If you want a good audiobook, you can’t go wrong with a first-person tale by a charismatic sociopath. For the last week I’ve been listening to Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, and while the book has been tough going (not just for its violence, but also for the monotonous banality of most of its conversations and interactions), I think it’s actually really good.
What’s startling to me about American Psycho is how much it’s not a parody. When I saw the film, starring Christian Bale (a film that’s remarkably true to the spirit of the book), I was in college, and I hadn’t yet experienced post-collegiate yuppie life. To me, all the talk about suits and restaurants and what’s the best paper for a business card–all of that seemed ludicrously dull. A parody of what adults talk about.
But it’s really not. How many brunches have I been to where we discussed exactly the same stuff as Patrick Bateman and his friends? The best restaurants? Fashion advice? I mean I once had a conversation with a friend about whether you could wear white sneakers for anything besides exercise. I’ve talked about undercuts and asymmetrical haircuts with many people. If you and I have talked in the last few months, I’ve probably mentioned my awesome beard barber or how all these thick-framed glasses don’t work for people with big dark brows like me. Many of Bateman’s conversations could be repeated word for word in my life without it seeming at all odd.
In fact, while googling him I read an interview with Bret Easton Ellis where he said as much: people read the book as this big satire of yuppie culture, but I was living this life; I was in New York, going to these places and talking about these things.
Also there’s murdering. Horrific sexual violence meted out to homeless people, women, his competitors, animals, and a random gay man on the street. It’s hard to know what to make of it. The violence is the most stylized part of the book, and it’s never clear whether it’s really happening. I’d say that it is, but that Bateman just lives in a slightly different universe from us: one with slightly different rules (but not that different, because, after all, serial killers do exist in our world).
What’s more interesting than his murdering are the times when he doesn’t kill. Bateman obviously murders to shore up his masculinity. He murders the girl who broke his heart in college. He murders the guy who has the big account at work. He murders a gay man who coos over how handsome Bateman is. But sometimes the tables get turned, and Bateman is forced to feel his own weakness and smallness. At one point he’s about to murder a coworker so he can date the coworker’s girlfriend, but the man instead makes a pass at him. Faced with the man’s longing for Bateman, he’s just…he can’t handle it. Can’t handle it for what it suggests about him. And to kill the guy would seem less like an act of power and more like an act of revenge: it’d seem like Bateman wants to kill him just to shut him up and stop him uttering the truth.
It’s very odd to read this book, whose portrayal of masculinity seems so modern and so spot on, at the same time as I’m reading all of these romance novels with their male heroes who are, well, not very real. These books are filled with men who are sensitive and giving and intuitive, without ever losing their strength
And yet…the two types are more similar than different. Even though they’re for women, romance novels don’t particularly challenge conventional notions of masculinity. Instead, they inculcate women with notions of masculinity that they’ll then use against men. Romance novels are (with some exceptions) just another piece of the cage.
More and more, masculinity seems to me such a diseased concept. What is there in it that’s good? Traditional masculinity inculcates notions of hard work and self-reliance. It’s about toughness and fortitude. But do modern men have any need for those things? Sometimes there is a pain that should not be born. It should either be shrugged off or somehow soothed. Masculinity just seems to lead men into these traps, where they walk into systems that hurt them, again and again, because the system knows they will not complain. And then the men become angry, and because they cannot show weakness to their peers, they direct that anger towards women, homosexuals, and other minorities. And where’s the sense in it? What benefit is this to anyone? Perhaps ‘real men’ won the west, but weren’t women there too? Didn’t women face the rattlesnakes and the droughts and the winters as well? Don’t women know how to suffer?
A lot of people read Bateman as a sociopath, and maybe he is. I’m not a psychologist. But there’s so much in his psychology that seems familiar rather than foreign, and it’s that familiarity which is the most chilling part of the book.