American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis

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american-psycho-book-cover

Paperback, 399 pages

Published: April 26th 1991 by Picador (1st published 1991)

Setting: New York City

Warning: Disturbing and contains some spoilers.

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Patrick Bateman is in his mid-twenties, son of a wealthy family and a successful Harvard-educated businessman living the “American Dream” in New York City. He’s obsessed with the superficial trappings of wealth and success — who has the finer business card? How can I get a reservation at Dorsia?

Undeniably narcissistic, he is obsessed with fashion and his appearance. Buff, tanned, and handsome, he has no difficulty attracting beautiful, successful women. Or he’ll hire a prostitute in a pinch. But the ordinary experience of sex, along with the other pleasures that fill his overprivileged life, have long since stopped sparking his interest. He seems perpetually bored and talks about his own life as if it were a film, peppering his narrative with terms like “scene” and “smash cut,” as if he were merely an observer of his own existence.

Toward the end of the novel, he puts some of this into words, articulating what we’ve seen from the first pages:

Everything failed to subdue me. Soon everything seemed dull: another sunrise, the lives of heroes, falling in love, war, the discoveries people made about each other. The only thing that didn’t bore me, obviously enough, was how much money Tim Price made, and yet in its obliviousness it did. There wasn’t a clear, identifiable emotion within me, except for greed and, possibly, total disgust. I had all the characteristics of a human being — flesh, blood, skin, hair — but my depersonalization was so intense, had gone so deep, that the normal ability to feel compassion had been eradicated, the victim of a slow, purposeful erasure. I was simply imitating reality, a rough resemblance of a human being, with only a dim corner of my mind functioning. Something horrible was happening and yet I couldn’t figure out why — I couldn’t put my finger on it. The only thing that calmed me was the satisfying sound of ice being dropped into a glass of J&B.

Patrick is shallow, self-obsessed, misogynistic, homophobic, bigoted, and oblivious to the feelings of others. Everything you could ever want in a man, right? Big deal. That describes everyone who travels in his circles. In fact, the men in his crowd are so similar, they keep forgetting each other’s names and faces and mistaking guys they meet for other people. Indistinguishable, interchangeable guys in insanely expensive designer clothes. In a sense, this makes them almost invisible.

This invisibility serves Patrick well when pursuing the one thing that sets him apart, the one thing about which he is passionate. Murder. Rape. Torture of humans and animals. Even a little necrophilia. It’s disturbingly easy for him to get away with his crimes — in New York City, no one seems to notice anything.

Yet he wants to be noticed. He is reckless, almost begging to be caught, and he drops blatant references to his hidden life as a brutal psychopath, which no one takes seriously. Does he secretly feel guilty? Want to pay for his sins? I don’t think so. I believe he is yearning to be recognized for the one thing in which he takes some pride, his one real passion. I think he wants someone to see him.

Yet the people in his social circles, in which everyone seems oddly invisible, see and hear only what they want to. So Patrick settles for being recognized only in those last agonizing minutes or hours of a victim’s life, when they look at him, waiting for the end.

Early in the book, we realize that Patrick only feels alive — he is only fully awake and present in his own skin — when committing acts of brutal violence. After about 50 pages of mind-numbing tedium, in which he narrates about fashion, restaurants, night clubs, and the painfully vapid conversation among him and his associates — we come upon a passage of lucid prose in which he’s aware of the world around him, the city, the moonlight. It’s a moment that lets us feel awake. Immediately after that, we see the first of a series of brutal torture and murder scenes.

Well played. Ellis, you are a master of your craft. I’m not sure I thank you for putting me inside this nut job’s head, but my hat is off to you as a writer.

All this is set against the backdrop of the 80’s — ah, the 80’s. That brings back memories. (Incidentally, Bret Easton Ellis and I are about the same age.) Yuppies, young Republicans, fashionable cocaine use, talk shows, aerobics, hardbodies. An era sometimes remembered for crass materialism and a widening gap between rich and poor, a gap that is reflected, in the background, in this novel. On one level, this novel reads as an edgy satire of its time and of the paper-thin substance of part of the wealthy class. I was occasionally reminded of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. That is, if Jay Gatsby had carried a knife, mace, and nail gun with which to torture and kill his victims.

This is a novel about various shades of evil, from Patrick’s self-obsessed acquaintances, who judge people by their designer labels and deliberately taunt starving homeless people on the way to their overpriced restaurants and nightclubs, to … well … Patrick. Eventually even his acts of gratuitous violence bore him. His exploits increase in brutality and brazenness, and eventually he seems numb to everything.

Spoiler Ahead:

Patrick also appears to be the quintessential unreliable narrator. Right from the beginning, I felt something was off about his account of his exploits. After a while, I got sucked into the gratuitous violence and temporarily forgot my doubts. However, in the end, it became clear that his murders are merely a figment of his depraved imagination. Or are they? We are never told for sure, but it appears that he is nothing more than a ordinary yuppie — considered dull even by his vapid friends — who happens to have no feeling for his fellow man.

Overall, I did not enjoy this novel. I came of age in the yuppie era, though I lacked the money and fashion sense to participate. It bored me then, and it bores me now. The novel lacked likeable characters, by design, and the violence and degradation were so gratuitous I wanted to burn the damn book. That said, I appreciated the novel, and I understand why it’s considered an important work of fiction.

Ellis wisely gives us no explanations for Bateman’s character — as far as we know, he wasn’t the victim of an abusive childhood and he certainly hasn’t suffered at the hands of society. The book provides no answers or platitudes. It simply offers narrow glimpses into the mind of a depraved psychopath, which is reflected, in paler shades, in the nihilism and lack of human feeling we see in the cold, shallow, materialistic society around him. And Ellis does this brilliantly.

I’ll also admit to enjoying some of the absurdity and dark humor in the novel. Patrick’s ridiculous rambling tirades. His bizarre attempts to draw attention to his true nature, strewing references to psychopathic violence into banal conversations. The scene where he shows up at a Halloween party wearing several grotesque trophies from recent murders, only to be ignored, is — in a sick, twisted way — hilarious as well as disturbing.

This is definitely a clever and memorable novel. And one I won’t read twice.

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