American Psycho

Christopher Owens with a review of a modern classic.

First published, to widespread repulsion, in 1991, American Psycho is a book that has aged beautifully and, in these times of "post-truth", resonates all too clearly in 2019.

The novel is less of a tale, more of an insight, into the life and mind of Patrick Bateman. A twenty six year old who works on Wall Street (Pierce & Pierce, the same company as Sherman McCoy in The Bonfire of the Vanities), his life is an endless parade of dinners at exclusive restaurants, workouts, manicures and clubbing. All while wearing the most exclusive names that fashion can offer: Brooks Brothers, Louis Vutton, Armani, Garrick Anderson.

Conversations with him and his companions involve searching queries about whether belts should be the same colour as the tie, the exquisiteness of the Bahamas and how society cannot afford to be without such young, urban professionals who believe that, dyslexia can be sexually transmitted.

But Bateman harbours dark fantasies involving rape, murder, cannibalism and torture. Does he retain these fantasies as a subconscious reaction to the bland conformity and unadulterated greed of his everyday life, or does he actually cross the line and commit these crimes in order to feel something? That's for the reader to decide.

Hugely controversial for it's depictions of grotesque violence against women, these segments overshadow some genuinely funny moments (such as the chapter entitled 'A Glimpse of a Thursday Afternoon' where Bateman, having a mini meltdown, buys two copies of a Bruce Willis album, demands to know why he can't have cheese in a kosher restaurant and declares that “I've forgotten who I had lunch with earlier, and even more important, where”). The book, intended as a satire on yuppies and the culture they surround themselves with, has the reader laughing at scenes where the characters compare business cards, fall out over "brittle" pizzas and work themselves into nervous wrecks because their table at a restaurant is mediocre.

While the motif of misidentification (every character is mistaken for someone else) is something that Bateman uses that to his advantage (or does he), it furthers the sense that this lifestyle is homogenous and dehumanising to the reader. This, coupled with the endless descriptions and name checks of people's clothing and apartments, can wear the reader down. But it's imperative to keep reading, as the result is one of numb passivity. And not only does it make the violence that more repellent, but it also moves the reader that much closer to Bateman's actual mindset, where the violence becomes not only a reaction to this shallow lifestyle, but also a cry for recognition.

As well as this, there is a post-modern slant to the narrative as well, not just in terms of identity but the idea of the self. While some have decried this as nothing more than a variation on the old "then I woke up, it was all a dream" trope, I think this is a gross simplification. By spending time with this character, you get close to the nullifying life they lead, become numb at the endless amounts of cash spent, and you can feel how this can leave you questioning who you are and what the point of your existence is. Is it any wonder Bateman feels the need to tell the reader:
There's no use in denying it: this has been a bad week. I've started drinking my own urine. I laugh spontaneously at nothing. Sometimes I sleep under my futon. I'm flossing my teeth constantly until my gums are aching and my mouth tastes like blood. Before dinner last night at 1500 with Reed Goodrich and Jason Rust I was almost caught at a Federal Express in Times Square trying to send the mother of one of the girls I killed last week what might be a dried-up, brown heart.
Author Bret Easton Ellis initially intended the book to touch upon what he describes as:
...the dandification of the American terms of surface narcissism. Beginning in the Eighties, men were prettifying themselves...And they were taking on a lot of the tropes of gay male culture and bringing it into straight male culture — in terms of grooming, looking a certain way, going to the gym, waxing, and being almost the gay porn ideals. You can track that down to the way Calvin Klein advertised underwear, a movie like American Gigolo, the re-emergence of Gentlemen’s Quarterly.
When looked at in this way, the book becomes a mediation of traditional, straight, masculinity in crisis: the notion that Bateman has become so self absorbed and narcissistic with his appearance, but is aware that there is something inherently 'unmanly' about it is an intriguing proposition.

However, the notion of dandification also fits in with the theme of consumerist greed that oozes from every page. Whether Ellis intended to or not, there is little denying that the book offers a Swiftian style satire on greed, unfettered capitalism and it's consequences. In fact, there's a school of thought that says Bateman is a personification of the violence and wars that Wall Street profit from (something not commented on by Ellis), which makes the book all the more slimy and insidious.

Regardless of how you choose to interpret Bateman's diatribes, it cannot be denied that this book is a masterpiece. Yes, it's heavy handed. Yes, it's characters are two dimensional. Yes, the narrator is an unreliable one. But none of that matters. All that does matter is that this book opens a vortex to hell, and will sucker you in if you're prepared to give it the attention. You'll never be the same again.

Oh, and the fact that he thinks Genesis were funkier than "...any black artist..." still makes me chuckle.

Bret Easton Ellis, 1991, American Psycho. Picador ISBN-13: 978-0330536301

⏩  Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland.
Follow Christopher Owens on Twitter @MrOwens212

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Anthony McIntyre

Former IRA prisoner, spent 18 years in Long Kesh. Free Speech advocate, writer, historian, humanist, and researcher.

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