Bret Ellis' notorious 'American Psycho' misfires

April 14, 1991|By Gregory Krolczyk


Bret Easton Ellis.

Vintage Contemporaries.

399 pages. $11 (paperback).

Patrick Bateman: the American Dream. He's in his mid-20s, living in a world where Armani, Hugo Boss, Brooks Brothers and Ralph Lauren rule. He uses his platinum AmEx card to snort cocaine in the bathrooms of the most elite clubs in New York, and makes daily trips to a health club that charges him only $5,000 a year for the privilege. He likes Genesis and Huey Lewis and the News, and watches the "Patty Winters Show" every day.

He went to Harvard, then Harvard Business School. He works on Wall Street, pulling down six figures. But he doesn't need the job, for his family has money. He just does it to fit in. Men admire him; women love him. He is successful, handsome and smart; most even think he's a nice guy.

But sometimes his world goes a little awry, and no amount of drugs or booze can set it straight. And then something has to be done.

By now, most who care know "American Psycho" was dropped by Simon & Schuster, its publisher, because of its graphic and sexually explicit contents. It underwent a purportedly inconsequential rewrite at the request of its new publisher and was finally released. Yet the controversy surrounding its content continues. And while all this probably has created quite a profitable situation for Bret Easton Ellis (just ask Stephen King about banned books), the question shouldn't be about what's written in the book, but whether or not what's written is any good. The answer to that is, lamentably: no. But it could have been.

Written in a conversationlike style, "American Psycho" uses the slice-of-life approach for its story structure (why are plot and literature mutually exclusive terms?). Because much of Patrick's world is one of brand names, a tedious amount of time is devoted to who's wearing and/or owns what -- so much so that one could read the first page, then skip to page 131 without missing a thing.

And, let there be no mistake, "American Psycho" is extremely violent, graphic and sexually explicit, and is therefore not recommended for children (regardless of their age).

But the main problem with "American Psycho" is the job Mr. Ellis did with Patrick Bateman. "American Psycho" is written in the first person, present tense, which means that everything is seen, as it happens, through Patrick's eyes. Unfortunately Patrick doesn't look inside himself often enough, early enough, to make the reader care about him (and Patrick is the only character of note in the book). Yes, Patrick does some truly inhuman things, but because the reader is basically disinterested, detachment is easily obtained.

Mr. Ellis eventually does manage to give Patrick a personality, one of a rather pathetic soul crying out for help, but by then it's too late. Had Mr. Ellis managed to make Patrick a more affecting character right from the start, this would have been one deeply disturbing book. As it stands it's just a deadly trap that never gets sprung.

Mr. Krolczyk is a writer living in Baltimore.

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