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Halloween Book Recommendation: American Pscyho

Most of you out there have probably already seen the film American Psycho (2000); however, if you liked it I would highly recommend reading the book, by Bret Easton Ellis (1991).

Brief Synopsis: A young Manhattan business man appears to have everything: money, good looks, a good job, a beautiful girlfriend. However, his obsessive attempts to wear the right clothes, go to the right restaurants, have the right opinions, produce in him -- instead of satisfaction -- a deep frustration that turns into violence and he becomes a serial killer, while maintaining a perfect facade of sanity to his friends and associates...in fact, the facade is so perfect that by the end of the book there is a substantial question as to whether or not he actually committed any of the murders at all.

Review: The main character, Patrick Bateman, is so hilariously and impossibly superficial that he's almost like a robot; he obsessively catalogs and describes in detail the designer of every article of clothing that each of his associates is wearing, all the time. Furthermore, he seems in almost constant competition with them over things such as who can get a table at which restaurant, who has read the latest review of such-and-such a musical, etc. It's no wonder all this makes him insane...

However, far from being a stark-raving lunatic, the thing that makes Bateman such a funny character (and indeed, this is a very comical book) is how utterly normal he tries to be, while committing the most grisly crimes in his spare time. He makes a few brushes with what normal people might call "real emotion" but they make him so uncomfortable that he immediately shies away from any kind of genuine, healthy human experience that doesn't involve something he can catalog or use to his advantage in his on-going competition for approval by his peers. Yet somehow he manages to be a sympathetic character. That's the genius of this story.

Vs. the Movie: Now, the funny thing is, unlike in most situations, the film is actually a really great representation of the book. So great that I'm going to go ahead and make the statement that you don't even need to go back and read the book.

That said, the book is enormously entertaining and, for me, almost impossible to put down. In the book, the main character is much more comical than in the film -- even as some of his crimes are described in such detail that I had to put the book aside for a few moments at a time. Indeed, in the novel Bateman is so unselfconsciously obsessed with killing that he applies an insanely comical level of planning and creativity to his brutal crimes, mostly against women. This is something you don't really get in the movie and it's the kind of stuff that really makes a round character rather than just the sort of one-dimensional celluloid version that you get on screen.

Ultimately: I love New York and I love the 80s. I also love twisted, unreliable, first person picaresque type narratives like this. Furthermore there is something incredibly fascinating about the two extremes that reside within this character and his feeble attempts to reconcile them into the behavior of a normal human being, while acting out his ridiculously cruel and violent acts on people, with seemingly no sense of remorse.

I'd have liked to see Ellis delve a bit more deeply into the character's attempts to understand himself. But, on the other hand, that's also what makes this book resonate in the end; there is no neat ending. The character does not ever feel remorse. Nothing gets solved. He does not change. Furthermore, we're not even certain if he actually committed the crimes or not and whether was all in his head.


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