American Psycho by Bret Easton-Ellis

by Kristopher Cook

Where to start with a book like American Psycho? Does it need an explanation? Well yes… So here’s my American Psycho Book Review.

This is the book that propelled Bret Easton-Ellis to the forefront of transgressive fiction, hell, to the forefront of 90’s American-culture.

It’s strange reading books, that at some point, have come under scrutiny, or in this case, been outright banned in certain territories. The trials and tribulations of a time long ago can seem silly and fickle to a modern observer.

However, this book is an exception.

Written from a first-person perspective, we’re able to see what Patrick sees and know what he’s thinking; at all times. This means no escape from his psychotic thoughts, much less his actions, which are described in excruciatingly graphic detail. There’s your warning!

Abandon all hope ye who enter here.

 

Talking Heads Epigraph

And as things fell apart

Nobody paid much attention

Taken from Talking Heads ‘Nothing but Flowers’, this epigraph is a clear indication of what we’re letting ourselves in for. A warning of not only the environment of downtown New York but also Bateman’s progressive mental state.

 

Context

The majority of the book is written in a repetitive nature, making it all blur together, thus creating a difficult read. Add the fact that the first third is fairly empty, this can put a lot of people off. If you don’t have the determination to get through it then you certainly won’t be prepared for the final two-thirds.

Throughout we’re forced to endure Bateman’s perspective on the world around him. This includes his thoughts which are often; racist, sexist, misogynistic, and homophobic, to name but a few of his psychotic traits.

When compared to his spoken context, he’ll often stand up for these persecuted groups and begin to shame others for using similar slurs. This is where the book begins to split into two separate entities. (See Reality vs. Perception)

 

Patrick Bateman

A quiet wall-street conformist by day ravished serial killer by night. Make no mistake though; this is not a cartoony ‘Dexter’ styled killer – Patrick is a full-blooded murderer.

Located in downtown New York, Patrick lives in an executive apartment complex, works at Pierce & Pierce (a major Wall-Street Banking firm) and dines at the latest restaurants.

A stereotypical 1980’s American ‘yuppie’, Patrick follows the guidance of magazine reviews for fashion, dining, and technology. He studies these magazines extensively and often brings them up in dinner conversations, shared with his colleagues and lover, Courtney.

Everyone who knows Bateman sees him as the handsome quiet guy, with his youthful looks (thanks to his intense morning facial routine) and his charming demeanour.

But something festers deep inside. A desire to maim, to torture, to kill those who’re around him. Living their boring regular lives; whether this is a homeless man on the street, an eastern European hooker, random ‘hardbodies’ picked up from nightclubs or even his business associates.

As a narcissist, he’s only concerned with himself, where he should be seen, who he’s seen with, and what he’s seen wearing. They’re the worries of Bateman’s life.

In summary; Patrick Bateman is a troubled misogynist / racist / homophobic / cannibal (yes this does get brought up in the later sections) whose sole intent as a narrator seems to be one of self-glorification. You’re not supposed to like him and it often feels like Patrick himself knows this.

 

Reality vs. Perception

As mentioned above, Bateman seems completely harmless; somewhat of a ‘mummies-boy’ on the surface.

Questions of his childhood, where he’s from, and what he’s done are left unanswered; except during a fit of rage, he describes how at 14 he raped the family maid. Nevertheless, we can’t entirely trust him when he enters into these frenzies as they often appear to portray Patrick’s desire for control – For the power that he doesn’t have in his day-to-day life.

His brother Sean is introduced into the chapter ‘Birthday, Brothers’ however their dinner chat is nothing short of shallow, referencing little about their own Mother (a resident of a local mental institution). Bateman does state that he despises his brother and the feeling is likely mutual.

 

Serial Killers

‘Do you know what Ed Gein said about women?’

‘Ed Gein?’ one of them asks. ‘Maître d’ at Canal Bar?’

‘No,’ I say, ‘Serial killer, Wisconsin in the fifties. He was an interesting guy.’

’You’ve always been interested in stuff like that, Bateman,’ Reeves says, and then to Hamlin, ‘Bateman reads these biographies all the time: Ted Bundy and Son of Sam and Fatal Vision and Charlie Manson. All of them.’

