The story so far: On Nov. 14, 1990, Simon & Schuster announced it would not publish "American Psycho," the widely touted novel it had already edited and prepared for publication in hardcover.
Penguin had already declined to exercise its option to print the paperback version. The author, Bret Easton Ellis, would keep his $300,000 advance.Forty-eight hours later, Vintage Contemporaries (an imprint of Vintage Books, a division of Random House) announced it would publish the book as a trade paperback as soon as possible. Industry publications said Vintage paid $75,000 for the book.
Meanwhile, excerpts from the book became the hottest photocopied manuscript in New York publishing circles. As details of the book's graphic murder scenes leaked to the press, Ellis described it to Publishers Weekly as "equal amounts of black comedy and satire of the 1980s, especially of life in Manhattan, but it also delves into the mentality of a madman, a serial killer."
Women's groups rallied against the sexually violent content of the book, and "American Psycho" became the subject of editorials on First Amendment issues in national publications as Vintage's March 15 publication date neared.
Copies of "American Psycho" were supplied last week to major publications across the country, and as some - but not all - area bookstores order copies, it is the reviewers' turn.
Is "American Psycho" itself worth all this furor?
Not on the merit of its writing style. Ellis writes in a confusing first-person stream-of-consciousness style that could, in more competent hands, give insight into his killer, stockbroker Patrick Bateman. But here it only vaguely supports the shallow narrative.
Nor does the plot merit special praise. Most of the book is the kind of nightclub drivel that nobody really listens to: chatter about hip clothes, hip food, hip people. Nobody in the book is listening, either. In fact, Bateman is ignored by the other characters when he sometimes mutters violent threats and confessions under his breath during social conversations. Ellis is trying to play his violence against this trivia, ambushing the reader with violent or sadistic material in the middle of an innocuous passage, but ends up burying the story instead.
If the book has a success, it is this: The shock technique conveys Bateman's descent into total madness, and the reader is drawn into the downward spiral.
The controversy over "American Psycho" has swirled around the overt sexual violence offered up here, and the book is indeed a psychotic's garden of murder, sadism, drug use, animal cruelty, even cannibalism.
It can be argued that violence and sex each have a place in legitimate fiction. But in "American Psycho," the sex is mechanical, a recitation of grade-school dirty words, and the violence is strictly drive-in movie stuff, with no insight into the killer's motives or gratification. If not for the flurry of publicity generated by the violence in "American Psycho" - and those passages are less than 40 pages of the nearly 400 - this book would have been relegated to the second-string paperback racks.
The opening line of "American Psycho" quotes graffiti seen by Bateman from a cab as he begins his fall into meaningless savagery: "Abandon all hope ye who enter here."
We can't say the author didn't warn us.