For the delay in blogging, I am unfortunately nearing upon some really quite ghastly tax exams, and I have been finishing up some things in the office, and also reading quite enthusiastically, as well as training for an epic (and I feel this is a justifiable use of an oft-misappropriated term) bike ride. This post concerns some of my recent readings (I have also just finished God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens, more on which to come, and I am struggling through The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt.)
I noticed, and I don’t think that this reflects on me in any way, that the last two novels that I have read have featured ultraviolent, sociopathic main characters. First I read Anthony Burgess’s Clockwork Orange, which I followed with Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho. Again, I assure you I have not set out intentionally to study psychopathy, nor am I peculiarly interested in ultraviolence.
Now, having fully sated your fears, I am going to review, compare and analyse the two novels at length. While I do this, I want you to imagine that I am dictating to my secretary, whose hands I have removed and replaced with chopsticks (one per handhole, she is hunting-and-pecking), and I am currently blunting (blunting!) all the kitchen knives in preparation for the redraft. I am wearing tight white elasticated fencing outfit, floral cravat, both by Armani, and knee-high stomper boots by Doctor Martens… all of which are the heighth of fashion, I can assure you.
The protagonists like to fuck, and they don’t do courting. Burgess’s work features one rape, where Alex gets two young (maybe 12 years old) girls drunk, before violently raping them. The details aren’t overly elaborated. Ellis has Bateman rape a whole host of women, although generally the encounters that are described begin with consent and end in murder, unlike Alex’s adventures. Both feature passing references to other rapes that have occurred–for example Alex’s rival, Billy, is gang raping a young girl when Alex’s droogs encounter and fight with them. Bateman refers to rapes that he has committed in the past, and in one scene meets a girl in a bar who he sexually abused while on holiday when he was younger.
Bateman frequently uses prostitutes. The prostitutes enjoy their experience with him at first–we should bear in mind that he looks like an actor or a model, is totally ripped, and is one of the richest swinging dicks on Wall Street, so I suppose he seems an upgrade on their usual clients. At first he tries to impress the girls before he kills them–he gives them expensive wine, tells them about his high paid job. But by the end he doesn’t care so much, having learned from past experience that nobody really cares. He tells one victim that he works for Pierce and Pierce and when she asks what that is he says ‘it’s a shoe store’.
Violence is prevalent from the outset of Clockwork Orange, which starts by describing a series of events that culminate in Alex murdering a woman during a home invasion, and being betrayed by his droogs. In the run up to that event, they assault an elderly man, commit an armed robbery, and win a gang fight. In American Psycho there is no actual violence for the first 100 or so pages. There are very strong suggestions, but nothing graphic. But when it starts, it really gets going. I found some of it quite upsetting–for example, he tortures two women to death, making one watch while he skins the other, then rapes her decapitated head. This is just one example. At about two-thirds in, these graphic assaults became so frequent that I found myself pleased to get to a seven page long assessment of Huey Lewis and the News.
The detail is important though–it offers an incite into Bateman’s mind. He goes into the same tedious detail whether he is describing a colleagues outfit (he describes everyone’s outfit), the specs of a hi-fi, or a gruesome homicide. Bateman is dull. As a person lacking in any morals, and without really any taste (Huey Lewis and the News) all he ultimately has is detail. He can’t offer a genuine opinion, he can just describe what is popular, what people wear, and how he raped and murdered his latest victim.
Alex kills two people. The home invasion, which lands him in prison, and he also beats a fellow inmate to death. Bateman has killed in the past, and as the book goes on the killings get worse, there is more torture, there is necrophilia, and cannibalism. He has probably killed 50-100 people. There is an obvious qualitative difference as well as a quantitative one. Alex is a sociopath, in that he doesn’t really care if someone gets killed as a result of his actions, but when it does happen, he seeks to blame others, or denies it was his intention. It is probably true that it wasn’t his intention, but he did it, and it was a likely consequence of his actions. Bateman basically lives to kill, and he accepts that it is what he does and who he is.
