Happy 20th Anniversary, AMERICAN PSYCHO!

Ready to feel old? It’s now been a full two decades since Vintage Books first published AMERICAN PSYCHO, Bret Easton Ellis’ satirical novel told from the perspective of Patrick Bateman, Wall Street mover and shaker by day, serial killer by night. To celebrate, we asked some of BOOKGASM’s contributors to share their recollections about the controversial work, whether they read it or not, so put away your chainsaws and enjoy.

I’ve unfortunately never actually read it. Saw the movie. When it came out my friend Christi read it and all I remember her mentioning was something about jumper cables on bare breasts and his obsession with name brands. —Brian Winkeler

I was working in a Greek restaurant as a dishwasher when I read AMERICAN PSYCHO. I was 23 and broke and quickly skipped past the infamous torture/murder sequences in favor of Ellis’ equally infamous descriptions of yuppie consumerism run amok. I found myself torn between really, really wanting to be a cokehead asshole in a suit paying $500 for a barely satisfying meal at the latest trendy restaurant, and the more noble, less commercial instincts within me that were informed by my young, wannabe-a-writer idealism. Turned out it was the exact same feeling I had whenever I watched SEX AND THE CITY. That was when I discovered I didn’t want to be (a non-murderous) Patrick Bateman. I wanted to be Carrie Bradshaw. —Allan Mott

I rushed out to read LESS THAN ZERO not long after it was first published, as it was being promoted and talked about as probably the most important contemporary novel I was ever likely to read. So I did. And I hated it! Thought it was wholly unoriginal, derivative, and had absolutely nothing to say. So I have not read anything by Bret Easton Ellis since. —Alan Cranis

Every once in a while, a writer comes along that somehow tricks the publishing world into thinking he has talent. Nicholson Baker is one. Joe Eszterhas is another (although to be fair, he tricked Hollywood first). And still another is Bret Easton Ellis. In my recent review of HELL’S DOCTOR, I told the story of how I was compelled to buy AMERICAN PSYCHO after reading a newspaper report of how Ellis’s publisher was so disturbed by the book’s subject matter, they refused to publish it, and thereafter, a small publisher picked it up. I remember heading to Waldenbooks (remember them?) that night and finding three copies on the shelf. Another customer picked one up at the same time ­­— a woman, who commented on reading the same news story. We laughed about “bad press” being the same as “good press.” I bought two other books along with it, just for cover, like the way I would buy other magazines along with my copy of PLAYBOY: “A copy of THE NEW YORKER and VANITY FAIR, please … oh, and that issue of PLAYBOY. I heard they’re running a Normal Mailer interview this month.” The first half of the book was tedious, filled with endless name dropping of brands and clothing labels. Then the violence kicked in and I was disgusted: disgusted at what I read, and disgusted with myself for reading it. It was torture porn. I waited for the twist, the final reveal, the last punchline that would show me that Ellis had a meaning to the whole thing. But it never came. Years later, at a friend’s urging, I watched the movie version and saw the humor, satire and plot twist (that the killings are a figment of Bateman’s sick imagination) that were not evident in the book. It’s one of the few times that I’ve loathed a book, but enjoyed the movie. —Slade Grayson

As far as AMERICAN PSYCHO goes, I’m not a big fan. I first read it while moving to Cambodia in 1999, and the whole time I was like, “What’s the big deal? This book needs more aliens!” —Ryun Patterson

Believe it or not, I’ve never read the book, and only saw five minutes of the film. Serial killers creep me the eff out. Serial killers and snakes. Mostly germs, though. —Joshua Jabcuga

I was in college at the time, when I probably read one novel a year, at best. Simply because of the controversy, and because the title intrigued me, I went to Waldenbooks in Sooner Fashion Mall and bought it. They had it behind the counter, as if it were pornography. I read it in my dorm over the course of maybe three days, much to the dismay of my Christian roommate. I enjoyed it, but have never read anything by Ellis since. Then I loaned it to my brother, who never returned it, and most likely pawned it. What I most remember about the book aren’t the list of grooming tips or the gratuitous Huey Lewis references, but the Habitrail sex scene. To this day, I’m at once still disturbed by that part, yet still peeved it didn’t make it in the movie. —Rod Lott

Buy it at Amazon.

