Recently, I’ve read these two novels by author Bret Easton Ellis. I’ve read “American Psycho” while in college, but not “Rules of Attraction” until recently. I think it’s interesting to pair these two books up for the sake of this blog, since they share many characters and how vastly different they are in style and tone.
The protagonists in both novels appear briefly in the other. They are Sean and Patrick Bateman, brothers from an affluent family in New York state. Both are self-centered egomaniacs. The differences are that Sean, the younger, is an aimless drug abuser and drunk adrift at his college in Camden and Patrick is a successful Wall Street banker and homicidal maniac on the loose in New York City. “Rules” takes place in the fall of 1985 and “Psycho” takes place in 1987.
“Rules of Attraction” is interesting in that it takes place from multiple first person accounts of a fall semester at Camden College. It mostly comes from three people: Sean Bateman, Laure Hynde and Paul Denton. There are a couple other minor characters whom we see in the series of events in the books through (one being Patrick Bateman, but he shows none of the madness that is explicit in “Psycho.”).
What I found compelling was how each character viewed various parties, places and other scenarios where they encounter one another. Paul speaks elaborately about himself and Sean, chapters upon chapters of their time together. Sean, on the other hand, barely acknowledges Paul. He mostly finds Paul to be an annoyance and continually seems baffled as to why Paul pesters him from time to time.
The same is kind of true with Lauren and Sean. Sean has these elaborate love stories and how much they care for one another. Laure, on the other hand, seems to mildly put up with Sean because he is simply there. Her true love, Victor Johnson, is roaming Europe in a drug induced haze and not once in his narrations even mentions Lauren by name at all.
I also enjoyed the nice balance of detail. Bands, albums, books and other pop culture references are mentioned, but do not drown out the story, which is interpersonal communications or lack thereof.
Where “Rules of Attraction” makes for a good series of vignettes that make up a good, though somewhat loose, plot making it a fairly easy and enjoyable read, Easton’s follow up “American Psycho” is like a hammer destroying such conventions.
In “Rules,” many of the details and scenes are subtle and imply. Not with “Psycho.” This book follows a year in the life of Patrick Bateman, a Wall Street yuppie and a blood crazed sociopath. And every detail from clothing, jewelry, food and so forth are described in such detail it starts to annoy pretty quickly. But this obsession to detail is part of the theme. Bateman cannot tell anyone apart in his circle of friends except by what they wear. These Wall Street bigwigs are so interchangeable that they even call their close friends by the wrong name and no one even notices it.
“American Psycho” is an interesting satire on the superficial aspects of the so-called Me Generation of the 1908s. As a character, perhaps the most interesting aspect to Patrick Bateman is that he is an “non-character.” His narrations are detailed to the tiniest minutia of the world around him. But he is a blank slate. He describes things coldly, without any indication of emotion besides jealousy if someone is wearing something more expensive than he is. His only other emotion is paranoia of getting caught for the terrible things he does. He has no emotion for anyone in his life, for the most part. As you read the book, they could be mere pictures in his mind, which is the point. It is an interesting way of writing and certainly is not the easiest to follow without becoming extremely bored. This takes up almost more than half the book. Then things become, well, awful.
In his earlier observations, he lets loose a few slips that he is a cold blooded murderer, but since it is buried so deep in his ongoing observations, they make you do a double take. The last half of the book is more difficult to read, not because of the ongoing boring details of the superficial life Bateman lives, but the horrific detail given to the murder scenes. I am a strong defender of free speech, but I can definitely see where many were coming from when the book came out and people wanted it banned. I don’t agree with them in banning it, but I sure understand why they would want that. I’ve read some nasty true crime books (“Helter Skelter” and “The Stranger Beside Me” for instance) but they do not compare to the horrific things in “American Psycho.” There are a few chapters that made me literally put the book down for a day or two.
But the book is funny. Bateman, for being such a monster, is also one of the dorkiest characters one could read. His taste in music is as superficial as anything else in his life. There are three chapters devoted to bands or musicians. He critiques and describes the works of Phil Collins and Genesis, Whitney Houston and perhaps the most hilarious of the music chapters being Huey Lewis and the News, whom he finds to be the best rhythm and blues band of the 80s. His attention to detail could make him a reviewer for Pitchfork.com, if he listened to better music.
But the book works as a great satire. No one knows, nor would seem to care, what a monster Bateman is. He confesses to a few people what he is, but the will either hear what he says as something else or not hear him at all. They are as superficial as he is, he hides in plain sight.
These two books do criticize different aspects of the 1980s, but in different areas. “Rules” satirizes college life as an endless stream of parties, skipping classes and a general dissatisfaction of the world. “Psycho” satirizes the yuppie, egocentric aspect of the money mad years. While they are both dated to that period of time, they both can be related to by probably any generation, sans the pop culture references in both books.
For a nice, interesting read with interesting writing styles, I’d say go with “Rules of Attraction.” For a more complex, idiosyncratic read, “American Psycho” may be up your alley. But I cannot stress enough that the violence in “Psycho” is explicit, and can be difficult to continue on through.