At the same time as I’ve been reading all these romance novels, I’ve been listening to AMERICAN PSYCHO

american-psycho

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.

 

Wrap-Up Season 2011: Predictably Good Books, Part Two

The Informers by Bret Easton Ellis – This fall I visited LA for the first time in my adult life, and found myself utterly entranced by the place. Before this year, LA had never really existed for me as a distinct place, where people lived…a place where I could go. If I thought of it at all, I thought of it as looking a little like the suburbs of San Jose (but, like, a little bigger). But it is not like that at all. It’s a diffuse, unnavigable mega-city. It’s what Dhaka or New Delhi would look like if they were first world cities. Not only does its sheer size and scale make it much different from anything else in America, it’s also a place that’s been systematically perverted by the influence of the entertainment industry, which shows even in extremely superficial ways (like how attractive everyone in LA is). The Informers is a fix-up collection by Bret Easton Ellis where he briefly and mechanically revisits all of his normal Ellisian tropes: bisexuality, nihilism, drug use, pop music, late-night diners, and sadistic murders. I think the plotlessness and lack of cohesion springing from the format (a fix-up is a collection of loosely linked short stories) actually make the work a lot more interesting, because it means that the only thing to focus on is the scenery.

Something Happened by Joseph Heller – I really liked Catch-22, when I finally got around to reading it last year. This book is nothing like Catch-22. For starters, it’s not really very funny. It’s a book that’s hard to describe. It’s a 1950s businessman (basically Don Draper) monologuing for 200,000 words about his life (how he’s driven to cheat on his wife, how his daughter hates him, how he’s worried that his son is growing to grow up and lose his vitality). The reminisces are not chronological and none of the book takes place in scene, except for short snippets of reported dialogue. The narration is manic and insane. It sounds like a man ranting to you while under the influence of heavy doses of amphetamines. But it’s also hypnotic. It’s a man trying his best (and failing) to gain some understanding of his own life.

Dropsie Avenue by Will Eisner – A pretty awesome graphic novel covering two hundred or so years in the life of a street in the Bronx. You see ethnic groups jockey with each other and then move on, giving way to the next group. You see the architecture and the zoning and the economics of the place change. In its portrayal of any given era and group it might be a little simplified (and sometimes seems to come close to stereotyping), but the epic sweep of the thing makes the book worthwhile.