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24 Comments »

Comment by Holger Haase
2011-07-11 08:13:22

Hopelessly overrated. I first read it two or three years ago and found this to be seriously outdated with its constant onslaught of already ancient brand names and products that are no longer around, highly repetitive in its format and probably about 200 pages too long.
When I noticed that the book never really went anywhere plotwise I just knew that it would have a non-ending ending. Still, it’s a fast read and it has its moments and is of historical interest, but I doubt that it’ll stand the test of time. (One of the 1001 books? I think not.) Give it another decade or so and people won’t even know what those references are meant to be about.

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Comment by Rod Lott
2011-07-11 08:48:19

Holger, you bring up an excellent point: The book is very much of-the-now. I haven’t read it since its publication, and likely never will, but I suspect strongly it will be remembered for its controversy than for any literary merit.

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Comment by Patrick Sommers
2011-07-13 13:22:12

American Psycho was hilarious, witty, gross, and I loved every page of it. It makes me laugh that people can’t pick out the pure comedy in this work of literature.

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Comment by Matthew Mobley
2011-07-13 13:35:19

Though it’s not my favorite from the author, I enjoyed American Psycho, enough that I’ve read it twice. I’ve always considered the book to be better than the movie, simply because in the movie, it’s almost a given that it’s all in Bateman’s head, but in the book, you’re left still wondering whether or not the murders are real.

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Comment by Jason A.
2011-07-13 14:51:43

Have read American Psycho four times since the initial publication. Of course I was drawn in by the controversy, but found the book rather tedious the first time I read it. Gave it a second read since I felt like all I had done the first time around was survived through the gratuitous violence and I appreciated it much more. The third and fourth times I read it were more enjoyable, especially after seeing the film and having read BEE’s other books. The book is an excellent satire on consumerism and the male ego. If read from the point of view that all of it is in Patrick Bateman’s head, then the book is great!

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Comment by Perry
2011-07-13 14:54:30

It is not timeless work. It lived from its time. So it is only to remember. Like a party you had when you were young. That time will never come back.

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Comment by R
2011-07-14 08:37:24

Looks like someone discovered this article and sent out a call to defend the book.

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Comment by Slade Grayson
2011-07-14 14:48:14

For those of you who liked the book and read it more than once (really?), I recommend HELL’S DOCTOR by Lee Jordan.

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Comment by Mac Smullen
2011-07-14 22:04:36

I must say, I am shocked that among your contributors there was not one person who had something good to say about American Psycho, a book which I (and a great deal of the public) have found to be a BLISTERINGLY intelligent, hilarious and, yes, thoughtful satire of not only consumerism but modern malaise and the way we interact with one another, essentially how we . Obviously it is written in a more experimental style (the “endless name brands which are already outdated” are a very calculated excersize in controlled repetition, and there are very good reasons why they’re there, and must be read even though we all know they’re the boring bit; to not understand/appreciate those sections or the passages on HL and the News or Genesis is to not understand/appreciate the work), and the content is out there (torture porn is totally a subjective term and very easy to throw around. To suggest that the novel does not have the emotional content to back up these scenes would be a gross error, and if you’re labeling it just based on the fact that there are 1st person depictions of violence and rape then you’ve made an even more serious error in judging the book based upon your own morals and squeamishness) BUT these are the things that really hammer the POINTS of American Psycho home for me, and I hope you all give it another shot.

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Comment by Rod Lott
2011-07-14 22:08:26

Not one? Perhaps you skipped over where I said I enjoyed it.

Comment by Allan
2011-07-15 00:26:37

In my defense, I didn’t say anything bad about it either.

 
 
Comment by Slade Grayson
2011-07-15 01:35:44

“Torture porn” is subjective, but “BLISTERINGLY intelligent” isn’t?
I think most of us on this site approach our reviews from a subjective standpoint, which is what makes them readable and enjoyable. And it’s all a matter of opinion: some of the contributors hated the book, some liked it, and some have never read it. Who’s right? Well…all of us.
I thought A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES was a pile of crap, yet the book won the Pulitzer and has been in print for 30 years. Does that mean my opinion is wrong? No, ’cause it’s just my opinion. And everyone is welcome to it.

