Reviews: E

Review: “American Psycho” by Bret Easton Ellis [1991]

It is the late eighties and there is an extreme culture of decadence and excess. Wealth is easily made and lost and anybody can be somebody. Patrick Bateman, who also narrates, is a successful twenty-six year old working on Wall St. He is rich (he lives in the same apartment complex as Tom Cruise), attractive and drips with luxurious and designer brands – Armani, Rolex, Gucci. Teasing the numerous beggars on the streets of New York with money bills is a favourite amusement for Bateman and his friends. He is living the high life, moving in the right circles but he is utterly bored and, while acutely aware of the issues that plague the world such as poverty and corruption, he is disconnected from society. During a dull dinner party, Bateman lectured to the astounding amazement of the guests:

“Well, we have to end apartheid for one. And slow down the nuclear arms race, stop terrorism and world hunger. Ensure a strong national defense, prevent the spread of communism in Central America, work for a Middle East peace settlement, prevent U.S. military involvement overseas … better and more affordable long-term care for the elderly, control and find a cure for the AIDS epidemic, clean up environmental damage from toxic waste and pollution, improve the quality of primary and secondary education … ” – p. 14.

I found this lecture very ironic particularly since I’m reading it almost twenty years later since it’s been written and we’re still dealing with these issues. Bateman’s days are consumed with narcissistic grooming, working out, discussing which restaurant and which bar he would go to that night and the on-going effort of securing a booking at the ultra exclusive and ultra hip restaurant, Dorsia. He has several girlfriends with his main squeeze being another yuppie and insanely dull woman named Evelyn. Bateman is fastidious, to the extent of an obsession, for perfect grooming and knows the ins and outs of fashion rules. Despite his success in his career and relationships, Bateman is portrayed as very insecure. This is one side of Bateman’s life.

The other side is Bateman’s frequent and ever increasing uncontrollable rage and he uses sadistic murder methods as an outlet for these rages, saving the most sadistic and painful torture and murder for young women. As the novel progresses, Bateman becomes even more violent and at one stage indulges in necrophilia and cannibalism:

In the kitchen I try to make meat loaf out of the girl but it becomes too frustrating a task and instead I spend the afternoon smearing her meat all over the walls, chewing on strips of skin I ripped from her body, then I rest by watching a tape of last week’s new CBS sitcom, Murphy Brown. – p. 323

He also becomes increasingly mentally unstable to the point where the narration is thrown and Bateman begins to narrate in third person, giving the feel that he is experiencing an out-of-body experience. Bateman’s mental state deteriorates that it becomes quite possible that he did not commit these gruesome murders after all but only did so in his imagination. A man he thought he had murdered is revealed to have been seen living in London, he miracalously comes out of a man hunt unscathed and he is never under any suspicion from the police despite all the murders he have purported to have committed. Most of all, his maid seems happy to go about cleaning his apartment, ignoring the decomposing bodies and puddles of blood scattered about.

Despite all the violence and horrific scenes in the novel, the majority is a quite funny read. Ellis’ portrayal of vapid, wealthy women and their mundanities and the new generation of cashed-up yuppies who don’t really do anything substantial. Most of all, none of them see, or they refuse to see, what is going on in front of them. There were numerous times when Bateman tells his friends loud and clear that he is a homicidal psychopath and nobody listens, particularly Evelyn:

She gushes breathlessly. “Or mariachi. Or reggae. Something ethnic to shock Daddy. Oh, I can’t decide.”

“I’d want to bring a Harrison AK-47 assault rifle to the ceremony,” I say, bored, in a rush, “with a thirty-round magazine so after thoroughly blowing your fat mother’s head off with it I could use it on that fag brother of yours. And though personally I don’t like to use anything of the Soviets designed, I don’t know, the Harrison somehow reminds me of …” Stopping, confused, inspecting yesterday’s manicure, I look back at Evelyn. “Stoli?” – p. 119

Again, we aren’t sure if Bateman do actually commit these murders or even say these comments out loud as we only have his perspective. Of course, the American psycho could also refer to the yuppies who represent the next generation of leaders and who are in charge of the nation’s wealth. Curiously, with the current economic crisis,  and with most of Bateman’s generation and colleagues in senior positions at this stage, this idea is not so foreign.

