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American Psycho: The Novel With a Killer Soundtrack

July 16, 2014

I finally read Bret Easton Ellis’  American Psycho (1991) earlier this year. It had been on my bookshelf for ages, but I was rather intimated by its reputation for gory violence, so I put off reading it. Friends of mine who read the novel said it made them feel physically sick. Anyway, having read it, I can see why American Psycho is considered such a brilliant work, but I did feel Ellis went too far with the gory images. Patrick Bateman is an investment banker in late 1980s New York. By day he obsesses over his routine, which seems to include very little working and mostly indulging his taste for clothes, drugs and fashionable restaurants. Bateman’s string of consciousness narration can go on endlessly about these things and to the most minute detail. There’s a great deal of black humour here. Bateman and his colleagues swagger around like pre-Revolutionary French Aristocrats. There is another side to Bateman that he hides from his colleagues and from his fiancee. Whether he is acting the role of a yuppie or that of a serial killer, Bateman seems to be the walking embodiment of the banality of evil. Be warned, this novel is not for the squeamish, and it tends to get more violent as it goes on. There is a startling twist in the conclusion (which I won’t give away here). I will say,however, it’s not the sort of twist that throws attention from one suspect to another, but rather one that questions the status of the entire text. It’s what you might call Keyser Soze syndrome, although American Psycho was published four years before Soze appeared (or did he?) in The Usual Suspects. Reading this novel after the 2008 economic crash only adds to it prophetic feel, although perhaps Ellis’ negative view of Wall Street and consumerist society is just too simplistic.

For me, the highlight of the novel was the short essays on Bateman’s favourite pop groups– Genesis, Whitney Houston and Huey Lewis and the News– which appear sporadically in the narrative, although I was left slightly puzzled as to the reason for their inclusion. Was Ellis trying to say that Bateman’s love of music was every bit as shallow and consumerist as his other obsessions (some of Bateman’s musical analysis is hilariously superficial) or does it point to a deeper side to him? According to this essay in The Tech it is definitely the former: ‘Being a vapid soul, he likes only the most vapid bands [...] By taking these pop bands so seriously, so analytically, Ellis succeeds in showing just how soulless and transparent these bands are.’ Still, if the essays are deliberately flawed, they are still as well written as anything you would find in a music magazine, and are a joy to read in what can be a gruelling book. Below, I’ve quoted some passages on music from the novel and embedded the relevant group’s music video.

Genesis

My favourite track is “Man on the Corner,” which is the only song credited solely to Collins, a moving ballad with a pretty synthesized melody plus a riveting drum machine in the background. Though it could easily come off any of Phil’s solo albums, because the themes of loneliness, paranoia and alienation are overly familiar to Genesis it evokes the band’s hopeful humanism. “Man on the Corner” profoundly equates a relationship with a solitary figure (a bum, perhaps a poor homeless person?), “that lonely man on the corner” who just stands around.

Whitney Houston

The ballad “Saving All My Love for You” is the sexiest, most romantic song on the record. It also has a killer saxophone solo by Tom Scott and one can hear the influences of sixties girl-group pop in it (it was cowritten by Gerry Goffin) but the sixties girl groups were never this emotional or sexy (or as well produced) as this song is.

Huey Lewis and the News

“Give Me the Keys (And I’ll Drive You Crazy)” is a good-times blues rocker about (what else?) driving around, incorporating the album’s theme in a much more playful way than previous songs on the album did, and though lyrically it might seem impoverished, it’s still a sign that the new “serious” Lewis – that Huey the artist – hasn’t totally lost his frisky sense of humour.

 

4 Comments leave one →
  1. July 17, 2014 1:20 am

    American Psycho is indeed very hard going with all of the minute detail that Bateman gives for every aspect of his daily life. The passage where he agonizes over the quality of business cards indicated (to me at least) that his entire focus is on his outward appearance and how it compares to the people around him. I think that the music reviews are the character’s attempt at introspection- he cannot think about himself except in terms of the consumer driven society that surrounds him.
    Even the gruesome murders may only be a manifestation of his subconscious that he has to externalize in order to experience them- his ego driven perspective is incapable of looking within until the very end, when he sees himself for the hollow facade that he is.
    I thought that it was a fantastic book even with the buckets of blood.

    • July 17, 2014 8:15 am

      Hi David,

      As the book is almost twenty five years old it interesting to see how much of that minute detail doesn’t hold up as products have developed so quickly. I think Bateman’s love of music gives him a degree of introspection as you say, although he tends to prefer melodious, commercial work over arty stuff, as seen in his preference for the Phil Collins Genesis era above Peter Gabriel.

  2. sharonconnor@live.co.uk permalink
    July 17, 2014 6:56 am

    I read this as an undergrad, and by the time I was part way through I decided to skip the gory sections, just too gruesome. The humour is more obvious in the film version, but the novel was a fantastic insight into the concept of the so called Masculinity Crisis.

    • July 17, 2014 8:11 am

      Thanks Sharon,

      I agree it’s very insightful, well structured novel. Apparently Ellis was quite miserable when he wrote it so maybe the psychological insights came from personal experience

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