemblage of banks and trading firms who, gripped by the feverish desire for wealth and power, strain mightily against the ever-weakening legislative chains that bind them.

Through this modern morass glides Patrick Bateman, a cog in this Wall-Street machine who notices brands, not people; who thirsts for gratification, not enlightenment; and who values besting his fellows, not uplifting them. A conglomeration of glitz and glamour, he absorbs this toxic environment and uses it to fuel his own psychosis which expresses itself through bouts of misogyny and misanthropy so violent and depraved that no one believes it of him even when he confesses it. This is his world, a creature of its creation and an aspect of its evolution. He cannot be put down.

A vicious and difficult novel, American Psycho is an adventure in filth. Characterized by orgiastic episodes of abject cruelty, it is an exercise in shock, with large swaths of the work surrendered to the unchained lusts of the greedy, insecure id. Pornography and murder are the primary forms of this authenticity of the foul, coming together to create such a potent mixture of ugliness that, even 20 years on from its original publishing, in a culture far more accustomed to such degradations, sexual and otherwise, it has lost none of its overwhelming force. It is not at all hard to imagine why the novel was released to such widespread outcry.

However, dismissing it as nothing more than the wet dreams of sadists would be a mistake. For this is not just atavism run amok; it is a commentary on the height of American materialism. It is a characterization of life at the heart of American Gomorrah and the existential price its occupants pay. Patrick Bateman is inescapably wicked, and yet, he is by no means alone. He is merely a more virulent strain of a virus that ravaged this place, at this time, an adherence to superficialities at the utter expense of the real that severed the bonds of mutual decency and submerged its victims into desiccated lives, sucked dry of all meaning. This is powerfully manifested in the work's obsessive attention to commercial details, brands, songs, the price of luxury goods, all of which help these victims of a decaying culture to deny their own emptiness.

But while American Psycho has value, its length is indulgent. Mr. Ellis could have made the same, provocative point with a book half its length. Not only would such a slimmed-down version have increased the sharpness of its satire, it would have shortcircuited the suspicions of even open-minded readers that this was an exercise of endurance, a challenge to see precisely which moment of wickedness finally succeeded in alienating its consumer. Instead, we have a 400-page celebration of depravity whose repetition dilutes its objective and leaves the reader wanting a shower and the comfort of good friends.

This is emotive work. Patrick Bateman will likely go down in history as one of the most despicable characters to ever be realized in literature. And at least in this, Mr. Ellis and his stylized distillation of a dark moment in American history won't soon be forgotten. However, being remembered is not the same as being valued. (2/5 Stars)

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