 
 
Comment by R
2011-07-15 11:32:34

I didn’t read the book, but I can see it has the potential to have a very profound effect on my life. Because from this moment on, I vow to use the word “blisteringly” as often as possible. There’s just something blisteringly awesome about it.

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Comment by Mac Smullen
2011-07-15 12:24:44

haha maybe i was a bit hasty in rushing to its defense! Rod, you DID in fact enjoy it, but that’s pretty much all you said in it’s favor other than the fact that it features a memorable (and disturbing!) habitrail scene, and Allan touche.

Clearly the blistering intelligence of the novel is subjective (although once one decides to use the word blisteringly there’s a snowball effect), as is any section of my little “review” and most bits of anyone’s review. I get the fact that good reviews are subjective, editorial. But I believe the whole “torture porn” phraseology which we’re so ready to throw around now, since we’re turned so smart after “Hostel” and “Saw” came out or something, is an almost disturbing simplification that allows people to vilify anything that involves sex and violence. I don’t have a problem with people’s morals or squeamishness preventing them from reading something solely based on the “R (or X) Rated” content of the book (and believe me, I’m the first to bash on Saw), but to point to something and call it torture porn is to say it is filth, not only not worthy of being read, but poisonous. It doesn’t mean “Oh, this book was just a bit too violent for me, I prefer not to think about blood and rape when I can avoid it, not for me, thanks”. “Torture Porn” means that you believe that either the writer or the reader is somehow getting off on some sado-sexual thrill, reading along with wide eyes and drool dribbling. Anyone who was not as shaken by it is left to wonder, “wait, this is porn? I like torture porn??” And it isn’t, it’s literature, not for masturbatory purposes. I personally would rather label something as blisteringly intelligent (as subjective as it might be) than torture porn, because with the first, the worst that can happen is somebody picks up the book.

Anyway the book can be boring as hell, violent as hell, sexist as hell, etc. but that’s all part of the points and charm of it once you’re able to get over and wrap your mind around the fact that it’s being narrated from the perspective of a very disturbed person. You don’t have to share Patrick Bateman’s opinions to enjoy the book. Ellis is a definite downer, but he’s worth checking out.

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Comment by Allan
2011-07-15 14:41:40

I tend to resent the “Torture Porn” label myself, especially when it’s aimed at works that clearly have a point to make. The problem I think is that the violence in these works do tend to attract unsavoury audiences who are in fact looking to get off on works of extreme gore and violence. (I always think of Roger Ebert’s review of I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE, where he blames the filmmaker for the loutishness of the neanderthals he unfortunately saw the film with.)

In the case of Ellis’ AMERICAN PSYCHO, I personally responded much more strongly to the obvious satire of 80s yuppie soullessness than I did the graphic murder set pieces. Truthfully, I found them so over-the-top and ridiculous that they went beyond the realm of frightening or offensive and straight into that of absurd surrealism. They were like that scene in Herschel Gordon Lewis’s THE GORE GORE GIRLS, where a woman has her nipples cut off and normal milk spills out of one and chocolate milk spills out of the other. Chances were that if you were offended by them, you kinda missed the point, which is fine so long as you don’t try and make other people feel terrible because they understood what Ellis was doing.

 
Comment by Slade Grayson
2011-07-16 18:14:59

Mac: thanks for introducing R to a new word.

