I’m occasionally repulsed by something I read in a book, but normally I can take even pretty gruesome stuff in stride. Mostly it’s because I read a hell of a lot of fiction, and those aren’t real people. As today’s Challenge question is about books that have made you sick, I’m sticking to fiction simply because reading non-fiction with horrible or gruesome stuff in it is kind of like reading a newspaper – you know the people involved are real, it changes your emotional perspective, and it definitely hits you a lot harder. I think a fiction book that can really, truly get under your skin as far as content goes has a stronger impression because it takes some effing good writing to do that properly and not completely repel every potential reader. There have been several books that made my skin crawl in the Christ, that’s just sick kind of way, but number one on the list is definitely American Psycho.
Don’t get me wrong: the book is incredible. I wouldn’t say I enjoyed reading it because it’s not really the kind of book a sane person enjoys, but it is so good at highlighting the complete consumerist culture of young, New York yuppies in the ’80s and the power difference between the wealthy and the poor during that time that it’s definitely worth reading. But only read it if you have a pretty strong stomach because,holy fuck, Patrick Bateman is one of the most disturbingly sick characters I’ve ever run across in literature.
For anyone not familiar with the book or the movie and who has somehow missed the cultural osmosis that makes sure everyone knows who Patrick Bateman is, he’s a very young Mergers and Acquisitions executive with the Harvard pedigree, rich family, and Reaganite conservative viewpoints common in finance firms in the ’80s who also happens to be a vicious, sadistic and prolific serial killer. The book is told from his point of view. He describes, in vivid detail, many of the murders he commits, which usually feature some sort of horrific torture that he’s devised and are, with few exceptions, carried out on young women who think they’re just going to get laid by a rich dude. “Disturbing” isn’t really even the word for half of the shit he does, but whatever. That’s not what makes it so sickening. What’s really stomach-churning about the book is how completely detached he is about describing the murders. It’s almost like reading someone describing going grocery shopping, or picking out a new couch. Because using a nail gun and a hammer to kill your ex-girlfriend over the course of three hours is basically just another boring Saturday afternoon for Bateman.
I’ve read a few other books that, while amazing, were also really disturbing, but there was always something in the narration that made it less horrific than American Psycho. Case in point: Lolita, renown for being a book about a pedophile.* Fucked up, yes. Disturbing and sickening, yes. But in the background, the sheer fact that Humbert Humbert feels the need to even attempt to explain why he was so captivated by Lolita, why he committed his crimes, has this odd undercurrent of acknowledging that his impulses are strange and wrong. He can’t justify them, but merely trying to justify them somehow takes the edge off for me, because it kind of made me assume that he, on some level, understood that other people existed and even mattered in some way.
Bateman does none of this justifying. Yes, he has a few breakdowns trying to determine why he’s the way he is because he’s noticed others don’t seem to kill, but he never actually seems to acknowledge anyone outside of himself as a real person with any sort of need for anything, and the furthest he gets with his questioning of his own motives is really well, I guess this is just the way I am. Oops! Yes, he does refrain from killing certain people in the book, but that seems to be because they’re part of his circle and on some level he understands that by killing them – people who will get noticed if they go missing – he’ll be at risk for being caught. He’ll get away with it once, maybe twice, but not more than that. So he’ll stick to the prostitutes and the homeless and the girls he picks up in random bars. There’s no real acknowledgement that anything that does not matter to him or affect him directly even exists, and that makes him fucking terrifying and makes his apathy to all the horrible stuff he does absolutely revolting.
It’s a hard book to read but I do think if you can stomach it, it’s totally worth it.
* Oh god please don’t give me Google hits for this word please don’t please no.