On American Psycho

Posted by Jack on 2020-04-29 at 19:00
Tagged: books
TitleAmerican Psycho
AuthorBret Easton Ellis

I read this book based on some snippets of Ellis' writing I found intriguing. This is also a rare example (for me) of a book I read after seeing the movie so, in some ways, Patrick Bateman will always be Christian Bale to me.

I understand that this book was controversial on release in 1991 and it's not hard to see why. It leaves absolutely nothing to the imagination. The sex is straight out of Letters to Penthouse, the violence is equally pornographic and barbaric. This is not your typical literature. This is not something you discuss with your children or coworkers. There isn't one scene with anything admirable in it, there is nothing life affirming, nothing hopeful.

Yet the novel is also utterly believable and portrays something that I think needs to be examined - the complete and utter lack of accountability of the wealthy. This is what makes American Psycho so compelling. The sex and violence can both titillate and disgust, but the intervening time is spent showing us how everyone in Bateman's world, the world of the rich elite, doesn't care about anything but their own appearance. Other people don't really exist to them.

Everyone is speaking, no one is saying anything of substance, no one is listening.

Everyone fights over prestige restaurant reservations, no one eats anything which doesn't keep them from reciting snippets of critical praise from a newspaper or magazine.

Everyone is interested in fashion and brands and price tags to measure themselves against others, no one cares about the actual substance of their lives.

Through the book, Bateman is almost always confused for other men and never makes a correction. Much time is spent with his rotating crew of acquaintances trying to identify others and failing. The men who can name a garment by designer and collection, or list the model number, features and price tag of their stereo, can't remember a face if their lives depended on it. The business card is a fetish object more notable for its lettering and thickness than any information conveyed by it.

At one point in time I think the outrageous level of narcissism depicted in this book might have read as a satirical caricature. It might have seemed like we lived in a country where justice is equal and the Patrick Batemans of the world would be punished. In 2020, with 30 years of hindsight with Enron, subprime mortgages, Weinstein, Epstein, and of course Donald Trump (who is explicitly idolized by Patrick's ilk in the book) it's almost chillingly real. During a chase in the novel, Patrick shoots someone on the street and all I could hear was Trump's claim he could shoot someone on 5th Avenue and not lose a voter.

The bottom line is that consequences aren't on the table for these people. Bateman tells us that he doesn't have any clear emotion except "greed and, possibly, total disgust." No happiness. No sadness. Certainly no remorse. No fear of discovery. Bateman is occasionally upfront about his violence and even confesses but it's always ignored or taken as a joke because those around him are pathologically incapable of noticing his aberrant behavior for fear that their own will be noticed.

It's a bleak story overall that shows us the ruling class is entirely self-serving, vapid, unfaithful and even murderous and yet the one character central to Bateman's life that is merely average, Jean, his secretary, has actually fallen in love with the facade he presents to the world. It's darkly ironic and indicative of how stupid we, the American people, are that we believe there is any goodness or high intention in them.

The one criticism I will level, and the reason I didn't give this five stars for prose alone, is that I think Bateman's unreliability about murdering Paul Owen does nothing but rob the story of some of its clarity. It would be one thing to turn Bateman into a gutless fantasizer and relegate all of his butchery to his imagination, but we suspect some of his exploits did occur (the taxicab driver accused him of murder he recounted, the police at Evelyn's neighbor's brownstone, the blinded bum) so not knowing how much of Bateman's memory is true just undermines the overall point that it doesn't matter.

I would also say I found the three musical interlude chapters to be rather pointless filler. Assuming they are written from Bateman's point of view all it proves is that he can appear quite discerning about music I don't care about. The main body of the work aged well in retrospect, but these sequences seem far more dated to someone that wasn't immersed in 80s pop culture. I suppose they serve as palate cleansers in a book that only has one character to follow.

All together though, the book was a compelling read that shocked me and made me feel dirty for reading it, and dirty for living in a society where this level of flagrant disregard for humanity is basically par for the course for the moneyed elite.