Unlike Alex, he is not caught. This is despite the fact that he does very little to cover his tracks–he sends his bloodied clothes to the dry cleaner, and even returns them and threatens to kill his launderer for not removing the blood stains from his designer robe. He has a housecleaner who wipes human brains up with a dustpan and brush without comment. He frequently confesses his crimes in unambigious terms to anyone who appears to be listenings–but nobody is listening.
Alex and his fellow droogs operate in a world of rival gangs, who fight each other, but also commit robberies, assaults and rape on outsiders. They are the underclass. The upper end of society seek to destroy them. And indeed they probably should–these are antisocial thugs. But it is clear in Clockwork Orange that, at least to some extent, the government, which is democratic but seems to be fascistic and totalitarian, has created this problem. The area the droogs operate in is run down. There is no pride in the upkeep of the community. The droogs do not see themselves as having prospects in polite society.
Bateman’s peers are the Wall Street elite. On several occasions Bateman says he just wants to fit in. (Whereas Alex sees himself as a leader.) There is a running joke that none of the guys on Wall Street can tell the difference between each other–they constantly mistake each other for other people, and Bateman answers to other people’s names, and play along. Even his attorney thinks he is someone else when he leaves a long confession to his crimes on his answer-phone, and then confronts him in a trendy restaurant.
I enjoyed this joke a lot, as it adds a bit of intrigue as well as making a joke about the efforts people go to to fit in. Why spend all that money on gold Rolexes and Armani suits if everyone you know wears the exact same stuff, has the same haircut, and the same job and the same income? Because you don’t want to be an individual. It also sort of explains why he can get away with all these murders–he is practically nondescript within his habitat. There is also a suggestion that maybe other wall street guys are killing people as well. While walking in downtown New York Bateman sees Police tape and activity around a pile of human entrails. If not him, then someone else has committed this act. At another point, we hear that a stockbroker is arrested over satanic murders – possibly committed by Bateman in reality, but maybe not.
Reaction of outsiders
I have touched on the reaction to the droogs already–the state is out to get them. Furthermore, non-droogs in the community are terrified of them. There is a redemptive (sort of) moment when Alex, freed from jail after undergoing brainwash therapy, is attacked and brutally beaten by the old age patrons of the local library. It is hard to feel sorry for him.
In American Psycho the police never investigate Bateman, even after he kills several cops in a chase, with many witnesses. When Bateman confesses to the killings, people simply don’t believe him, and don’t even believe that he is Bateman. While the Wall Street people are vacuous and evil, and look at the beggars as sub-human, and to be abused for their amusement, nobody seems to be concerned by their behaviour at all.
The two stories are addressed from different angles. In both, the real corruption is at the top. This is implied in Clockwork Orange, but the result is viewed from the bottom: Alex’s violence stems from society’s amorality, and society seeks to punish him.
Bateman, however, is powerful–he is at the top of society. He may not make the rules, but the makers of the rules are dependent on his ilk, the Wall Street rich, for their donations. He rubs it in the faces of the poor–he sends his blood soaked clothes to a laundrette, and has his cleaner scoop up human brains from his apartment, and they don’t complain or call the police, they accept it.
Is it too much of a stretch to say this is an analogy of 1980s US foreign policy? Or really any western foreign policy of almost any period. Presidents and prime ministers have wars, or fund wars, say the contras in Nicaragua, or the British war in the Falklands, and people actually die, their brains are everywhere, people are actually cleaning it up, and the general attitude is ‘well someone had to do it. Someone had to be brave enough to order all these poor people to do this, and die.’
When Edward Snowden released all that information on government crimes, so many people queued up behind the bad guys (the governments), the guys who are reading our emails, and monitoring our bank accounts, and they said ‘I’m glad someone is looking out for me’. Now, obviously American Psycho predates this leak, and it works as a satire. The crimes are so monstrous, so blatant, so shameless, that they invite us (those without power, in the traditional sense) to pretend they don’t exist.
