25. American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis

This review is affectionately and irreverently dedicated to Joshua X. Thank you for introducing me to Patrick Bateman, and thank you even more for not doing so in person.

Published in 1991 by Vintage Books, New York.

You’ve met Patrick Bateman. He’s the guy you had Waldorf salad/ apéritifs/ a candid sauna conversation/ a three course dinner/ a tray of Bellinis with, last Friday/ weekend/ fortnight/ financial quarter, at Indochine/ Dorsia/ 21/ Tunnel/ Pastels/ the Hamptons, with… oh who remembers, really? He’s a member of your yacht club/ exclusive gym/ Harvard graduating class, and you get your ties/ pocket squares/ tans/ dry cleaning from the same places. If you’re an attractive, elegantly dressed woman of a certain social set, you’ve probably shared his bed. If you’re an unsure yet comely prostitute, or an ecstasy-addled socialite, you’ll probably die in it.

But do you know Patrick Bateman?

He is handsome; there can be no denying this. He is superbly educated, outstandingly networked, exquisitely attired. His apartment, housed in the same building in which Tom Cruise owns the penthouse suite, is an interior designer’s wet dream. He has friends. He has money. He is… he is… a damned unreliable narrator, and why? Patrick Bateman is insane. You have, in all likelihood, never encountered a principal narrator whose word you could trust less, and this is, at once, outstandingly written and utterly bemusing—a twinned pleasure/migraine to parse. The novel’s plot, which in terms of thickness could be described as bareboned at best, is delivered to us entirely through Bateman, a Manhattanite yuppie businessman, as he navigates the breakneck-paced, agenda-laden, hyperactive worlds of commerce and pleasure that dictate the speed and settings at which he consumes, makes love, arbitrates, teases vagrants, and contemplates murder. As the novel progresses, Bateman’s brutal inner monologues morph into equally misanthropic slayings, several of which are highlighted and lovingly recounted to the reader in high-definition detail. Ultimately, our urbane protagonist becomes less and less capable of neatly compartmentalizing his serial killer and business savant personas, and as the body count grimly rises, so too does his paranoia, despair, desolation and impeccable cruelty.

One of the most striking facets of Bateman’s world is that it is inundated with a never-ceasing stream of conversation, a steady, witty, charming flow of dazzling one-liners and emphatic recommendations. It is a world in which no one listens to anyone else. Indeed, Bateman might be one of the few people who does any real listening. He might be the only person he knows who listens. It isn’t that he never shares the worrying compulsions within him, either. He quite frequently bares his… er, soul… on the subject of his insatiable blood-lust, but on the incredibly rare occasions that his words penetrate his audience’s mire of self-indulgence, his confessions are met with distracted humour and prompt dismissal. In one interchange, when his romantic partner for much of the novel, Evelyn, gushes enthusiastically about her visions of wedding splendour for them, Patrick effusively responds with a description of the ideal firearms he’d bring to their nuptials, with which to slaughter Evelyn’s immediate family. He receives no response to this other than his girlfriend’s continued pre-bridal salivations. In another, particularly mirthful scenario, when asked by a vapid model he is vaguely interested in bedding about his occupation, he shares that he is “into, oh, murders and executions, mostly”, after which, predictably, his companion asks him if he enjoys the work. The establishment of this savage, smirking landscape, in which no one practices human interaction without artifice, provides the perfect canvas against which Bateman lets the blood of so many flow. Perhaps our protagonist might be less deranged than he is, if he existed in a convivial, earnest setting, perhaps not… but there is no denying that it is infinitely easier to committ atrocities against someone if they have never, despite their honeyed insistence, truly given a damn about who you are.

Easton Ellis is arguably at his finest when he allows us to peer into the ragged veil of Bateman’s flinching, badly bruised humanity. Any passable horror story will be strewn with as many depictions of smouldering carnage as can be forced between its dripping pages; few are capable of drawing out our sympathy and begrudging acceptance of the similarities between ourselves and the monster that crawls across the chapters with smoking entrails for his necklace. Bateman works as well as he does because he is crafted with multilayered complexity, with unerring attention to detail, with as much brittle amusement as raw terror. In one of his final executions of the novel, in the midst of a failing attempt to wrangle a culinary delight from a section of corpse, our murderer slips into plummeting despair.

“And later my macabre joy sours and I’m weeping for myself, unable to find solace in any of this, crying out, sobbing “I just want to be loved,” cursing the earth and everything I have been taught: principles, distinctions, choices, morals, compromises, knowledge, unity, prayer — all of it was wrong, without any final purpose. All of it came down to was: die or adapt. I imagine my own vacant face, the disembodied voice coming from its mouth: These are terrible times.

