Day 857 – Graham Strong, International Book Smuggler

Did I ever tell you about the time I became a book smuggler?

It wasn’t Bibles into Communist Russia (or even Playboys, for that matter). In fact, I didn’t even realize I was doing it at the time. It was back in 1991, when Noël and I lived in Hamilton. One weekend we went to Niagara Falls, NY, about a 45-minute drive (or half-hour in the Prelude) to the outlet mall. Great place when you’re young and kidless and want to spend money… Ralph Lauren, Swatch Watches, and some jeans store, before stopping for a 16oz Porterhouse at Lou’s Pete’s Market, all for cheap.

Anyway, I wandered into one of the bookstores, as I was wont to do, and there was a big stack of Brett Easton Ellis’ new novel, American Psycho. I should point out that this was before the massive bookstores we are used to today, so it did take up a considerable amount of the floor space. I’d watched – and liked – the movie Less Than Zero which was of course based on Ellis’ first novel. So I asked one of the sales women if she knew anything about the book. She said no, but in a way that was very strange, like I’d asked her if she knew anything about killing puppies, even though she did because she happened to be a Puppy Homicide Detective so in fact yes, she did know quite a lot about killing puppies, but from the other side though, so it was nothing she was going to discuss with a civilian and besides, I was sick for even wanting to know about something that should be unknown to any decent human being. (In retrospect, I understand why she was so… circumspect.) Her ringing non-endorsement wasn’t enough to dissuade me, so I picked it up.

You Canadian readers of a certain age may remember that this booked was briefly banned in Canada for its content. Or, at least, it wasn’t allowed into the country until Canada Customs had a chance to review it to make sure it didn’t break any obscenity laws (yes, there is a certain amount of the irony there). It was during this brief period that I had it coming across the border, right there in the back window for all to see.

They didn’t; I got it into the country and later learned of its contraband status. One thing I learned that week: there is no better way of exposing the general public to any obscenity than to ban it. Friends at work were begging me to give it to them once I was finished.

American Psycho was studied by the media ad nauseum on both sides of the border. Women’s groups in particular were upset with the novel, and other critics dismissed it as a half-masked attempt to cash in on some sensationalism it was bound to generate.

I think I was one of the few people who took the book at face value. I’m not saying I enjoyed it – it was way to disturbing for me to say I enjoyed it. But it had literary value, and not just shock value. I think he was exploring a new style and exploring issues that in a pre-Internet age certainly were shocking, but in a way that there was not way for the reader to feel anything but repulsed. At no time was Bateman painted as a sympathetic character.

Instead, it was a study in human behaviour. What does it take for someone to commit such heinous crimes, over and over again? Is it a sickness? Is it a reflection of society? And to that point, what does it take for someone (i.e. the writer) to even imagine these things, and put them down on paper? Mostly though, I think it was one of those fake-out studies; the real experiment was to interpret results from how the readers reacted to the story, not the story itself.

Whatever the impact/reflection of the book with regards to society, it’s interesting to note that today, 20 years later, it’s a musical http://theater.nytimes.com/2012/04/23/theater/american-psycho-as-a-musical.html?_r=0.

This fall, I read the book Less Than Zero, which as it turns out is much different from the movie – I did not know that. I love the minimalist style of Less Than Zero, though the subject matter is disturbing. You can see where American Psycho came from. However, if you read it as an allegory instead of trying to imagine these events really happened, there is an artful simplicity to it. Disappear Here. Of all the horrendous things that go on in the novel, that is the thing that Clay fears most. It’s a reaffirmation of life, in a sick and misshapen way.

I also noticed a close connection between Less Than Zero and Douglas Coupland’s Generation X. Both deal with the ennui of a generation, though in very different ways. Coupland I think must have been influenced by him, or at least closely identified with him as a writer. I’d have to say that I’m more drawn to Coupland’s relatively sunnier view. Both are good books though, well written, that I’ll likely read again (and in the case of Generation X, already have several times).

In other news, I got two good hours of writing in this evening. Part 3 is coming along nicely. About a third of the way through my timeline, and all looks good so far for the Jan. 31 target date.

~Graham

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