American Psycho is a quite good read despite its gore and violence but it is relatively tame in the context of today’s movies. Bateman is an ambiguous and curious character. Part of the story could have been cut or better edited as it seemed to lose its way a bit in the last third of the book. The various analyses on Bateman’s favourite singers (Huey Lewis, Whitney Houston) were all lost on me and I did not get any significance from their inclusion. Nonetheless, an interesting read but not something I would read again in a hurry.

Review: “The Mill on the Floss” by George Eliot [1860]

The souls by nature pitch’d too high, by suffering plung’d too low. – p. 454

I have always had the impression that George Eliot’s writing was distinctly cold and subdued, choosing to critique society and explore social hierarchies rather than write romances with happy endings. My only experiences with Eliot’s writing are her rather odd fiction, Silas Marner and The Lifted Veil, both which meanders from what she is known for. But The Mill on the Floss begs to differ – it is so intense and so utterly romantic, thankfully not in a cringe-worthy way, that this must be one of the most emotional and moving books I’ve ever read.

Beginning at Dorlcote Mill in St. Oggs, the Tulliver family and their relations, with its numerous aunts and uncles, are established. Maggie Tulliver, with her dark hair, wild eyes and tanned skin, is a passionate and precocious young girl and never far from the reach of trouble. Constantly derided and scolded despite Maggie’s best intentions, Maggie can’t seem to win the love of her family. Only her father, Mr. Tulliver, sees his daughter’s attempts and is the only one who ever defends her, affectionately referring her as his ‘little wench’. Here is a scene after Maggie has chopped off all her hair:

‘Come, come, my wench,’ said her father soothingly putting his arms round her, ‘never mind. You was i’ the right to cut it off if it plagued you. Give over crying: father’ll take your part.’

Delicious words of tenderness! Maggie never forgot any of these moments when her father ‘took her part’. – p. 74

The relationship between Mr Tulliver and Maggie is one of the highlights of the story. The tenderness and love that shines through is unmistakable and never fails to grasp my heart. Aside from her father, Maggie adores and idolises her older brother, Tom, with whom she shared a close and affectionate relationship while they were both children. As Tom reaches adolescence, he develops strong ideas about justice and what is right and wrong. His strong ideas of morals, where there is no room for shades of grey, will play a part in the later division between Tom and Maggie.

When the siblings are in their mid-teens, Mr. Tulliver loses one of his many court cases and is consequently bankrupted and loses the mill. This shakes up the family significantly and life changes forever for Tom and Maggie. Tom finds solace in his work, proving himself to have a head for business, while Maggie finds newfound faith in the bible and religion. As a result, Maggie becomes calmer and subdued, her passionate and fiery nature now in check. As the two siblings grow up, they also grow further apart with their different temperaments now more distinct than ever and also suffering from hardship.

Maggie grows into a beautiful young woman who, while still subdued, finds her passionate nature threatening to boil over the mask she has created. She finds herself attached to two impossible and unsuitable men. The first, Philip Wakem, a wealthy but deformed childhood friend whose lawyer father was also the force behind the Tulliver’s bankruptcy and the second, Stephen Guest who is informally engaged to Maggie’s sweet and gentle cousin. Torn between her love and attraction to these men and her desire to do right by Tom, Maggie finds herself in an impossible situation because it is both  Philip and Stephen who are able to provide the one thing Maggie craves more than anything and which is something Tom never gives freely – love.

I absolutely loved this book and it is now one of my utmost favourite books. The story has left me reeling and the ending devastated me. I’m still a little angry about it. While the story was beautiful throughout, there was always a sense of foreboding that something terrible was going to happen. I loved Maggie and Mr. Tulliver who had the the most beautiful father-daughter relationship I’ve ever read. I didn’t quite get the same sense between Maggie and Tom. Maggie is a character that is difficult to forget and I feel desperately sorry for her, always an outsider despite whatever she did. Have some tissues nearby when you read this.