Friday, 18 July 2014

The need to be repulsed (American Psycho by Brett Easton Ellis)

Finishing American Psycho does not mean finishing with American Psycho. I finished it several days ago and it still lingers in my head. And I don't know if it's in a good way or a bad way or someplace in between. The novel is narrated by 'yuppie' Patrick Bateman, a businessman who feels dislocated from the world around him and his business colleagues. Surrounded by expensive items, Patrick feels himself struggling to be content with the materialistic and money-driven conversations and lifestyles of his co-workers. So obviously he finds himself having horrifically violent and sexual thoughts which every so often he actually performs, which are described in explicit, visceral and excruciating detail.

So just to make it clear. Reading American Psycho is not a pleasurable reading experience by any means. However, I have always felt that a book can be interesting even if it's not fun or is especially difficult to read. Drawing from my post last week, I described Headlong Theatre's production of 1984 as "the perfect combination of intellectual stimulation and emotionally charged drama" and obviously, it is possible for something to be one of those things rather than both. Some books can be fun but not deep, some books can be interesting but not enjoyable, and others (those that tend to have some sort of legacy and timelessness) can be both. And that's fine by me.

But with American Psycho, I found my belief challenged. I can recognise the intelligence behind this book - Patrick's violent actions contrast with his monotonous day-to-day life; his obsession with materialistic value (he explains at considerable length his opinions on Whitney Houston, Genesis, and Huey Lewis and the News; he goes through every detail of his clothing and where he got it from; his morning routine centers around particular brands of hygiene products) paradoxically means he can never be satisfied; his callousness towards others is evident through his brutal and sadistic acts and his casual watching of The Patty Winters Show, a show about people who have suffered in their lives who he never engages or sympathises with but treats as entertainment. These are all interesting and well thought out ideas, but the violent acts themselves are so repulsive that it is difficult to try and keep reading the book from a solely intellectual approach.

Thus I was conflicted - there's a lot to admire in this book but it is so difficult to keep reading. Many times I had to stop and take a breath before carrying on. And even when there isn't a violent or sexually explicit scene, the world Patrick inhabits is depressingly materialistic and self-obsessed, although at least the blatant satire of this culture allows for some laughs. But it still left me asking the question, as I got closer and closer to finishing it: do I actually like this book?

It was as I was mulling over this question that I read Will Self's article from May. Now usually I find Self can be a tad over-blown and, (speaking as a pot about a kettle), pretentious at times. However, there's nothing wrong with his style of writing per se and his argument that audiences don't like difficult books is convincing. Not sure if I think it can be applied to the general public as a whole (but few arguments can), but it struck a chord with me as I wrestled with my opinion on American Psycho.

There can be no doubt that it is a difficult book. While the violence is horrific, it is clearly deliberately so and, to an extent, it is more understandable than the topics of conversation that Bateman finds himself involved in. His colleagues continuously and unashamedly objectify women, and describe them in terms of their attractiveness and sexiness - whether they're a 'hardbody' or not is often queried before women can be invited to dinners. They also casually speak derogatorily of small people (at a Christmas party, small waiters are hired to be elves), ethnic minorities, homosexuals, and the homeless. Apologies for sounding so politically correct but it is a direct antithetical response to how they are described in the book.

Now, not for one moment do I believe that the author is homophobic, racist, sexist etc. While it is not immediately obvious (it is several pages before he refers to himself as 'I'), the novel is written from Patrick Bateman's perspective and his narration is more coloured, as it were, than the other characters would be. Strangely enough, as I said above, Patrick is not the most despicable character despite his violent behaviour. He's certainly the most extremely violent, but to be honest I found them all as reprehensible as each other.

It is possible that this novel does what Catcher in the Rye does (a novel that has some very interesting, if unexpected, similarities to Ellis') by filtering the world through its self-centered character and subsequently making it seem worse than it really is. Nevertheless, it is the only version of this world we have and it seems clear to me that we're not meant to like it. Indeed, as I write this that I'm reminded of my greatest pet peeve about criticisms of Catcher in the Rye, and probably many other books: many say they can't like the book because they don't like Holden Caufield.

To me, it is obvious you're not meant to not like Holden but I still love the book, because Holden is so interesting even when I disagree with almost everything he says and hate him for the stupid things he does. But just because I don't like, agree or even sympathise with the content doesn't mean that I would consider a book bad. Maybe it's because I've been reading since I was little and I'm studying English Literature at university, but I think a book can interest me despite what it is about. A great book (and moreover a great film, piece of music, TV show, play, etc.) is one that allows you to understand and see another perspective on something that you are unfamiliar with or uncomfortable with.

As I said before, this book has lingered in my head days after I read it. While predominately it is the horrifically violent scenes, the brutal and dark comedy of the book also lingers. Indeed it is this satirical commentary that is the focus of the reviews quoted in my edition. Certainly, I can't deny it is there but I think that it is perhaps too obvious. The book is repetitive which, while justified, does occasionally get dull and make me want to say to Ellis 'Yes, I get the point, can we move on now?'. There is the argument that its repetitiveness is part of its point, but subsequently it treads a fine line between being clever and being pretentious.

To its credit, the book doesn't hold anything back and so strongly gets its point across, but that does mean it can feel like nothing happens. (Although I have to say the ending is appropriately anti-climactic that doesn't undo the good stuff in the book). So I don't think I'll easily resolve this debate, but that means I hesitate to recommend this book. If you don't like reading sexually explicit or horrifically violent scenes or read purely for superficial fun, I would suggest avoiding it. If you like being challenged in your reading and are willing to confront the evils mankind is capable of, then go for it.

