Ultraboring Ultraviolence

Who would have thought that reading about a murdering rapist bastard could be boring?  Disturbing, horrifying and terrifying, one would have thought – but boring?  That I never expected.

In Victoria, American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis is primly shrink-wrapped in bookstores, and bears a ‘Restricted’ rating: in Queensland, theoretically, you can’t buy it at all.  Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m hard-wired to desire ‘Restricted’ experiences, so when my eye chanced upon a copy of American Psycho about a year ago, complete with condom covering and admonishing sticker, I just couldn’t resist.  Rarely have I regretted my lack of self-control more.

Patrick Bateman, our narrator and the psycho in question, is a twenty-six year old Wall Street executive who whiles away his spare hours eating in swish restaurants, arguing over the finer points of male fashion and torturing and killing vulnerable people.  He’s obsessed with the intensity of his orgasms, and seems only to achieve satisfactory climaxes when violence and cruelty are involved.  And he’s a dull twat.

The first thing to know about American Psycho is that it has dated horribly.  Published in 1991, it reeks of its time because Ellis can’t get off the subject of consumer commodities.  Have a gander at this, for instance:

‘The painting overlooks a long white down-filled sofa and a thirty-inch digital TV set from Toshiba; it’s a high-contrast highly defined model plus it has a four-corner video stand with a high-tech tube combination from NEC with a picture-in-picture digital effects system (plus freeze-frame); the audio includes built-in MTS and a five-watt-per-channel on-board amp.  A Toshiba VCR sits in a glass case beneath the TV set; it’s a super-high-band Beta unit and has built-in editing function including a character generator with eight-page memory, a high-band record and playback, and three-week, eight-event timer… next to a desk and magazine rack by Gio Ponti, is a complete stereo system (CD player, tape deck, tuner, amplifier) by Sansui with six-foot Duntech Sovereign 2001 speakers in Brazilian rosewood…’

And on and on and on it goes.  Now, there’s nothing wrong, of course, with a novel being firmly of its time – but when the time is dictated by products, by specific pieces of soon-to-be-obsolescent technology (Bateman has a Beta VCR, for the love of Mike!) we’re on rather shaky ground: it’s hard not to feel contempt for the obsessive pride that is invested in hardware you wouldn’t buy at a garage sale.  F Scott Fitzgerald got around this problem in The Great Gatsby by focusing on the quality of products, not their brand-names.  When Gatsby shows Daisy his shirts, it’s the texture, the experience of handling expensive items that impresses us, and speaks down the generations with greater clarity.

Admittedly, Bateman’s inner life is composed exclusively of lists of products: things he owns that are better than yours.  But it’s hard to be impressed by a Beta VCR in the age of Blu-ray and iPods.

The idea that American Psycho is a satire, or a commentary on nineties America is patently absurd: it’s simply the story of a dullard who likes killing people.  A dullard so dull that the killing itself becomes boring: Bateman talks about slaughter in the same way he talks about Phil Collins and his stereo – interminable lists and vacuous boasting.

Critical reaction to American Psycho has tended to divide quite sharply between absolute condemnation and glowing praise.  Both of these positions seem, to me, to be equally incomprehensible: because the book simply isn’t interesting enough to justify either.

Norman Mailer said that American Psycho was the ‘first novel to come along in years that takes on deep and Dostoyevskian themes’.  It is always possible, of course, that Mailer saw deeper into the mists of fiction than most of us do, but I’m pretty sure he was talking through his hat.  Dostoyevsky wrote sublimely about murder and culpability (start with Crime and Punishment if you don’t know what I’m talking about) – but writing about murder doesn’t make you Dostoyevskian, much less Dostoyevsky.  I suspect that Mailer liked the toughness, the machismo of American Psycho.  After all, Mailer once got into a fight with – and got his head kicked in by – two sailors who insulted his poodle: ‘nobody calls my dog a queer’, explained Mailer to his wife when she asked why one of his eyeballs was hanging out of its socket.

Authors who stray into the realms of ultraviolence put themselves in dangerous territory: can we be certain they are making a point, or are they merely trying to shock?  And can we be certain they aren’t glorying in the violence they depict in such detail?  In other words, we want to know that there is some artistic or moral merit in what they produce.

It’s very hard to see the moral or artistic merit in American Psycho, for the very simple reason that it has none.  To show that rich folk in the nineties were self-obsessed fools is to show what can be said of at least some proportion of the well heeled throughout history.  To mimic a mind that speaks in endless lists requires no special ability as a writer.  To create a character who has no empathy is to create a character we cannot empathise with.

American Psycho doesn’t deserve its ‘Restricted’ status: you read more horrifying things in The One Hundred and Twenty Days of Sodom by the Marquis de Sade, and you can get that without a coating of gladwrap.

But the best argument for removing restrictions from the purchase of American Psycho is that fewer people would buy it.


4 responses to “Ultraboring Ultraviolence

  1. I had trouble reading this book, but I liked it overall.
    Until I read this post. Thanks for ruining American Psycho for me, Mish.

  2. My pleasure, Sam!

    Half the point of criticism is spoiling everyone’s fun…

  3. Haven’t read American Psycho (and it’s sooo tempting to classify that title as a tautology) but can’t resist commenting on your use of “sublime” and Fiodor Mikhailovich: surely he’s too edgy, too vicariously introspective, too deliberately unfinished in his explorations to deserve (suffer?) that epithet?

  4. Ah, mein Papa…

    Cheers for the comments.

    I think you’ll find, on closer inspection, that I said: ‘Dostoyevsky wrote sublimely’, not ‘Fiodor is sublime’. I couldn’t agree more about Fiodor’s character: reading about his interactions with his friends is almost as unsettling as the description of the murders, somehow.

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