'American Psycho' is not merely gruesome, it's also dull


"American Psycho," by Bret Easton Ellis, 399 pages, Vintage Contemporaries, $11.

AMERICAN Psycho," Bret Easton Ellis' slash and bash novel about a Wall Street serial killer, is this season's single most hated book.

Feminists condemned it. So did the Wall Street Journal reviewer. Simon and Schuster, its first publisher, got cold feet and recalled it because of faulty taste. Vintage bought it on the rebound and now seems to hope nobody will notice.

Both Gloria Steinem and Kate Millet are outraged. Norman Mailer, who has fought some of these battles himself, allows as to how the kid may be a contender someday but he needs a lot of work. Ellis reports to the New York Times that he's received 11 death threats.

I personally can't think of any reason anybody would read all 399 pages of "American Psycho" unless they were paid to, which I hasten to add I was, although that's hardly an excuse.

My impulse was to throw it away when Ellis' mass murderer, Patrick Bateman, killed a 5-year-old child at the penguin habitat in Central Park Zoo, a more or less incidental slaying in Bateman's offal, gore and blood besmirched catalog of horrors. I slogged on through the muck, driven by a perhaps perverted sense of duty.

One bad day after he's killed three or four people, including a cop, Bateman (echoes of Norman Bates, bait-man, Batman, who knows?) confesses to "thirty, forty, a hundred murders." He dismembers and decapitates many of his victims. Ellis describes in graphic and pornographic -- in the exact meaning of that word -- detail about a dozen and a half of the ugliest murders ever written down on paper in America.

Ellis' modest proposal is that we take Patrick Bateman not seriously, but satirically. He proposes "American Psycho" as a baroque black comedy that reveals the violent underside of a certain glossy, chic, Manhattan yuppieism of the 1980s, ruthless, amoral and sexually detached, the Me Generation gone bonkers.

Unfortunately Ellis is neither Jonathan Swift nor Evelyn Waugh. His biggest problem is that the first 125 pages or so of "American Psycho" are boring, and the next 274 repulsive. His characteristic prose style is: I am wearing . . . He is wearing . . . She is wearing . . . I am eating . . . He is eating . . . She is eating . . .

"I start by skinning Torri a little . . . I try using a power drill on her . . . I use a chain saw . . . etc., etc. etc."

Ellis escalates this stuff right off the planet. It's ugly, horrifying and hateful but essentially stupid.

Patrick Bateman is basically a twit, a disgusting, murderous, carrion-eating psychosexual sadist, but nonetheless a twit. He doesn't have a character or a personality, he has a wardrobe and a sound system.

He can't eat lunch with anyone without cataloging their clothes. He's like a butterfly collector recording new species in some Amazonian valley. For Bateman, clothes are indeed the man -- and the woman.

Bateman routinely wears a couple thousand dollars worth of clothes. He's often outfitted in Giorgio Armani or Valentino Couture or Garrick Anderson suits, $90 ties -- he quotes price tags a lot, $60 shorts from Comme les Garcons, $30 socks from Barney's, and "cap-toed leather slip-ons by Allen-Edmonds." There are thirty, forty, a hundred descriptions like that in "American Psycho."

He is the fashion arbiter for his friends: "You are prep perfection," one purrs.

And you are what you eat for Patrick Bateman, as long as it's some bizarre combination of exotic ingredients in the newest, chicest restaurant. Getting a good table in the hottest new restaurant is extremely important to Patrick Bateman. He hates his brother, Sean, because Sean can get the best table at a restaurant called Dorsia and Bateman can't even get a reservation.

Bateman and his friends dine on venison with yogurt sauce and fiddlehead fern with mango slices, smoked duck with endive and maple syrup, scallop sausage and grilled salmon with raspberry vinegar and guacamole.

Bateman also gnaws on his dying victims and sometimes eats their rotting entrails. He makes meat loaf and sausage from a woman whose name he never learns.

Four hundred pages of this stuff is not satire, it's tiresome.

Ellis quotes Dostoevsky in an epigraph, but Bateman's no Raskolnikov. And there is no Grand Inquisitor. Bateman gets away scot free. Nobody believes him when he confesses. He doesn't even feel guilty. He's just had a bit of an anxiety attack.

Bateman doesn't have any real motivation for his murders. He's just self-indulgent. He raped his first woman at 14, a maid on Christmas Eve, and went on from there remorselessly.

He works on Wall Street, at what Ellis never makes clear, maybe mergers and acquisitions. Bateman at one point turns to do something at a computer. He spends most of his time making lunch and dinner reservations, eating lunch or dinner, working out at a health club to wretched excess, watching a morning talk show or porn videos -- mostly involving two women -- shopping for clothes and the other appurtenances of his life, and killing people.

He's very hard-muscled and handsome. One of his victims asks if he's a model or a movie star. Bateman disembowels this gentleman's dog, then stabs him in the face. Quite a few dogs get killed by Bateman.

He's often decribed as a yuppie, but he's not upwardly mobile. He was born on top. His grandfather had an estate in Connecticut. He summered at Newport as a boy. He went to Exeter, Harvard and Harvard business school. He makes obscene phone calls to the girls at Dalton School.

He drinks at the Yale, Harvard and Princeton clubs. His friends are all Wasps. His Christmas gift list sounds like a roster of '30s and '40s film stars: Victor Powell, Paul Owen, David Van Patten, Preston Nichols. . .

They don't seem very different from Bateman. They're so self-absorbed they don't even hear him when he says at lunch he'd like to stab them in the face. They don't like Jews, Iranians, any third world person, or especially Japanese. Bateman stabs a Chinese delivery man he thinks is Japanese.

And they don't much like women. To Bateman and his buddies women are babes, bimbos or blondes with big breasts. Bateman's world is totally misogynistic. He describes dismembering a couple of women -- "girls," he calls them -- like an entomologist reporting on the dissection of some mildly interesting bugs. Then he talks about his new sound and video gear in the same dispassionate tone with the same detail. He uses all the best tools.

"He represents a generation that is still living out its days among us," says the Dostoevsky quote from "Notes from Underground" Ellis chose for his epigraph.

I'm reminded of the epigraph from Peter Kropotkin, the great anarchist, that Nelson Algren chose for one of his novels: "The only horror is that there is no horror."

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