 
 
Comment by Slade Grayson
2011-07-17 10:25:39

Been thinking about this. “Torture porn.” I agree that label is misused a lot. But I don’t believe I misused it.
I’m not easily offended or disgusted by fiction, so I don’t call something torture porn because my sensibilities are offended, rather, torture porn is what I use to describe scenes of excessive violence or gore that have no point. If a writer or filmmaker shows graphic or extreme violence, and the only reason for it is simply to shock the reader or audience, I think it is clearly a manipulation. Case in point:
The first SAW movie is not torture porn. The violence is used to advance the characters and story. It’s all to show what the characters will or won’t do to survive, and to get the audience to question themselves: Could I do that if it meant saving myself or my family? It’s not violence for the sake of violence.
The movie HOSTEL is torture porn. Scene after scene of gore is heaped upon the audience. And for what purpose? We’ve already gotten the point of the story. Once the audience is privy to the “big reveal,” and the horrible truth about what has happened to the characters, is there a point to the violence shown thereafter? Is there a reason why we are shown graphic scene after scene of maiming and mutilation – scenes that go on for far too long? No. It’s there for shock value. It’s there to make the audience squirm, or nauseous, or laugh uncomfortably, or in the case of a few disturbed individuals – appeal to their basest desires.
I’m reminded of the scene in THE EXORCIST when Regan is stabbing herself in the crotch with a crucifix. A shocking scene for the time, but tame by today’s standards. The scene was designed to show the audience that the other characters now knew that the girl was not suffering from a mental illness; she was possesses by something dark and evil. That’s how I approach all scenes in movies and books: Is there a point to this?
The murder and torture scenes in AMERICAN PSYCHO are over the top and certainly without a point to them. I’ve heard the argument that Ellis was immersing the reader into the mind of a disturbed individual. For those people who stand behind that reasoning, I ask that you read ( if you haven’t already) THE KILLER INSIDE ME by Jim Thompson. If there’s a better character study of a disturbed person, I haven’t read it. And there’s violence, to be sure, brutal and unforgiving violence. But Thompson is able to get his point across without resorting to gross-out extremes.
Early on in AMERICAN PSYCHO, the reader becomes aware that Bateman is severely disturbed. So what is the point of the later murder/torture scenes? To hammer it home? If anyone can logically describe the point of any one of the scenes of violence in AP and use only what the author has given you in the book, I would like to hear it. But honestly, most people who defend the book usually point to the parody of 80’s consumerism, which (in my opinion) is an interesting part of the book, but even that becomes eye-rollingly tedious after a while.
I asked a Lit. Professor once what, in his opinion, was the greatest novel ever written. He answered, ULYSSES by James Joyce. I wanted to know why that particular book. He then admitted that he had never read it. He cited it as a great novel because critics and scholars all cite it as a great novel.
So if anyone can give me an example of what the author was conveying in, say, the eye gouging scene, the stabbing of the child, the rat inside the woman, etc., and not fall back on the standard responses of “80’s satire,” or “first person narrative of a disturbed mind,” I’d like to hear it. In the meantime, don’t hand me a collection of cocaine-fueled violent fantasies and tell me it’s great writing.
And no one should be offended by this because as I said, it’s just my opinion. But in my opinion, the movie adaptation does a far better job of conveying everything that the defenders of the book claim Ellis was saying in AP.

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Comment by Slade Grayson
2011-07-17 11:17:56

Fifth paragraph: “possessed” not “possesses.”

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Comment by Mac Smullen
2011-11-17 02:04:38

Slade,

I must return to once again defend the book. I’ll try to be concise.

