American Psycho


I’ve been listening to Brett Easton Ellis’s American Psycho on Audible, read with a nice intensity by Nick Landrum. It would be interesting to debate on the different approaches to the novel, ie between reading it and hearing it; I found Landrum’s reading of it to be pretty much as I think I would have experienced it as a reader.

Anyways, onto the book. I’ve wondered about this book for years, having nudged into it here and there in the zeitgest but never having read it. I found it fascinating.

First off, Ellis is a great writer. Let’s just get that down; hearing his pleasure in language is a genuine joy. He’s a great writer.

So why did I stop listening after the first third and instead sneak over to Wikipedia to read the plot outline? Fundamentally because a brave and intelligent and skilful and in many ways beautiful interrogation of what it meant to be alive in the late ’80s is actually really dull. First off, there are no characters; I defy you to pick out Courtney or Macdermot or Evelyn or all the others from the most basic of NYPD identity parades – you just can’t tell the difference between any of them, because Ellis isn’t interested in any of them.

Second, in order to accentuate the psycho in American Psycho, Ellis – because he has chosen that first person narrator model which postmodern lit crits will tell you at creative writing classes is the only serious way to go – has to give us lists. Lists of clothing designers, lists of music genres (he has the immense good humour and grace to tell us in a later interview that his editor hated the chapter on Genesis albums), lists of workout regimes. Like, yeah, I get it, he’s a psycho.

So for me, the novel fails. In saying that, I feel slightly like I’ve turned into that weird Irish guy on X Factor, dismissing a pale and ineffectual German entrant called Franz Kafka for coming on and writing a story about a fucking spider. Come on Franz, entertain us!

But inherent in American Psycho – and perhaps this is where Ellis’s brilliance really lies – is the inherent death of the Western novel, which began in the 16th century when Cervantes wrote Don Quixote. Perhaps that’s really what Patrick Bateman was slashing to a bloody mess with his axe: the English novel.

The Brothers Karamazov


Having just finished all 911 pages of Karamozov, as part of the continued project to explore novels I read 40-odd years ago, I was right a few posts back about its likely impact: it is without question the greatest novel I’ve ever read. It has been such a joyful experience to read, to be made aware that one person could create such an astonishing mix of artistic brilliance and humanistic concern.

On the first, the great Joyce Carol Oates is very good on the novel here.

As she says: “What has made Dostoevski so highly esteemed a writer is, perhaps, not his understanding of human nature or his ability to work intelligently with ideas, but rather his fluid demonstration of the art of writing—the splendid unpredictability of the writer as writer, who can leave nothing unsaid, whose imagination is so nervously rich that characters and ideas multiply themselves as if by their own volition.”

She is so right about that. He plays constantly with the notion of art and of writing, so that by the end we are simply awed by the confidence of a writer who recognised no barriers in his approach to form and structure. His much-commented-upon omnipotent narrator form evolves and transforms constantly: at one point, he is a real person in the courtroom watching Mitya’s trial, at others he is entirely invisible, lost in the consciousness of the characters. This is a writer who is so confident of his art that he can show you, the reader, how he is speculating about form without losing the grip of the story.

Oates too points well to his psychological insights. Freud adored this novel, as did many others, and he was inevitably fascinated by the notion of patricide which lies at the core of the book. But she also points out the fascination with doubles, or in Jungian terms, the shadow. So many of the characters have their own double or shadow, and even talk about them, with poor demented Ivan at the end realising his with his summoning of the devil in his room. Even the ghastly rivalry between father and son for the alluring Grushenka is a terrible internal play about doubles and shadows.

Some critics see the precocious schoolboy Kolya as another double for Ivan, but he read to me as an ironic self-reference, an amused sketch of self-criticism by an author whose curiosity was limitless.

There is so much in this novel that one can understand those who keep returning to it; Wittgenstein loved it so much he could recite whole passages by heart. There is no character too minor to be taken seriously by the author, to have their psychology explored, their lineage analysed.

It has been a privilege to discover it again.

Daphne’s secret


The stone building on the right of this picture is the original inspiration for the boathouse in Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier’s famous novel of love and betrayal set in Cornwall. If you haven’t read the novel, I won’t give away the ending by revealing what goes on in the boathouse so do get yourself a copy: it’s an excellent story.

The house is set right on the beach in south Cornwall and looks out towards the English channel and the Atlantic. It’s part of a much larger estate which du Maurier leased for 30 years, living with her family up in the big house which itself was the inspiration for Manderlay in the novel.

Du Maurier, of course, is exactly the kind of novelist one is not meant to mention in polite literary society in London. She is, my dear, quite beyond the pale. Really not someone anyone with any kind of literary sensibility could bring themselves to mention. Terribly popular, you see.

Like Jeffrey Archer, Jilly Cooper and other brilliant storytellers, du Maurier is forever cast into the outer reaches by the literary type. This distinction between “good” writing and “bad” writing became entrenched in the English-speaking world around the middle of the 20th century as the professionalisation of literature took over and universities stopped teaching classics and started educating their students in book snobbery.

Metropolitan literary types love revealing what they call their guilty secrets over a glass of Picpoul: a secret stash of Jilly Cooper books, an irresistible desire to buy a Harold Robbins in the airport bookshop. But their gleeful sense of guilt is entirely misplaced.

The urge to write should always be encouraged and its achievement in whatever form celebrated. The commoditisation of art begins when those who should know better start differentiating between the intrinsic worth of one book against another.