“American Psycho” by Bret Easton Ellis (1991)

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american-psycho“Abandon all hope ye who enter here…”

So, first up, let’s just say that anyone who has come here to see a list of the crimes and depraved acts committed by Patrick Bateman in his book can stop reading now, as I’m not going to go into details about any of them. Partly because it would ruin the impact should you read this book, and partly because I don’t think I can bring myself to type the words. However, if you do plan on reading this book, I should let you know that I’m also going to spoil the crap out of this one and discuss a later plot point that I want to talk about. So, continue at your own risk.

This modern classic tells the story of Patrick Bateman, a Wall Street businessman in his late twenties who on the surface has the perfect life – good friends, a pretty girlfriend, huge amounts of money, a luxury apartment, intelligence, wit and charm – but hides a much darker secret. He is a psychopathic monster who has killed many people in cold blood, subjecting them to the most grostesque tortures before they die. No one else seems to suspect this about him though, and even when he admits it over dinner to people, they don’t listen or don’t believe him.

When he kills a coworker, Paul Owen, he commandeers the man’s apartment to kill more people, mostly women, and slowly becomes more and more deranged, suffering from hallucinations, all the while trying to maintain his appearance as a decent, functional human being. The story is occasionally ambiguous, and appears sometimes more as a series of vignettes, and there is little in the way of a continuing plot.

OK, so where to begin? Bateman is a reprehensible character with apparently no redeeming features but, then again, so is everyone else. Surrounded by wealthy, yuppie friends, his social behaviour is normalised. Every introduction is filled with a complete list of what everyone is wearing and where it’s from, there are pages-long discussions on which fur looks the best, or which brand of bottled water is the nicest. It can come as no surprise to anyone that Bateman seems to worship Donald Trump and longs to be his friend. Brand names fill the pages, and everyone is so obsessed with themselves that no one really pays any attention to anyone else. (In one instance when he admits to a woman he’s into “murders and executions”, she asks if he finds it boring and that she has a friend in “mergers and acquisitions” too.) Frequently people are introduced with the wrong names and never corrected; no one seems to know what any of their friends or colleagues really look like. This is an entirely superficial world.

The acts that Bateman performs on his victims are … well, let’s just say I worry for the mental health of Bret Easton Ellis. As I said, I’m not going into any detail on the foul things he does, but broadly speaking we have torture, rape, mutilation, cannibalism, necrophilia and animal abuse. This is not a book for the faint of heart. You need a strong stomach to get through this stuff, and while I think I’m pretty robust when it comes to the abuses humans perform on one another, I found this a struggle. I’ve not been very happy for much of this week and while there are various reasons for that, this book has certainly done nothing to help matters.

So now to come to what I loathed. Quite late into the book, it becomes ambiguous when it seems that one of the people that Bateman killed is still alive, and merely living in London now. When Bateman goes to the apartment he’s been using that belonged to this man, he finds it tidy and for sale, with an estate agent inside who tells him to leave. This throws up a horrible question – did the murder actually take place? This then sends you spiralling down and down. If this one didn’t happen, did any of them? It would explain why Bateman never gets caught, or why none of his friends believe him. Are they all just the fantasies of a diseased mind? More than anything, I loathe a story that ends “it was all a dream” and while it’s not confirmed that that’s what happened here, it’s suggested. I feel cheated, frustrated and like I just wasted a week of my life on something that built itself up to false promise. I know that, logically, the whole thing is fictional, but if it’s to turn out that these are just the thoughts of a man who wouldn’t act on these desires, it feels like a waste of time. How dare a book subject me to imagining such horrors to then go, “Only joking. Actually, he just thought all this while sitting on his sofa.”

Should you read it? As mentioned above, have a strong stomach. It’s clever, sharp, bitingly satirical and totally scathing about the wealthy. It’s also interesting due to the overlap with his other books. All his stories take place in the same universe, which in some respects adds to the ambiguity, and here we get a scene where Bateman has dinner with his younger brother Sean, who is in turn the main character in The Rules of Attraction. Despite my own personal feelings about the novel’s “twist”, it’s an incredibly interesting read. You just need to be pretty secure and well-balanced to get through it, I think. Good luck.

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“The Rules Of Attraction” by Bret Easton Ellis (1987)

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There are no rules...

There are no rules…

“and it’s a story that might bore you but you don’t have to listen, she told me, because she always knew it was going to be like that…”

So far this year, I have travelled via book to the Middle East, the sewers of London, dangerous foreign planets and ancient Scandinavia, but is there really any spot as terrifying as an American university in the 1980s? That’s the location for Bret Easton Ellis’s zeitgeist-y novel, The Rules of Attraction. Everyone has vaguely heard of Ellis, if only for American Psycho, and I’d looked at getting one of his books for some time. When my birthday approached I gave a list of books to my friends the teacher and the psychologist; generally those that my mother was unlikely to want to buy me. This one came from the teacher.

Attraction is about, at its core, horrible people doing horrible things to one another, and not much caring about the consequences. However, there’s far more too it than all of that. There are three main characters. Sean is, or at least thinks of himself, as being too cool for anything that’s going on around him, will sleep with anything with a pulse and later falls in love with Lauren when they start dating. Lauren is pining after her boyfriend Victor and dates Sean just to pass the time between waiting for her boyfriend to return and changing her major again and again. Finally, Paul, who is an openly bisexual guy who used to date Lauren and is now sleeping with Sean. Their love triangle is fuelled mostly by cocaine and beer, and their strange/strained relationships get mixed up with everyone else’s.

Many parts of the story are left ambigious for the reader to interpret how they want. For example, Paul’s narration is full of stories of his sexual exploits with Sean, declaring how strongly they seem to feel for one another, but in Sean’s chapters, he never mentions so much as even kissing Paul. Is all of it in Paul’s head, or is Sean just carefully selecting what he wants to tell us? At the same time, Sean seems in love with Lauren and says how much she enjoys their sex, but when it’s Lauren’s turn to talk, she’s far less impressed. And even Lauren and Victor – in his few brief chapters – have entirely different stances on what their relationship actually is.

The novel deals with many huge topics such as suicide, drugs (from weed through to meth), violence, divorce and abortion. The characters are generally unpleasant, almost all of them out to help themselves and make sure that they come out on top of any situation that they end up in. They treat these issues with contempt and, occasionally, humour.

Ellis writes with smart style, each character very much having their own voice so you can immediately tell without looking if it’s Sean, Lauren or Paul speaking. Even the more minor characters who occasionally get their own chapters have an individual voice. The most unique is Bertrand, Sean’s French roommate who has a chapter written entirely in French. Given that I don’t speak French, I had to skip this, although I have since found translations for it online. Apparently a number of the characters appear earlier and later in Ellis’ other novels, and Sean is actually the brother of American Psycho‘s killer Patrick Bateman. Lauren and Victor appear as the main characters in later novel Glamdrama, and minor character Clay is apparently the main figure from his first novel, Less Than Zero.

While the people involved may all be vile to various degrees (Paul is probably the most sympathetic, but that’s not by much), it’s an engaging and quick read as you watch these young men and women, presumably with some intelligence about them, crash and burn. They’re living in a world where money is everything, drugs are abundant and the future looks uncertain, so maybe you can excuse them some of their behaviour. Then again, maybe not. I guess it boils down once again to the fact that we always want what we can’t have, and how much that hurts or annoys us.

The novel begins and ends mid-sentence, implying the endlessness of student futility as people make the same mistakes again and again. Few questions are properly answered, but somehow this is still satisfying, as how much do we really know about everything that goes on around us?