The casual dismissing of the notion that we are being immersed in a disturbed mind might be a little too casual. I don’t necessarily feel that a story told in a non-traditional way needs to defend itself on the level that you seem to require (defense for specific scenes like the eye gouging?) Thompson’s Killer Inside Me is a way more rigidly plotted piece of work. Are there brutal scenes of violence in TKIM, yes; is there an immersive first person narration by a psychopathic protagonist, yes; but I wouldn’t compare the two structurally, they’re two totally different beasts in that department. Ellis’s book is not as concerned with the notion of the tight plot, instead choosing to wander, meander even, through our protagonist’s mind. It’s a big decision, and a hard sell obviously, but I personally think it distinguishes it from other grisly pulp, and rewards the reader upon multiple reads. I have always found the structure of American Psycho (and all of Ellis’s books for that matter, other than Glamorama) to be one of it’s strongest points. The shift in tone of the book is not as non-sensical as you make it out to be. We begin with a large chunk of non-psycho (so to speak) consumer-babble, and are introduced to Bateman’s psychosis via out-of-the-blue and disconcertingly-placed notions. Yes, we learn of his murderous ways early in the book, and sure those scenes are graphic, but that doesn’t take away from the “point” or impact of the later scenes of murder. The reader DOES in fact see the mask of sanity slowly slipping completely off of Bateman (to semi-quote the novel itself), a fact not diminished by the early violence or wandering plot (lack there-of). We’re looking at a person who was insane (or was he???) from the get-go. The “unreliable-narrator” nature of Bateman’s narrative is fantastic, how he (patrick) begins to let the reader in deeper and deeper into his dark side (whether it is only horrible fantasy or not) is in fact very subtle! Sure we find out by page, what, 40(?) that Bateman will murder a bum on the street, but he’s utterly in control of his life. It builds to a fever-pitch awesomely, where bateman is smearing dead-hooker brains all over his apartment and making meatloaf out of dead bodies literally at the same time as paid maids are casually mentioned cleaning up the place, oblivious to it all. There’s that great section where he’s running around manhattan sweating through his suit, screaming at people and completely out of his former control. He brings guns to the gym, kills that kid at the zoo in broad daylight; obviously there’s the point (perhaps the closest thing to a climax) where the narration becomes 3rd person, patrick engages in a firefight with the NYPD, blows up cars, is chased by a helicopter and ESCAPES unscathed and unidentified, only to have his mask slip off completely and confess to his lawyer a series of (possibly fantasy-based) crimes even more expansive than we’ve seen.
Citing The Excorcist is not valid to me, as the two pieces are virtually incomparable unless you’re just talking about work that is graphic. Only 40 years down the line from the novel’s publication we’re saying a girl stabbing herself in the And again, The Exorcist is a piece of work where a “plotline” is wayy more important. Both Thompson’s and Blatty’s books are WAY more traditionally plotted.
If you’re dismissing the novel because you view it as purely and simply “cocaine-fueled violent fantasies” you may be limiting yourself. Why exactly do cocaine-fueled violent fantasies NOT qualify in your mind? I think it should be pretty clear that the book is also a meditation on Fantasy, playing off of Bateman’s and the reader’s and yes probably Ellis’s fantasy. It reasons that a meditation on perception, expectations, fantasy, and insecurity would use these tools.

turns out i couldn’t be as concise as initially desired.

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Comment by Mac Smullen
2011-11-17 03:26:19

pardon the grammatical errors, it’s late.

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Comment by Mac Smullen
2011-11-17 03:33:41

second paragraph: Citing The Excorcist is not valid to me, as the two pieces are virtually incomparable unless you’re just talking about work that is graphic. Only 40 years down the line from the novel’s publication we’re saying a girl stabbing herself in the genitals is “tame by today’s standards”; we’re only 20 years removed from American Psycho, who knows what we’ll be able to get out of the novel when we’re collectively over the shock of it all.

again, it’s late.

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Comment by Slade Grayson
2011-11-17 16:40:50

Mac: You are certainly passionate about this book. I like that.
You have read AP multiple times, so you are qualified to defend it. I read it once 20 years ago, and have no intention to revisit it. Not that I find it beneath me to do so, it’s just that I have a stack of books on my shelf that I need to read to review for this site, and another stack of books that I purchased to read for my own pleasure. Unfortunately, there are not enough hours in the day for me to read everything I want to read, although I do have a recurring fantasy where I find a job that enables me to do just that. (Paid to read books. Can you imagine?)
My dislike is based on my first (and only) reading two decades ago. If I were to read it again today, well, I don’t know what my opinion would be. Somehow, I don’t think it would change…but you never know.
You make many good points. The fact that you came back months later to further argue your opinion is impressive and is probably the biggest point about this book: You either love it or hate it, and nothing anyone says will change your mind.

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Comment by Slade Grayson
2011-11-17 16:50:19

“smearing dead-hooker brains all over his apartment”
Thanks, Mac. That image is now stuck in my head.

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Comment by Mac Smullen
2011-11-17 18:21:38

Well put. I do not expect you to revisit the novel any time soon, but perhaps one day when you’re bored and feeling like being disturbed, give it another shot.

We shall agree to disagree
…until next time!

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