American Psycho

A note: since I read this book on my phone, I’m not going to list page numbers.

American Psycho is the dullest book I’ve read in years. This novel is long and it is boring and it repeats itself. We get the same jokes, ad nauseum (the characters all look and dress alike and mistake each other for other people) and we are subjected to an endless cycle of lunches, dinner parties, workouts, grooming tips and murder fantasies. Bateman’s pretend killings are brutal, but since they’re usually people we’ve met five pages ago it’s hard to care. Yes, the scenes are tough to read, but what’s the point?

Wait a minute…did I just say ‘Bateman’s pretend killings?’ Yes, the murders are all in Bateman’s head. No, I won’t argue the point, since what little plot American Psycho possesses occurs in the last third of the book and is all about whether Bateman is an actual killer. My read is that it’s not real, so that’s what I’m going with. At one point Bateman even says – ‘a pang of nausea I’m unable to stifle washes warmly over me, but since I’m really dreaming all this I’m able to ask…’ (during the lunch with Bethany chapter).

The fact that the characters have trouble telling each other apart can be viewed as satire, but it can also mean that Bateman has trouble telling them apart because it’s hard to keep track of that many people in your head. Bateman’s murder fantasies all highlight how strong he is and how weak and pathetic his quarry is – I was struck by how his Homeless Victim character is always hungry and crying.

Bateman even repeats a few of his fantasies, adding vicious flourishes – the first time he does The Man and His Dog Fantasy he mutilates Al and breaks his dog’s legs. The next time we see this fantasy he’s added a bunch of details – the dog is a Shar Pei and the dog’s owner wants to know if Bateman is a model before Bateman kills them. We have the scene where Bateman is taken aback by meeting the woman he’s acquainted with at the Chinese laundromat where he brings his bloody sheets. He fleshes out this scene later in the book when he’s taken aback by meeting Bethany, an ex-girlfriend, at a club. This segues into a new fantasy, Killing the Ex-Girlfriend. Ellis is a writer, so he’s familiar with the process of recycling material and fleshing out a scene.

The Bethany scene is when I realized I was reading about the fantasies of a sad man. Bateman has lunch with her in a public place, he makes a scene (‘do you have a non-smoking section?’), they get drunk, she reads his offensive poem loud enough for others to hear and then they go back to his apartment where he kills her. If we are talking about real life, Bateman would then be indicted by a grand jury. The tabloids would have a field day. Since this is a sex/murder fantasy nothing happens.

The timeline of American Psycho– or lack thereof – drove me nuts. I did have a frame of reference because I went to that U2 concert at Brendan Byrne arena. It was in May or early June 1987, and the fact that all the characters are stressed out about being in New Jersey is awesome. Anyway: the timeline skips all over the place. I thought about finding an episode guide to The Patty Winters Show online to try to nail down the dates, but apparently The Patty Winters Show doesn’t exist. My mistake; I was thinking about The Morton Downey Jr. Show, which I’m sure had an episode about dwarf-tossing.

Here are my positives: the dialogue is good. There are a few funny parts in this book, with the standout being the scene with the business cards. American Psycho portrays the sexism, racism, homophobia and misogyny that existed in the tri-state area in the late 1980’s very well. I know, because I lived there. Not everyone at that time was like Bateman and his friends, but the attitudes and conversations depicted in this book were more common than you might think.

And then there’s the plot. American Psycho doesn’t have a plot and at 400-plus pages is way too long for its subject matter, the definitive portrait of a man who has graphic sexual fantasies about killing his ex-girlfriend with a nail gun. Bateman describes himself as a void, and that’s pretty accurate. Everything he knows he’s read in a magazine. His eloquence about the band Genesis reads like something you’d find in a Rolling Stone article. Post Peter Gabriel Genesis is a joke of a band – even in the 80’s they were viewed as something of a punchline. Bateman also mentions Mike and the Mechanics. Anyone remember them? By the way, Phil Collins appeared in a Miami Vice episode that had no plot, just like American Psycho!

