American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis

American Psycho

“. . . There is an idea of Patrick Bateman, some kind of abstraction, but there is no real me, only an entity, something illusory, and though I can hide my cold gaze and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping yours and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are probably comparable:  I simply am not there. . .”

It would be too easy to couch Bret Easton Ellis’ classic 80’s tale of yuppie horror as morbid allegory of the Reagan era.  After all, he wouldn’t be the first artist to do so.  John Carpenter flat-out said his cult classic They Live was made as a direct indictment of that administration.  Several symbolic comparisons can be made between Ellis’ story and some of the pressing social issues of the time.  Let’s see what we have to work with:

Poor homeless people with mental illness that find themselves the victim of a cruel and unfeeling elite? Check.  Budget cuts during the Reagan administration were blamed for the closing of public mental hospitals and shelters that didn’t necessarily help what was already a growing homeless problem in the United States.  There are numerous references made to the homeless in American Psycho.  The main character’s disdain for them is clear, and they are a frequent target of his savagery in the novel.

The banal obsession with materialism? Check.  The 1980’s was the dawn of the young, upwardly mobile class in America, yuppies, whose status was maintained by keeping it on constant display.  “He who dies with the most toys wins.”  Pure, cold-filtered narcissism.

Rampant and unchecked corporate greed. Believe it or not, the savings and loan bale-outs of the 1980’s seemed huge at the time, really.  As a side note, I hear They’re going to make a sequel to another famous parable on greed from that period, Oliver Stone’s Wall Street.  Mmmm…smell the irony.

The objectification of women by a callus, misogynistic good ol’ boy system. Glass ceiling anyone?  You don’t get much more objectified than a hollowed-out head on a coffee table.

The decay of the main character, Patrick Bateman’s ability to fake it in his “normal” life as his mask of the Manhattan socialite decomposes to reveal an unabated psychopath can easily be read as a metaphor by an artist that saw the greed, self obsession, and violence of America at the time as an insane slide to impending doom.  The cold war was being forced to a conclusion, one way or another, by a president many considered to be a reckless cowboy.

First Edition Cover

First Edition Cover

As the novel begins, the intensely graphic violence one is expecting from the get-go is merely foreshadowed with creepy glimpses into the main character’s mania.  The reader is lulled into a sense that maybe this guy is just a spoiled-rich douche, so when the first act of actual violence is committed, the naked cruelty of it almost catches you off guard.  The hints that we are dealing with a truly deranged mind are only flashes of insight up to that point.  Did he just really say that, or only think it?

It is difficult to comprehend this level of brutality.  The frequency of violence increases as the story progresses, and the load on the reader gets much heavier to bear.  As Bateman begins to lose his grip, the author uses tricks in his writing to maintain the sense of disconnect.  He switches tenses, for example, from first person to third.  He catches you watching more than once with direct reference to the reader.  Also, I can’t be sure if it’s related, but there are a few noticeable errors in the text as well.  At first I thought they were editing mistakes, but as my copy is a later printing (pictured at top), I can’t help but think they are intentional

Ellis was smart not to overwhelm the reader at first.  But make no mistake, he does overwhelm, and you will eventually be burping up bile of the psyche at some point.  It’s almost as if Ellis is issuing a psychological evaluation to his audience, measuring precisely what level you reach before you stop reading and say out loud, “DUDE… WTF?!?”.  A test of our desensitization to violence from exposure to American culture, issued in private, with the results to be evaluated by us alone.

What is oddly worrisome is how familiar the novel is to today.  Replace the Walkman references with an iPod and American Psycho could have been written last year.  We seem to be surrounded by Patrick Batemans all lining up and waiting patiently for their turn to start their shooting sprees and then disintegrating before us.  But this is not Camus’ The Stranger, or Taxi Driver where we watch a man’s collapse.  No,  Bateman’s soul is long gone.  And it is somewhere between the beginning of the novel when he expresses his empty concern for humanity with politically correct opining on world hunger, AIDS, the homeless; and the ending of the book, when his own deranged personal needs take hold, that we witness an artists expression not simply of an era or political administration but of us as a nation.  What we thought was a book is only a mirror, and what we are really watching is the death of America’s conscience behind our own eyes.  Did we ever have one – or did we just think it?

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go return some video tapes.

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4 Responses to “American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis”

  1. Excellent little “review” you got here. One thing I found myself thinking throughout while reading this book was, “Shit, Bret Ellis has been reading Baudrillard!” This is such an excellent example of just what Baudrillard was talking about when he says that the simulacrum is not that which conceals the truth, but rather that which conceals that there is no truth. So many times I’ve heard people argue about which parts of this book are “fantasy” or “really-happened”, that I now have to stop myself from pinching them hard and asking “were you even reading it?”

    As with Baudrillard’s Reality-via-Disneyland, it’s a mistake to take points of this book to refer to things which are real and points to refer to things which are not, or even to take points of this book to be fantastical reference points against an external reality; Patrick Bateman IS America, America IS American Psycho, the consumption with and disintegration into brand identity, consumerism-as-identity, and cultural/sexual/class identity of all the characters (as exemplified by their inability to tell each other apart, and really, they’re effectively all the same person), combined with the beautifully and written stream-of-consciousness style powerfully places us in self-conscious fashion into just the sort of headspace we’re all used to inhabiting anyway, a place so familiar that, as you put it, it’s jarring to be reminded how deranged it really is (or perhaps we’re just being made to see it this way).

    And the way the graphic violence and sex was depicted was just the icing on the cake. Ellis seems not so much to be smacking us in the face with it as pushing our heads gently through it, to be saying to us, “No, don’t avert your eyes, this is REAL. This REALLY happens”, the voyeurism of this novel (and of America generally) hardly needs to be spelled out; we live it every day.

  2. Nice one.

    The fact that characters remain indiscernible to one another, even as they are obsessively cataloged by their clothing, is a great point.

    Ultimately the question is, is Bateman incapable of recognizing himself, or just admitting to it? He concludes he has no self, conveniently releasing himself of culpability. The perfect symbol of a vapid, soulless culture distracting itself from responsibility, even in basic decency, and filling-in these atrophic parts of its own identity with material possessions.

    Then again, maybe nobody is steering the ship.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  3. Aidan McAleer Says:

    very sensible review, this novel is easily the best novel I have read, not just for the original, well thought out plot, but through Ellis’ interaction with the reader. His clever style of writing keeps the reader gripped throughout, making the read an experience in itself. Many readers will focus on the harshness and brutality of the mind of Patrick Bateman, but without these points the story would be incomplete. This is truly a masterpiece of modern literature.

  4. Great ‘review’! I just finished the novel no less than 30 minutes ago and was curious to see how others reacted/explained it to themselves (and others). Very, very sensible as Aidan said, and I appreciate your insight into this shockingly – in its delivery, not in its concept – complex view of our culture. I felt the same as you: replace Walkmen with iPods and you can see potential Bateman clones everywhere you turn.

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