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24 February 2008

Because I Want to Fit In

I just bought a new batch of books on three-for-two but all are non-fiction and I was in the mood for something that wasn't real this weekend and so plumped for a re-reading of some Bret Easton Ellis - American Psycho, which has always been my favourite book of his. I saw the film first - on the red eye back from NYC, summer 2000, on a holiday that included eating at the same Philly restaurant as Dubya (the Republican delegates were in town) and spotting Jacko, who had a house in the same sleepy, outer-Philadelphia suburb as our family friends.

I really enjoyed the film, anyway, not least because of the delectable Christian Bale or because I really liked the New Order song on the soundtrack or indeed the trashy eighties feel about the whole movie. I mean, yes, Patrick Bateman (Bale's eponymous character) is a psycho but he's a fucking hilarious psycho with great taste in music and with an attention to his daily health-and-beauty routine that would make even Monsieur Exquisite feel inadequate. Yes, it's just another film about the American Dream gone wrong, about the grimy underside of the slick lifestyle of the yuppie, '80s i-bankers - in some ways, like Bonfire of the Vanities, but unlike the latter, American Psycho wasn't totally butchered, so to speak, in its transition to the big screen. Hedonism! Glamour! Coke! Depravity! w00t! Raise your hand if you [heart] the eighties!

And the book? Well, Easton Ellis scores major brownie points for evoking Dante in the opening lines: "Abandon all hope ye who enter here is scrawled in blood red lettering on the side of the Chemical Bank near the corner of Eleventh and First." Just in case you imagined you were entering a vision of New York that was anything less than hellish or infernal in its own way, even if, on the surface, it seems pretty far from this. A lot of recent young adult books are criticised by the constant product placements that echo throughout the lines of the stories. This is hardly a new trick and somehow, American Pyscho would be less evocative as a description of the yuppie lifestyle gone nuts without the mentions of the bars, the technology (the now-dated "Panasonic wallet-sized cordless portable folding Easa-phone"), the brands of the suits Bateman wears or the names of the musicians he loves. Brands make a man - or, at least, they make a yuppie.

Of course, the sex and the violence is pretty graphic too but I was never really shocked by any of this - in the movie, the classical music playing in the background while he makes witty comments as he attacks a girl with a chainsaw makes the brutality almost comic although I don't have this excuse when reading the book. The satire seeps out of every paragraph though; I guess Bateman is just too familiar and too charming and funny to really hate for what he does. A lot of the text consists of reported speech of the utterly dull conversations Bateman is forced to have, with colleagues, friends and women, where his detachment from his insipid, yuppie lifestyle rings out in his comical additions to the chatter. He plays along, adding comments like,

"But don't you think water is the best fluid replacer since it enters the bloodstream faster than any other liquid?" I can't help but add, "Buddy?"

to a conversation on the joys of mineral water (!) in between reliving his latest gory fantasies. Perhaps we even sympathise because we have all been part of tiresome conversations and have used fantasy as a means of escape. I love the way that he'll say, "Ask me a question" and the other character will inevitably ask what he does ("ask me a question" being potentially a tricky thing to answer without resorting to the default ("what do you do?" (American) or "where do you live?" (UK)) and he'll just reply, "I'm into... well murders and executions mostly."

After reading American Psycho, I read everything else by Easton Ellis that I could get my hands on. The Rules of Attraction was probably my favourite of the others. It's like AP for the younger set and even features Patrick Bateman's younger brother Sean, along with all his buddies at a "New England liberal arts college" (similar to the one Easton Ellis himself attended). Rules, like AP, is written as a long stream of consciousness that flicks between the central characters almost at random, and even starts halfway through the monologue of these characters.

Like Patrick Bateman, the characters in Rules are all thoroughly bored by their very existence and try to take off some of the edge of their nihilism by getting wasted and stoned and attending "dressed to get screwed parties." They hurt and date rape and betray and use one another. They switch partners more often than underwear. None of them is particularly likeable - Lauren is some sort of female protagonist (as far as there is one) but has no particular problem with cheating on her boyfriend (who is travelling in Europe) with a different guy each week, although agonises extensively afterwards; unbeknownst to her, Victor, The Boyfriend, is hardly being loyal on his travels and he doesn't even have the heart to feel guilty. Rich, spoiled brats, drug-dealers, virgins, cheaters, liars, heartless bastards, suicides - this book sure does have it all.

I remember when the film of Rules came out: half of my friends didn't want to go and see it because they were convinced that they would be disturbed by it (not least because Monsieur E and I had warned them that yes, there may well be some rape and some not-so-sympathetic characters and some drugs. I'm probably not the best judge of disturbing films, given that I sat, unmoved, through A History of Violence, the graphic nature of its content passing me right by, which I guess proves the point of that film - that we are so accustomed to violence that nothing can shock us any more; not even Aragorn blowing someone's brains out - literally.

The film was pretty good - not as good an adaptation as that of AP but then it's not as good a book. I guess my main problem was that Sean Bateman, the cold, cruel cynic at the centre of this twisted microcosm, is played by Dawson Leery and so I could never take him seriously as the vicious bastard who tells Lauren, "I only had sex with her because I'm in love with you" or cuttingly puts down bisexual Paul (who is in "love" with him) with the line, "No one ever ever knows anyone. You're not ever gonna know me. You will never know me," although he is not to know that this will come back to haunt him later on in the film (and the book) when his own impassive words are turned against him to achieve great pathos in a film otherwise filled with ambivalence.

Nothing much really happens - it is all just a series of monologues describing events that aren't really part of any real-world timeline, through the points of view of the various characters, names and brands dropped liberally into the dialogue. The book ends, as it began - mid-sentence and with the characters continuing to make the same mistakes, never learning anything, still having the same old arguments. None of them realises that hurting other people doesn't make them feel any better about their own empty lives. None of them become more sympathetic, although by the end, there is some feeling that we at least know them a little better and can understand why they are all so fucked up, in their own ways.

Easton Ellis never tries to justify their actions in the same way he doesn't justify Patrick Bateman's in AP, other than to say - J'accuse! Society did it! Patrick himself says, "Hey! I'm a child of divorce; give me a break!" but in a knowing way, realising that this is no excuse or, at least, it is a now well-worn excuse - an easy get-out clause. Given how autobiographical Rules is supposed to be, perhaps this is entirely sensible. Both books, though, are too darkly comic and satirical to be very bleak and that is why they work so well.

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