I figured out that this book was supposed to be satire when Bateman makes his speech about American interests and priorities at the sushi dinner party, so I suppose you could view American Psycho as a satire of the mores and attitudes of this country’s ruling class. You say you don’t think this country has a ruling class? Hahahaha. But again, what’s the point? The most horrifying thing about American Psycho is the characters’ attitudes towards anyone who isn’t a straight rich white male, and the book gets so caught up in porn and cannibalism and necrophilia that this point – which I’m not sure was intentional on the author’s part – gets buried in a sea of trash. And you want to have a point, don’t you? I mean, is this the hill you want to make your stand and possibly die on?

To quote Jack Skellington: What does it mean? What does it mean?

 

Psycho

I didn’t want to read Psycho. Maybe it’s because I’ve seen the Hitchcock movie, which has thoroughly eclipsed the book, about a hundred times. Or maybe it’s because I’ve never been a fan of Robert Bloch’s writing. I recall reading a short story Bloch wrote when I was just a kid. A woman has an affair and runs away with another man. She makes a big deal about the fact that she’s never celebrated Christmas. At the story’s end her ex-husband comes out of the living room holding a big machete and says – “I have granted her dearest wish. She is decorating the Christmas tree.”

You know, over the years I’ve read and forgotten a lot of crap, but that line has stuck with me. Unfortunately, it didn’t exactly instill a burning desire to leap out of my armchair and read all of Bloch’s material. In fact, it had the opposite effect.

And then I read Psycho. Did I like the book or not? That would be yes. Bloch mentions his source material – Eddie Gein – but makes it palatable to his audience. Instead of wearing his victim’s skin, Norman wears her clothes. Although Norman is an occultist kook, there is nothing supernatural about Psycho. The only possible supernatural element is when Norman reads The Realm of the Incas (available on Amazon for $888.63!) in the first chapter. We learn that the Incas used their enemies’ flayed skins as a drum, and this scene foreshadows the auditory element to Norman’s transformations.  Whenever Mother takes over, there is the sound of drumming – the thrumming of the shower, Arbogast knocking at the front door and the thunderstorm. Nice writing, there!

Of course, Bloch writing style has its weaknesses. He is a lover of bad puns and his descriptions are sloppy (the two might be related). Bloch tells us – ‘it was the knife that, a moment later, cut off her scream. And her head’ – but later in the book, Mary’s head is still attached to her shoulders. His scene transitions are awful. Prime example: near the book’s end Sam and the sheriff are ascending the hill to Norman’s house when they hear Lila scream, and Sam has to use his heretofore unmentioned teleportation powers to teleport into the basement in time to stop Norman from killing his would-be beau.

The Hitchcock movie made a number of changes from the book, and most of those changes are for the better. Norman isn’t forty years old. When we learn of Norman’s taxidermy hobby we see a stuffed owl, not a squirrel, which makes sense since Mary’s last name is Crane. Mary herself is portrayed as a nice person who’s made a dumb mistake, and her dinner with Norman is actually kind of touching.

I will note that I didn’t like any of the characters in this book except for Lila. Norman is Psycho’s protagonist, but he’s too blatantly misogynistic to be sympathetic. Sam is – well, more on Sam later. Bloch gets away with this because Psycho is a short book that moves fast and presumably keeps the reader guessing. Well, it didn’t keep me guessing but that’s not Bloch’s fault. I can’t talk about the effectiveness of the book’s biggest plot twist because I’ve seen the movie too many times.

Speaking of predictable, let’s talk about Sam. Oh, Sam. Lila may seem headstrong, but remember she’s saddled with Sam. When Norman reveals that he’s batshit crazy and starts talking about how he dug up mother from the grave Sam just sits there nodding, and I was like DO SOMETHING JACKASS! One of my favorite parts of Psycho is when Lila turns Sam down cold. Gee, why wouldn’t she want to marry her dead sister’s fiancée, move into his basement apartment and share the joys of poverty?

I adored the psychological gobbledygook at the book’s end, where Sam explains to Lila why Norman is batshit crazy. Since Lila is the next-of-kin the authorities should have told her, but societal mores were different back then. Perhaps they were afraid Lila would swoon, although she is one of the two characters in Psycho who shows any grit. The second character is of course Norman’s mother, who singlehandedly runs a small business despite being saddled by an ungrateful failure of a son. She’s sadly missing from the pages of Bloch’s Psycho 2, which  features Norman Bates dressed up as a nun. But that’s another blog post…