This is a remarkable work of fiction. It might be most remarkable for how much your conflicted, uneasily mottled reactions to the depiction of its protagonist will render your introspective ruminations, your late-night diary scribblings, your smoothly hip but really self-conscious Facebook posts, not just of the book, not just of this genre of literature, but of and on yourself. Patrick might well become your antihero nonpareil, your reverse answer to the question, “What Would Jesus Do?”. You will not only be disgusted and sickened by him, startlingly enough. You will be touched by his overtures of gentility, by his saccharine daydreamings of ambling through the park with his secretary Jean, buying and releasing balloons into the air. You will laugh uproariously at his expense. (I challenge you to go into a Chinese drycleaners’ and not dissolve into hysterics after softly whispering “Bleach-ee”, with just a hint of threat in your voice). You’ll laugh at Bateman because of every one of his thousand nervous tics, his ridiculously overblown reactions to perfectly common occurences, his manic stops and starts, his revolting yet astoundingly funny pranks (coating a much-pissed-upon urinal cake in cheap chocolate, then proffering it to Evelyn over dinner). Then, when it dawns on you that you’re laughing at a man whose mind is the wasteland of serious dementia, a man desperately in need of a cornucopia of corrective drugs, you’ll ask yourself about your own sickness.

While reading American Psycho, it was easy enough for me to commiserate, in the abstract, with popular opinion surrounding its release at the end of the 1980s. Reviled, condemned, near-categorically panned, it was described as being too vulgar, too misogynistically self-serving to be worthy of the worst pornography. It would be unfair to wipe some of the mud from these allegations by theorizing that the novel was written before its time. When, one wonders, would be ‘the right time’ for a work of fiction concerned with the graphic satirical exploration of a young  lunatic, simultaneously trapped and liberated by the consumerist, capitalistic framework of fiscal success and personal nihilism that is his life? Perhaps there is no time in which such a book could have been written which would have ensured it a stellar reception—perhaps, when you’ve read the book, you will think this is more of a coup de grâce than a criticism. You might not be happy living in a society where the only thing a publication such as this merits is rousing applause. It would mean, one supposes, that either no one got the point, or, worse, everyone did, and endorsed it unflaggingly for the wrong reasons.

Almost every awful thing you have heard about American Psycho is true. It is nauseatingly graphic about murder, rape, torture, cannibalism, necrophilia, animal assault, and the perverse, detached delight that the perpetrator of these crimes takes in committing them. It will not comfort you. It is not a comforting book, but, as Patrick himself is always reminding us, these are not times for the innocent—and if they weren’t, on the cusp of the 1990s, they are indubitably not so, now.

I maintain, however, that Patrick Bateman should not terrify you.

Somewhere, even as you read this, even as you gingerly contemplate adding this book to your “must-read” (or “never-read”) list, there is an improbably beautiful man in an Ermenegildo Zegna suit, wearing A. Testoni loafers, crossing the street to go to work, where he will be greeted by a receptionist he believes, despite an overwhelming lack of evidence, to be madly in love with him. His body is a wonderland. He grows weak in the knees at the sight of expensively manufactured business cards, and the thought of not being able to secure a dinner reservation at the town’s most exclusive restaurant could, quite likely, bring tears to his eyes. He is frequently, ruthlessly cruel to homeless people, and demands abortions of the girls he’s gotten pregnant without so much as batting a well-rested eyelid. Last Hallowe’en, he wore one of his suits, covered in a plastic overcoat, and carried a chainsaw, to go to an upscale party as Patrick Bateman, because Patrick Bateman is his non-ironic hero. He has no natural sympathy, proclivity for kindness, no moral compass, no scruples, and no criminal record.

That should terrify you.

12 thoughts on “25. American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis

  1. Illuminalmah

    So much to admire in this review! (As always.) Not to mention the “smoking entrails necklace.” But I’m particularly taken with the philosophical parsings (witness: “You may not be happy living in a society where the only thing a publication such as this merits is rousing applause.” And oh, the penultimate paragraph and the ultimate paragraph!). I give you applause, with dripping crimson hands.

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    1. Thank you, my carmine-gloved friend! I am particularly glad you liked what was, for me, one of the more analytic, challenging paragraphs to write, the one about societal perception and ease, of and with human monstrosity. I sense we’ll have much to discuss on the matter. I might touch on the same themes, or same umbrella of themes, in my ‘Winter’s Bone’ review, which ought to arrive within December’s first week.

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    1. Thank you, mysterious K! (Are you still going by your mysterious handle, I wonder?) I saw the film last night, finally. It was a spectacularly good time for me, and I know what you mean about being unsettled — frankly, if the movie hadn’t accomplished that, I’d have been disappointed. That said, though, there really is no fair comparison between the two, and if you *do* read the book at some point, I’d love to know what you think.

      P.S. I’m so excited for the 2012 SF challenge you and Lisa are hosting!!

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  2. Matthew (Bibliofreak.net)

    What a fantastic review! Thorough, intelligent and well thought-out. Thank you, I really enjoyed reading you take on the book!

    Small question, do you think Bateman is actually staggeringly handsome, suave, and all round desirable, all is that all in his mind like so much of the book may, or may not, be? ~ Just a little thought for discussion 😉

    My review: American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis

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