The Short Version: “American Psycho was created by sending the entirety of Bret Easton Ellis’ violent, masochistic and gratuitous novel American Psycho through GMail, one page at a time. [Huff & Cabell] collected the ads that appeared next to each email and used them to annotate the original text, page by page. In printing it as a perfect bound book, [they] erased the body of Ellis’ text and left only chapter titles and constellations of our added footnotes. What remains is American Psycho, told through its chapter titles and annotated relational Google ads.”
The Review: Alright, here’s a weird one. I wasn’t sure, honestly, whether or not I’d review it – and I’m not sure that it can be accurately reviewed in the same way you’d review any other book. It’s actually more, in this instance, like reviewing a piece of modern art (which the ‘authors’ believe this to be). The two ‘authors’/artists, Jason Huff and Mimi Cabell, actually printed copies of the book, it turns out – but I went ahead and made a copy at home using a matknife, some string, and a Sharpie-d out cover ripped from one of my many copies of the original paperback. Making it something of a DIY artpiece as well, I guess. Conversation starter for those who might be intrigued.
And the thing about this concept is that it is deeply intriguing. There is, I think, a very limited subset of reader who’d be truly interested in this piece – ones who know the source text pretty well. I happen to know the text quite well, after having written a handful of papers on it in college as well as it being just one of my favorite novels.
(ed. note – this is a statement that’s gotten me into hot water before and while now is neither time nor place to discuss the actual novel’s merits/flaws, I’ll simply say that Ellis’ nihilistic detachment has never been deployed to greater effect and the harsh commentary he was attempting at the time was then and continues to be missed by people looking simply at the violence and misogyny without seeing what he was attempting to do with those things, those who was attempting to indict, etc. You can read that in my review of the book itself.)
We all know that Google is keeping uncomfortable tabs on all of us. I mean, pretty much everyone on the internet who we give something to (e.g. search inputs) is doing that, but Google is the big one. So I was curious to see how the algorithms would react to the text of this novel – which is full of violence, gender and racial slurs, and a whole lot of talk about image.
Not surprisingly, it’s the image stuff that comes up the most. Ads for Crest Whitestripes seemed to be the most prevalent, followed by (in general) ads for suits and shirts and menswear. There were a fair number of ads for furnishings as well: Crate & Barrel, Pier 1, Bose, and so on. The consumerism end of things is very well represented in this project.
But it gets a little weirder when we start drifting into the scarier parts of the novel. There are whole pages that are blank or have just a Crest ad where, by their absence, you can almost sense the ugliness of the source text. I’ll admit that I was expecting some racier ads at certain points – I mean, not even a PornHub ad? I’d be curious to see how the algorithms might’ve changed since they did this project (according to Huff’s website, 2011 – according to Cabell, 2010) because I’m genuinely surprised that there was nothing.
Well, that’s incorrect: there’s not nothing. One of the most shocking moments in the book, for me, is the first murder: when Bateman kills the homeless man and his dog. I know the book well enough to know roughly when it would appear and I found myself holding my breath, waiting. And then seeing ads for knives, knife sharpening, etc.
I mean, holy shit, right? Does this mean that Google is just scanning each literal word, not pulling together context? But as the book goes on and the violence escalates, I didn’t see much. A few references to cleaning supplies, the sort of reference that lingers in the margins of your brain – but nothing concrete. Nothing about axes, hangers, etc. We were left with the chapter titles (“Tries to Cook and Eat Girl”, “Thursday”, etc) to give us some sense of the plot and one’s own knowledge of the book to know that, holy shit, we’ve become the numb culture that Ellis was viciously attacking in this book. Perhaps it’s a good thing that Google wasn’t linking ads to, I don’t know, places that promote violence and racism and the like… but why, then, would it in nearly the same breath be linking to Crest Whitestripes?
Review: 4 out of 5. I feel a little shaken by reading this project. Not quite in the same way that the source text still, over five go-rounds in, manages to disturb me – no, that’s a particular skill Ellis has never been better with than he is in this book. Instead, I’m disturbed by our culture. By the ease at which I recognized these ads. By the ease with which these ads are nearly-subliminally dispatched to us via insidious links and things of that sort. I say that I’m curious to see what the book would provoke now, with Google’s algorithms that much smarter. I’m curious to see how it would change depending on who was sending the book around (would mine, for instance, have more music references? would yours have that PornHub link? vice versa?) – but mostly I’m just scared. Because we haven’t learned.