Friday 6 May 2011

The Sheer Horror.... (Beware, here be spoilers!)

I’m so glad that the book is over now. How compelling it was, how utterly horrifying and how very clever. The book which I am referring to here is American Psycho. A book that I was sure someone of my disposition would never read. Ironically, I never imagined the contents of the novel to be as deeply disturbing as they actually are. I guess, in my younger days, I avoided the book because I thought that the character would be frightening, which he is, but not in a “baddie-monster” way. Well, he is a monster, but he’s a by-product of our society, rather than a monster created out of myth and magic, which in itself is far more unsettling.
I am glad to have read it because I feel that this book is important. I am also glad that I never read it when I was younger, because it would have freaked me out beyond the pale! It freaked me out reading it now in all honesty. But I think being a bit older does help, in terms of general worldliness and perspective. I understood the relevance of it and why it is so dramatically deviant. Because without that sickening horror, Brett Easton Ellis’ message, his point, would not leave such a mark upon you.
The novel begins quite slowly, Patrick Bateman’s meticulous attention to detail, in particular his constant focus on labels and what people are wearing and what he has, feels initially like detailed scene setting, but I later realised that this was, in fact, really comprehensive character building. What I had assumed the author to be doing was building an atmosphere, filling out this vacuous world of meaningless consumerism, which he is, but more essentially, he is constructing Bateman in the image of it. The obsessive attention to detail is later applied to his heinous attacks and his total lack of emotional engagement with anyone.
Apart from the odd comment, the protagonist’s murderous actions are not mentioned in detail for a long time, and I actually found myself looking forwards to the action starting, with no comprehension of how completely I would regret that anticipation. You egg the author on, daring him to demonstrate why this novel has earned itself such an infamous reputation. And then he tells you, and tells you, and tells you, and you are left truly sickened and shaken to the core. I wanted to stop reading, and the only reason I didn’t was because I was so far in, I wanted there to be a point at the end of it all. Mostly I just wanted it to end. At the worst point, when I had read it quite consistently over a couple of days, I found myself feeling compelled to bring the subject up over dinner, quite improper conversation for the dinner table, but you feel the need to share the horror, exorcise the demon. I was watching a TV show and drifted off for to sleep for a moment and when I opened my eyes the lady on the screen appeared to me to be a decapitated head, devoid and senseless and terrifying, only for me to blink again and the image return to normal. Shudder! I decided to leave the engrossing terribleness for a day and read the Metro. After my brain break I vowed to end the horror sooner rather than later.
The author had been burning through Bateman’s puke inducing de-humansing acts because, I feel, he wanted his readers to see how completely divorced his character was becoming from reality. How the worse it got, the worse it had to get, because he was getting less and less out of each action. Endless diminishing returns. After my break, I rejoined the story for its culmination in Bateman’s killing spree through the city, more and more disassociated, until he eventually refers to himself in the third person. Identity lost.
The twist, if you will, is not really a twist, it has been inferred all along. Was it all in his head? It is left so ambiguous that it could be either. Either none of this has happened outside of his head, or, he is just so important, and our world so immoral, that it is all covered up around and about him. He cannot be sure, he is that mad, therefore, we as the reader cannot be sure what is reality and what is fiction. It is all relative in any event, could our soulless, vacuous world of shite produce such a creature? It could, very  feasibly, and that is what sits with you.
Ellis gives us no answers, no resolution, no ending. This is succinctly summarised by the last line of the book, when Patrick is in another club, after a conversation that sounds almost identical to the one which opens the book, between his peers, concerning a jumble of nothing, he looks at the drapes at the rear of the Club and reads the sign ‘THIS IS NOT AN EXIT.’ * The last line of the book. To me this means, this is not an ending. No moral, no punishment, no answers, for the character or for the reader. The cycle could begin again, the cycle could begin for the first time, but whatever it was, nothing has improved or changed to end it.
A powerful, thought provoking, truly upsetting novel.
I do find it odd in some respects that it holds the notorious reputation that it does. And I do find it odd that so many people campaigned against it, when you look at the endless crime novels for example, many of which are written by women, that contain terrible violence against women, but these seem to be pass by unremarked upon. I think it is the visceral nature of the description that upsets and offends people so much. Which makes sense, but I do think that is the author’s intention, he wants you to be that upset by it, that unsettled.
Could I ever write like that? I do not think so. I cannot think of a story I would want to tell that would require that level of darkness and I think my approach would be different even if the subject matter were similar. But I will speak of violence, I will try to write stories to scare people, and to challenge people, I’ll just do it my way. And my way is, thankfully for both my belly and my brain, very different.
But I do believe that there is a place for writers such as Ellis. For novels like that. And whilst I cannot foresee my wanting to read the book again, it made me think and it made me react. Which is what this writing lark is all about really, when you get down to it.

This is, by no means, an exit…

*(Ellis, B. E. American Psycho Picador: 1991)

1 comment:

  1. Just dipping in again... We HAVE to talk about this at some point, I think; I read the whole book in a departure lounge whilst waiting for a delayed plane at the tender age of 16 and though my intention was to look very controversial and, obviously, supercool, I probably went green. Too much to say here in a single comment, hence my "WE ARE GOING TO DISCUSS THIS" threat.
    On a more silly note, one of my earliest writing exercises was when a friend and I would email one another in the style of certain authors (it was a bit of an in-joke)... Ellis was my speciality!