Music and language
These are two things that I found noticeably contrasting. Here we get a sense of how Alex is a real person, while Bateman is not. Bateman is boring. He speaks to us as if writing a press release for a stock market flotation. He is not prone to flourishes. You never have to double check a dictionary to know what he means. You get the distinct impression that the narrator, by which I mean the character, does not care about words, while at the same time you understand that the author really does care about them. I have no doubt that there must have been points where Ellis had written down something poetic in the first draft, and on the revisit had to cross it out, because Bateman is not a poet.
Alex is flamboyant, but uses a limited selection of words. Probably this is just because Burgess would have to basically make up a whole language to give Alex a wider vocabulary. But Alex cares hugely about his words–they are his identity. They mark him out as a member of a gang, or a movement, or a subsect. He asserts his self, his meaning, his position, from the obscurant manner in which he expresses himself.
Similarly in regards to music: Alex cares about music, maybe even more than he enjoys the ultraviolence, and it is the weapon his enemies use to almost kill him. When he becomes unable to enjoy music due to the treatment he received, he tries to kill himself.
Music is used to highlight how bland Bateman is. He write extended reviews in the novel, of bands of the 80s that he particularly likes. Genesis, Whitney Houston, and Hughey Lewis and the News. The reviews are utterly boring, describing the competency of the bass playing, and the crispness of the drum machine. He praises moves towards mainstream, commercial sounds, and dislikes more arty references. Despite the fact that he listens to total crap, he is obsessed with his hi-fi system, describing in tedious detail the sonic frequencies and blah blah blah. He is not a real person.
Alex grows out of it. This is tremendously disappointing, and on this point Stanley Kubrick’s version is superior. The conclusion in Clockwork Orange: that young people must be left to be, that the older generation can’t understand them, and in time they will come right in their own way, is a good thing to believe. But–probably not when young people are murdering each other. There are rights of passage and there is murder. That he can just get bored of his way of life doesn’t ring true, as what he does is not normal. It is at odds with having an ability to make and be motivated by moral judgements.
Bateman lives on in his misery, and no doubt bringing misery to others. This is the only viable conclusion really, and I was relieved it was the option Ellis went for. (Though part of me was interested to see what would happen if he was arrested for murder, I knew really that that just is not the story that is being told, and since Bateman doesn’t care about anyone or himself, the fact that it is not spelled out in the novel does not place a huge imaginative burden on the reader.)
Final analysis, then I’m going to sleep
American Psycho is the better novel. It fits together better, and ends better. It is more than twice as long as Clockwork Orange, and a decent portion of that is banal descriptions of what people are wearing, what people ate, and where they were eating. But it is a masterpiece. There is not a segment I would remove, even though I would recommend the reader skips some passages. For example, it is not at all necessary to read Bateman’s opinions on the oeuvre of Whitney Houston. The reader will not learn anything interesting about Whitney Houston by doing so. But, by the analysis being there, they do learn something important about Bateman,
Clockwork Orange is enjoyable, the language is fun, the crimes are grim, and the story of forcible rehabilitation is interesting enough. But Alex is not well enough explained. His conversion is not believable. And he is not a proper psychopath–for my money, for my understanding of human nature (amateur as it is)–Alex’s character is simply not believable. I can buy his love of music, and his desire to be a gang leader. But to just get bored of it? This is a man who rapes children, batters the elderly, and kills people, and through it all thinks only of himself.
Well, I suppose they were just very different books, despite the superficial similarities. I can’t recommend American Psycho highly enough. I think Bateman is just about the perfect psychopath. But be warned that reading it, for me at least, involved a lot of physical as well as mental discomfort. For Clockwork Orange, I think that the film may actually be the definitive version–the differing conclusion makes it a more pronouncedly amoral work; plus Kubrick’s aesthetic is unforgettable.