Bret Easton-Ellis, Chapter Harry’s

Bateman often brings up serial killers in conversation, as illustrated by this quote. This short passage gives us a sense of the depths that Bateman becomes obsessed with certain topics, the same as he does with Fashion, Technology, etc.

Except for this time, serial killers, and psychotic killing, which in general, manifest themselves in his subconscious; until he begins to take action.

From then onwards, it’s very much at the front of his mind.

Again we’re reminded, just one chapter later, of Bateman’s obsession with serial killers.

‘Wait.’ Van Patten stops me. ‘Is he with Morgan Stanley?’

‘No.’ I smile. ‘He’s not with Morgan Stanley.’

‘Wasn’t he a serial killer?’ McDermott asks suspiciously, and then moans. ‘Don’t tell me he was another serial killer, Bateman. Not another serial killer.’

‘No, McDufus, he wasn’t a serial killer,’ I say, turning back to Van Patten, but before continuing turn back to McDermott. ‘That really pisses me off.’

‘But you always bring them up,’ McDermott complains. ‘And always in this casual, educational sort of way. I mean, I don’t want to know anything about Son of Sam or the fucking Hillside Strangler or Ted Bundy or Featherhead, for god sake.’

‘Featherhead?’ Van Patten asks. ‘Who’s Featherhead? He sounds exceptionally dangerous.’

‘He means Leatherface,’ I say, teeth tightly clenched. ‘Leatherface. He was part of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre.’

‘Oh.’ Van Patten smiles politely. ‘Of course.’

‘And he was exceptionally dangerous,’ I say.

– Bret Easton-Ellis, Chapter Yale Club
Texas Chainsaw Massacre - American Psycho Review

This time the focus is on Leatherface, although comically misidentified as Featherhead.

This leads to our next port of call…

 

Misidentification

Misidentification is a large measure of American Psycho. The characters speak in the same manner, worry about the same things (nightclub locations, restaurants, clothes) and even act the same when spotting another ‘big-city banker’ from across the room – all blending into one.

This means that additional characters (outside of the main five) are often misidentified.

‘What in the fuck is Morrison wearing?’ Preston asks himself. ‘Is that really a glen-plaid suit with a checkered shirt?’

‘That’s not Morrison,’ Price says.

‘Who is it then?’ Preston asks, taking his glasses off again.

‘That’s Paul Owen,’ Price says.

‘That’s not Paul Owen,’ I say. ‘Paul Owen’s on the other side of the bar. Over there.’

– Bret Easton-Ellis, Chapter Harry’s

These statement paragraphs plague the book throughout, blending external characters seamlessly into one entity; the outsider.

Another way to look at this; Bateman himself is always competing for the attention of his peers.

Several times he is referenced, by background characters, with the wrong name as they appear to see him, as his group sees others. A total non-entity. This is used to play-up Bateman’s isolation and his constant struggle for admiration.

 

Violence and Sexual Gratification

Explicit pornographic content and a wildly violent narrative can stun most readers into submission. There are more than several moments in this book when it’s easy to give in, to succumb to the graphic nature of Patrick Bateman.

Critics have delivered countless harsh reviews concerning the violent content of American Psycho, mostly for its unrelenting focus on the graphical aspects, blood, torture, genitalia, and executions.

The one scene that sticks with me most is with a young woman, picked up from a nightclub, and then tortured using household items and a starved rat, which Bateman bought days earlier in preparation. I’ve purposely left out the agonising details that follow this quote.

‘The rat hurls itself against the glass cage as I move it from the kitchen into the living room. It refused to eat what was left of the other rat I had bought it to play with last week, that now lies dead, rotting in a corner of the cage. (For the last five days I’ve purposefully starved it.) I set the glass cage down next to the girl and maybe because of the scent of the cheese the rat seems to go insane, first running in circles, mewling, then trying to heave its body, weak with hunger, over the side of the cage.’

