Picador (1991), 399 pages
Charity Shop, 50 cents
American Psycho is a dark satire on the dangerous narcissism and materialism that has engulfed the upper echelons of American society. At times American Psycho is extremely difficult to read – there were parts where I had to scan quickly through a few paragraphs to get out the other side. Amusingly Easton Ellis’s protagonist, Patrick Bateman, works for Pierce & Pierce, the same company that employed Sherman McCoy in The Bonfire of the Vanities. Bateman also idolises the hyper-capitalist values of Donald Trump and Trump is the only person who Bateman appears to genuinely respect.
The opening chapter is astonishing. Initially I wondered was Patrick Bateman being sarcastic as he describes in great detail the high fashion labels worn by his colleagues. The surface features of a person, their clothes, their hairstyle, their looks are always more important than the person themselves. Bateman moves in a status society where the signs of a person’s status are valued more highly than the individual. As the novel progresses there are continual moments of mistaken identity. Bateman can easily identify if a person is wearing a Cerruti suit or an Armani waistcoat but often he can’t remember the name of the person wearing the clothes or mistakes them for someone else. The opening chapter is a breathless immersion in the dark shallows that a psychopath like Bateman chooses to hunt in.
Patrick Bateman is a violent psychopath but his obsession with status and physical appearance is shared by everyone around him. His male friends (although friendship in the true sense is absent) are misogynistic and homophobic (even though there is, at times, a barely suppressed attraction to the male form). It is left to the reader to decide if Bateman’s violent psychopathy is an anachronism or is actually fostered by the society he moves in. True human emotion is rarely expressed between people. Friends and lovers are, in reality, neither. They are disposable. Self-interest is the dominant driver of the characters’ actions. The only true feelings of love in the book are when one of Bateman’s acquaintances declares his love for him.
Bateman is the classic psychopath, at times he comes across as charming and can mimic the emotions of regular people. But on a deeper level he doesn’t feel or understand real human emotions such as love and empathy. After some of Bateman’s more violent crimes there are chapters discussing the middle of the road music favoured by Bateman. He launches into in-depth explorations of the works of Phil Collins and Huey Lewis and the News among others. Although, on the surface, these pieces are written by a true fan there is something jarring about them. They feel slightly flat, hollow somehow. They are too clinical, drained of emotion. It is like a computer program analysing music and spewing out a report.
The reader is also left to decide the extent of Bateman’s crimes. He is delusional and experiences occasional hallucinations induced by his mental state and his drug and alcohol consumption. Some of his crimes seem unbelievable, the location too public for him to escape notice. It seems that one crime he thinks he committed never occurred at all (although even this is ambiguous). Nonetheless the point is that it is possible that Bateman did commit all of the crimes he boasts about. His wealth and his victims (mostly homeless people or prostitutes) makes it far less likely that the police will take a serious interest in his actions. Ultimately Bateman is responsible for his own actions but the culture he moves in enables him to escape detection.
American Psycho has been restricted in several countries and there were calls to have it banned. This novel is not for everybody. I had to skim over some of the more graphically violent paragraphs. But those who called for American Psycho to be banned miss the point of the novel. The book is an attack on the emptiness of the lives of people like Bateman and the society he inhabits. The book itself (or Bret Easton Ellis) is not misogynistic or glorifying violence. It is the characters in the book who are violent and misogynistic. Books should not be banned on the basis that the reader might misunderstand the message; on that basis the Bible and the Quran would have been banned a long time ago.