The warning appears immediately…
Abandon all hope ye who enter here
~ Opening line of Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho
And truly, if you value your sanity, perhaps entering “here” isn’t the best idea for you. In fact, if you have a conscience – at all – you should probably not even continuing to read my review of this absolutely disturbing – and highly riveting – satirical commentary on 1980s upper class America. This is a novel that I’ve been meaning to pick up since a friend of mine told me about it in high school. Finally, I obtained it as a gift from my husband who knows my taste so well – thank goodness we share that, lest he consider me a little crazy.
American Psycho tells the story of Patrick Bateman, a young man of privilege living in Manhattan. Over the course of three years, Bateman’s life spirals almost out of control – though he appears to actually be quite in control of all of his actions. He has all the makings of a sociopath…let’s check the list:
- Superficial charm – Check
- Manipulative & conning – check
- Grandiose sense of self – CHECK!
- Pathological lying – this is almost not a check. Bateman has no problem spewing the truth about his thoughts of violence – however, the whole story may be him lying to himself…so check
- Lack of remorse, shame or guilt – check, check and check
- Shallow emotions – checkity check
- Incapacity for love – cheeeeeeck
- Need for stimulation – check
- Callousness/lack of empathy – check check
- Poor behavioural controls/impulsive nature – checkerdee doo dah
- Early behaviour problems/juvenile delinquency – the novel doesn’t truly go into Bateman’s past too much, however there are glimpses into his early academic life and suggests such problems existed…check
- Irresponsible/unreliable – check
- Promiscuous sexual behaviour/infidelity – Ding ding ding!
- Lack of realistic life plan/parasitic lifestyle – check and check
- Criminal or entrepreneurial versatility – until the ending of the story, this is a check
It all starts out innocently enough…Bateman and his associates lead envious lives on the surface. They live in beautiful condos, brownstones and apartments in Manhattan – the most highly desired addresses. They are well-dressed, handsome, fit and filthy rich. They own top of the line audio/visual equipment, the latest CDs and walls of videotapes; dine at the newest trendy restaurants; party at the most exclusive clubs. They lead shallow lives, concerned only with who’s wearing what, who’s doing who, who’s got reservations for the hippest new bistro, who’s got the cocaine for the night. This is a scathing review of the consumerism and apathy of American culture in the 1980s. Bateman’s stream of consciousness narration can be as lucid and direct as someone reading a Sears’ catalogue; but often reaches the opposite end of the spectrum as well, where he becomes neurotic and unstable in his exhaustive accounts of sexual exploits and harrowing outbursts of violence and murder.
And yes…it is violent.
While the first third of the book contains hints at Bateman’s escalating volatility, it primarily acts as a view into a troubled mind. One who is often even-keeled in the presence of work acquaintances, but tends to go over the edge in the privacy of his own residence. It’s hard not to imagine a young man, sitting at a table full of people, but feeling so alone, as the rest of the group prattles on about etiquette, appetizers and the merits of tanning salons. So when Bateman finally carries out his first heinous act in print, it’s not actually a surprise. The build up to the event leaves nothing to the imagination, and by the end of the book, a disquieting body count has arisen. Bateman is an equal opportunity executioner – though it is his ability to linger in his enjoyment of mutilating women that is disconcerting. It becomes apparent that while he can take great pleasure in the destruction of any human life, it is his many methods of massacre of the women he comes across – be they friend or stranger – that he holds in the highest esteem. It is uncertain if this is a reaction to his relationship with his mother, as very little is discussed about his life previous to where the story begins. It is glaringly apparent, however, that his hatred of his shallow existence is the driving force behind his murderous binges. Throughout the book, the women in his life – save for Jean, his secretary – are incredibly one-dimensional – and Bateman appears to be trying to rid himself of all of them. His treatment of animals and the homeless in the streets of New York City are indicative of his inability to feel remorse or emotion in regards to any form of life. He has simply fallen off the deep end, and cannot seem to help himself whenever an opportunity to destroy a life presents itself. It’s all very…chilling.
Bateman has difficulty distinguishing his acquaintances from one another – often mistaking them for each other – and they have the same problem with him. It is not uncommon for him to continue in a conversation where another individual has called him by the wrong name. He simply plays into the discussion. He also – with increasing frequency as the novel unfolds – drops progressively more psychotic language in normal, everyday conversation. In a discussion with his fiancée, Evelyn, about her desires for her own wedding, Bateman muses,
“I’d want to bring a Harrison AK-47 assault rifle to the ceremony…or an AR-15. You’d like it, Evelyn: it’s the most expensive of guns, but worth every penny.” I wink at her. But she’s still talking; she doesn’t hear a word; nothing registers. She does not fully grasp a word I’m saying.
Often, the most hilarious, yet alarming part of the narration is how easy and natural it is for him to drop such statements into the conversation. They are never recognized as threats of danger to others in the discussion. Bateman is completely nonchalant in his speech – in pattern, tone and delivery.
Perhaps what is frightening, is that Ellis very much identifies with Bateman…well, frightening until you understand how…
“…certainly while I was working on American Psycho, I identified with Patrick Bateman. Not in terms of myself as a murderous clotheshorse, but his loneliness and alienation were certainly [what] I was feeling at that time. I was living a bit of yuppie nightmare when I was in my mid-twenties in Manhattan. That’s certainly affected the book. Also, the conformist attitude that was so big in the moment. Which actually still is big: You’ve got to wear the right suit, you’ve got to have the right apartment, you’ve got to have the right body in order to get the right girl. The numbing lists of things you were supposed to have as an American to make you happy, which ultimately, of course, don’t. Those aren’t the things that make you happy. Which can lead someone to fantasize the most outrageous things in order to feel something. In a way, Patrick Bateman may commit those crimes in order to feel something, or he may have fantasized them in order to feel something. The same way that I think I wrote American Psycho in order to feel something during those years when I was extremely adrift, not feeling connected with the culture and kind of repulsed by what was going on in America at the time…”
~ Bret Easton Ellis on which of his books’ characters represent him or his worldview, from an interview with Goodreads.com.
Regardless of what you think of the violence towards…well, everything…in American Psycho, it is a book to be respected for its relentlessness in exposing high society for what it really is: a contrived, callous shell of an existence. If that’s not enough to make you crazy, you are certainly a better (wo)man than I.
Ironies found within:
Many feminist activists protested against the publishing of this novel, including Gloria Steinem. You might know Ms. Steinem as the stepmother of Christian Bale, who later portrayed Patrick Bateman in the 2000 release of the movie of the same name.