– Bret Easton-Ellis, Chapter Girl

Bateman’s sexual needs are met through his obsessive watching of hardcore pornography, and masturbating to violent scenes found in the videos he rents. Namely Body Double.

‘I take a quick hot shower and then head to the video store where I return two tapes I rented on Monday, She-Male Reformatory and Body Double, but I rerent Body Double because I want to watch it again tonight even though I know I won’t have enough time to masturbate over the scene where the woman is getting drilled to death by a power drill since I have a date with Courtney at seven-thirty at Café Luxembourg. ’

– Bret Easton-Ellis, Chapter Health Club

Bateman’s blasé mentioning of niche pornography, explicit violence, and sexual urges all forming in the same paragraph are some of the most shocking pieces of modern fiction I’ve ever read. I’m sure most of you would agree? Are there any books more graphic than American Psycho?

Body Double (1984) dir. Brian De Palma

Body Double (1984) dir. Brian De Palma

As with Fight Club, American Psycho has a strong emphasis on consumerism. Yet, unlike Fight Club, the references and indications are less than subtle. Bateman’s constant justification for the latest fashions, technology, jobs (Fisher Account), foods/restaurants is a barrage of intent on his part.

His philosophical view is that of a consumer, somebody who defines himself by the material items he, and others, own. If you’re poor and don’t have these luxuries, i.e a homeless person, then you’ve no real reason to live.

 

80’s Pop Culture

There’re countless references to ‘Les Misérables’, which is another topic altogether, in addition to many 80’s pop culture references, explicitly ‘Whitney Houston’ and ‘Huey Lewis And The News’. Artist David Onica is brought up throughout to laminate Bateman’s status as an art collector, although this couldn’t be further from the truth.

‘Patrick?’ Bethany asks, still giggling.

‘Yes?’ I say, then, ‘Darling?’

‘Who hung the Onica?’ she asks.

‘You like it?’ I ask.

‘It’s fine, but…’ She stops, then says, ‘I’m pretty sure it’s hung upside down.’

‘What?’

‘Who hung the Onica?’

‘I did,’ I say, my back still to her.

‘You’ve hung the Onica upside down.’ She laughs.

‘Hmmm?’ I’m standing at the armoire, squeezing the nail gun, getting used to its weight in my gloved fist.

‘I can’t believe it’s upside down,’ she says. ‘How long has it been this way?’

‘A millennium,’ I whisper, turning around, nearing her.

– Bret Easton-Ellis, Chapter Lunch with Bethany

Bateman describes both his sexual (mis)adventures and brutal killing sprees in the same way he does his morning cleansing routine; in excessive detail that is downright tiresome.

 

Conclusion

Bateman is an unreliable narrator, repeatedly offering up fantasy as truth. It’s difficult to tell, but I believe that Bateman isn’t trying to deceive the reader and instead, struggles with his own reality. He’s constantly in need of breaking out of his own little world and trying to take control of the people around him.

His only way of doing so is to kill them in demeaning and derogatory fashion, except does he?

That’s where misidentification completely throws off all sense of understanding when the characters seemingly reappear at the end of the book.

Did Bateman simply imagine killing those people or did he kill others that he thought were them?

Due to the lack of police inspection, the tidying of the dead bodies and no awareness from those around him, I’m inclined to believe that the murders never took place. Well, not outside of Bateman’s mind at least.

 


 

Upon reading American Psycho, I ran to the nearest shopping centre and purchased a Whitney Houston album; her self-titled LP which had four number one hit singles on it, including ‘The Greatest Love of All,’ ‘You Give Good Love’ and ‘Saving All My Love for You,’ plus it won a Grammy Award for best pop vocal performance by a female and two American Music Awards, one for best rhythm and blues single and another for best rhythm and blues video.

On my way home, I mutilated a homeless guy with my pocketknife that sits well in my Valentino Jacket, stabbing him, quickly, in the neck. Above him was a sign and on the sign in letters that match the colour of his blood are the words,

‘THIS IS NOT AN EXIT’.

*This may or may not be true?

 

Have you read American Psycho? What are your thoughts on Bateman’s state of mind? Would you recommend the book to others? Let me know in the comments below.

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