By Bret Easton Ellis
Vintage. 399 pp. Paperback, $11
No, there are no surprises in "American Psycho." The novel that Simon and Schuster belatedly rejected last fall on grounds of "taste" turns out upon opportunistic publication by Vintage to be exactly what all the rumors had indicated: a contemptible piece of pornography, the literary equivalent of a snuff flick. Its concluding 150 pages can only be described as repulsive, a bloodbath serving no purpose save that of morbidity, titillation and sensation; "American Psycho" is a loathsome book.
It is also, and in the end this matters most, a bad book. It demonstrates conclusively that although the career of Bret Easton Ellis may be on the rise in terms of notoriety and remuneration, in literary terms it is a burnout case. Whatever latent talent some of us discerned in his first novel, "Less Than Zero," took its leave in "The Rules of Attraction" and now is shown by "American Psycho" to be beyond hope of recovery.
There is within it not a single redeeming quality. Ellis is capable of putting together a competent sentence and his ear for conversation is not entirely insensitive, but his prose here is flat and his dialogue is self-indulgently pointless, not to mention interminable. His "style," if that is the word for it, consists primarily of endless recitations of brand names as well as unrelated clauses connected in a wearying succession of non sequiturs. When the brand names and the non sequiturs meet in a single sentence, as usually they do, the result can be numbing:
"It was cool this morning but seems warmer after I leave the office and I'm wearing a six-button double-breasted chalk-striped suit by Ralph Lauren with a spread-collar pencil-striped Sea Island cotton shirt with French cuffs, also by Polo, and I remove the clothes, gratefully, in the air-conditioned locker room, then slip into a pair of crow-black cotton and Lycra shorts with a white waistband and side stripes and a cotton and Lycra tank top, both by Wilkes, which can be folded so tightly that I can actually carry them in my briefcase."
Ellis wants us to believe that passages such as this, of which the novel contains scores, are meant to underscore the blind, obsessive consumerism of its antiheroic narrator, Patrick Bateman, but in truth they are part of the author's own strategy of desperation; since he has nothing to say, he fills his pages with familiar brand names and inane chatter. Apart from Bateman, not a single one of his characters is interesting, distinctive or sympathetic; all dissolve into a blur of mere names that, like the brand names, are both interchangeable and indistinguishable.
This isn't to say that Bateman is interesting or sympathetic, only that he alone among the members of this large cast is recognizable; at least he has an identity, a claim that can be made for none of the men with whom he exchanges macho Wall Street chatter or the women whom he violates and murders. If this is intended to be a metaphor for the emptiness of all these people, so be it; what Ellis fails to understand is that the book is every bit as empty and infantile as they are.
Again, he would have us believe otherwise. "American Psycho" is loaded with clumsy devices designed to underscore the Major Themes with which it allegedly is preoccupied. "I AM HUNGRY AND HOMELESS PLEASE HELP ME": So reads the "sloppy cardboard sign" held by a homeless man, one of many who crop up periodically to serve in unimaginative contrast to Bateman and his hedonistic friends. Similarly, the hit Broadway show "Les Miserables" is a recurrent leitmotif designed to serve parallel purposes: "A torn playbill from 'Les Miserables' tumbles down the cracked, urine-stained sidewalk," thus reminding us that the unfortunate people of any city's streets are mere objects of amusement and exploitation for the privileged few.
Ellis wants to have it both ways: to join the reader in looking down his nose at these shallow young habitues of New York's cafe society while at the same time exploiting prurient interest in their doings. To put it as charitably as possible, the sneer is considerably less persuasive than the prurience; "American Psycho" is a surpassingly cynical novel, a rip-off of territory already claimed by Tom Wolfe in "The Bonfire of the Vanities" and by the New York tabloids in their coverage of Robert Chambers and the preppy murder case.
As to Bateman's murders, the first woman victim meets her fate on Page 245. She has been preceded by one homeless man, a Wall Street competitor of Bateman's and a couple of dogs; many other women follow, as well as a 5-year-old boy whom Bateman executes on a whim during a visit to the zoo. All of these encounters are described in thoroughly gratuitous detail and with what gives every evidence of being a fair amount of relish; Ellis seems to have enjoyed his labors every bit as much as Bateman does his murders, decapitations, disembowelments and other amusements.
All of which are meant to be metaphors for what the book's jacket copy sententiously calls "the insanity of violence in our time or any other," but probably not even Bret Easton Ellis really believes that. Beneath its very thin veneer of thematic posturing "American Psycho" is pure trash, as scummy and mean as anything it depicts: a dirty book by a dirty writer. Of course Ellis has every right to write it, and Vintage every right to publish it. But the rest of us have every right not to read it; as one who did so out of duty, and who feels thoroughly soiled by the experience, I can only urge -- no, pray -- that everyone else refuse to do so by choice.