A Book You Hated
I’m laughing bitterly as I read this prompt for my post. It probably goes to show how my view of life and things in general usually veers toward the negative, but I was actually looking forward to doing this post. Anyone who knows me probably knows which book I’ll be talking about in this post. Now, without further dudes, ta-da!
American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
This book, this book, this book! What can I say about this book that will sound both unbiased and intellectual? Everything that needs to be said about this book has already been said by David Foster Wallace. Wallace was actually the one who was first able to present to me an argument that mirrored my own thoughts on the novel. But be that as it may, this is my post on the book that I hate, so I’ll do my best.
Honestly, I think this was the first book in which I found absolutely nothing to redeem the content to be found in the book. I’m not sure if I should assume that you have read the book or not. If you haven’t read the book, suffice it to say the book contains increasingly detailed descriptions of violence, including rape, murder, cannabalism, genital mutilation, etc. done by a Wall Street Banker obsessed with status and wealth and very vitriolic toward poor people and women. Now, the first thing that some people may claim about the book is that the very thing I just said proves that the book has a point and redeeming characteristics. Since the main character is a Wall Street man, he is representing capitalism in all its brand-loving, wealth-accruing, women-objectifying, poor-subjugating glory. This may be. But I don’t buy it. And I have a few specific reasons why.
MISOGYNY. Though people of both genders die in American Psycho, the targets of the most disturbing and disgusting acts are always women. Why this is, I’m not quite sure. And the critique of capitalism argument notwithstanding, how can you say it’s simply that critique when *SPOILER ALERT* the killer of a woman puts a rat into her vagina or other things like that. Yes, the rat/vagina thing is real and it’s probably the first time I’ve ever read a book that is obscene for what appears to me to be no reason at all.
NIHILISM: In the novel, I find nothing redeeming about anything or anyone in the entirety of the novel. Worse than a lack of redeeming characters, (some may say that about Jonathan Franzen’s books) worse than the fact that no solution is posed, the fact is that not even a question is posed! This is of course related to the quote that the writer doesn’t have to answer the question, he simply must state it correctly. This quote relates to meaning and the way in which we live our lives and we behave toward each other. The way Ellis shows the violence in the book and hints coyly at the idea that it may just all be in this Wall Street man’s mind serves (amazingly) as nihilistic on two separate fronts. The first nihilistic front is that no sense of right or wrong is expressed in the whole book. “Yes, but that’s the point!” Some exasperated reader of this blog is saying. “The point is that not even the author is commenting on the things going on!” To which I am forced to reply, “Then why the hell am I reading it?” That’s like calling John Doe’s notebooks from the movie Seven a masterpiece because it doesn’t critique itself or comment on the things that he’s thinking while writing in those books. In both cases it’s just a sick mind at work. And in this case, it’s a sick mind that for some reason instead of getting into writing horror movie scripts decided to write a terrible, sickening novel. Cruelty and violence for cruelty and violence’s sake. We see this and no sense of meaning or governing action or question emerges from the pools of blood and piles of gore.
The second form of nihilism expressed in the book comes if we take Ellis’s bait and think that the whole thing is the fantasy of Patrick Bateman. There is evidence to support this in the book and Ellis has been quite constant and adamant about not saying whether this is the case or not. Instead of opening his book up to various interpretations and “working on two levels,” to me the book instead bails out on any form of commitment to any idea whatsoever. “Oh, you’re upset about all the violence in the book? You think it’s terrible! Well, guess what? It was all in his head anyway! A fantasy, a dream! Now don’t you feel better?” No! I don’t feel better at all. Instead of risking putting yourself out there completely and saying, “The point of the book is not what I or the narrator or the book says about the violence, it’s about what you, the reader says about it,” the book delivers a final cop-out in the hint that it was all a fantasy and that if you’re still upset about it, choose to view it that way and it’s all better. The book is nihilistic in the second way because it purports that we can make it all better by saying it was a dream and moving on. Now, if the book was what it was and stood that way, I could at least say, “Okay, that’s interesting. It matters how I react, not how the story tells me to react. But I still don’t like it.” But if the whole book is a dream, then nothing matters and nothing is solved and nothing is asked of us. Instead we are placated by that phrase, “It was all a dream. It’s okay.” It’s not okay.
I’ll leave you with this last quote from David Foster Wallace:
“Look, if the contemporary condition is hopelessly shitty, insipid, materialistic, emotionally retarded, sadomasochistic, and stupid, then I (or any writer) can get away with slapping together stories with characters who are stupid, vapid, emotionally retarded, which is easy, because these sorts of characters require no development. With descriptions that are simply lists of brand-name consumer products. Where stupid people say insipid stuff to each other. If what’s always distinguished bad writing—flat characters, a narrative world that’s cliched and not recognizably human, etc.—is also a description of today’s world, then bad writing becomes an ingenious mimesis of a bad world. If readers simply believe the world is stupid and shallow and mean, then Ellis can write a mean shallow stupid novel that becomes a mordant deadpan commentary on the badness of everything. Look man, we’d probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is? In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness. Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it. “