I don't regret reading this book and in the end, it's made me think about things in ways I couldn't have considered before. And that has got to be a plus.

Friday, 11 July 2014

Theatre review: Hotel (National Theatre); 1984 (Playhouse Theatre)

First off, I saw these shows several weeks ago and they both close by the end of August. So bad timing on my part, sorry. If you want a quick answer of whether you should get tickets for these shows ASAP, the short answer is yes. (You have until 2nd August for Hotel, while 1984 is on for lightly longer: 23rd August. Both links are where I got my tickets from and I highly recommend them. They arrived promptly and were decent prices for the seats I got.)

Once you've done that, feel free to stick around and read my thoughts. I promise no spoilers, although this is difficult with Polly Stenham's latest play, Hotel.

Safe to say, Stenham's career is on an increasingly high trajectory following her award-winning debut That Face in 2007, which she wrote at 19 and starred some actor nobody's heard of called Matt Smith. Give it three years...
While in comparison to Smith Stenham's star has taken longer to shine, it is still impressive that in seven years she has written three successful plays at the Royal Court and now has a play at the National Theatre, with numerous film scripts soon to be added to her repertoire. While I have read all her previous plays, I became aware of her too late to see any of them. I recommend reading all of them although you may find, as many critics point out, that she covers similar themes and, if you're mean hearted, the same plot: a middle class family dealing with difficult problems that threaten to splinter that family dynamic. (I promise they're a lot more interesting then that sounds).

Hotel begins, as if deliberately to annoy those critics, with a dysfunctional middle class family, with the son and daughter keeping a secret from their father, who has got his politician wife into a career-threatening scandal. They all go to a hotel resort on an African island (I may not have been paying close enough attention, but I don't think they specify where). The holiday doesn't go to plan and I won't go any further, as the play tautly races through its 80+ minutes running time as shocking events unfold.

This intense speed is helped by the enclosed space, where you are incredibly close to the action. Even those in seats above me (I was in the stalls) were far from detached from the action. The Shed (or as I believe it is officially called for legal reasons, The Temporary Theatre) is a fantastic space that from the start pledged to exhibit new, experimental theatre and having now been in it, I can see why. The set is amazingly detailed, which makes sense as it is all set in the hotel room, further enhancing the claustrophobic atmosphere.

You might have noticed I started commenting on the set first, which is usually a bad sign in a review. And I have to say I think this is Stenham's weakest play, but despite that it's still a tense, intelligent piece of work. Maybe it's because I'm used to her writing now, but it did feel like she was using the same tricks again although on a more politically charged subject matter. This change of focus, while refreshing, does mean that her tendency for didactic speeches, which are usually written with enough conviction to not be an issue, seems less subtle.

Despite that, I gasped several times and felt uncomfortably tense pretty much throughout. Having only read Stenham's writing, it was a completely different experience seeing it spoken and acted out right in front of me. Her writing is so visceral and angry that when given to good actors (the ensemble cast were all great) you can't help but get carried away with it. Maria Aberg's direction keeps the tension palpable and the shocks are rarely exactly as you expect. It was an intense experience that left me breathless but didn't quite hold together once I thought about it some more. But overall I'm very glad I saw this energetic, gripping piece of theatre that gives its audience lots to think about and a fascinating subject to debate about.

I'm so glad I gave myself a few hours just to wonder round London and take in some fresh air before I plunged into another world of nightmares - the world of 1984, Headlong Theatre's acclaimed adaptation of Orwell's famous novel.

Interestingly enough, both productions chose not to have an
interval, which meant I had a pretty intense day of theatre-going experience from two demanding plays. But thankfully the time flowed quickly and there was a minimal amount of fidgeting in my seat.

Sadly, 1984 wasn't the total experience I wanted. I was fairly high up in the dress circle and so the top of the video screen (which interacts with the live action beautifully) was cut off. It didn't totally ruin the experience, but I have to admit it was lessened slightly. Also, the play was briefly disrupted when someone in front of me nearly passed out because of the bright lights that flashed repetitively during the Room 101 sequence, although I have to admit it made those scenes that bit more uncomfortable. But in all seriousness, there wasn't a noticeable warning for those who react badly to strobes, so here it is.

No matter where you sit, though, it will be difficult not to be blown away by this production. If you're intrigued by how exactly they manage to dramatise a book that spends so long in Winston's troubled mind, then there's plenty of reviews that spoil exactly how they do it. Having read a couple of these, one of the most eerie sequences was ruined for me so I'm not going into detail. However, even that sequence still gave me chills, as did the entire production. It is the perfect combination of intellectual stimulation and emotionally charged drama which means every scene has incredible power. For example, the transition to Room 101 was absolutely stunning, one of the best things I've seen in theatre, that I admired as a technical achievement but also terrified me as Winston's world collapses around him.

As the web page for the production explains, the story of 1984 is bookmarked by a group of historians looking at the book as an historical artifact. Not only does this refresh the story and aid in translating it into a stage play, it allows the play to address our reaction to the novel as well as the novel itself. While it spells it out in its penultimate line, it's message still leaves an impact that is at once thoughtful and unsettling. Safe to say, without its outstanding ensemble cast, who so eerily convey the dystopian world without over-exaggeration, the play would lack its power.

While far from perfect experiences, I was absolutely engrossed and incredibly impressed by these productions. Headlong Theatre have created one of, if not The, best book-to-stage adaptations I've ever seen and is absolutely unmissable. Glad I finally got to see it, as well as Hotel, which has ticked off a box for me in finally seeing a Polly Stenham play, of which hopefully I will see many more.