American Psycho is a novel by Bret Easton Ellis. It's a first person stream-of-consciousness novel about a mid-to-late twenties Wall Street banker during the late-eighties-early-nineties.

Patrick Bateman is a vain, self-obsessed pleasure-seeker, surrounded by a gaggle of similarly self-obsessed bankers and socialites. Bateman and his friends idle away their days thinking about what restaurants to secure dinner bookings; which nightclubs to be seen at; where to score cocaine and pick up women. They compete with one another on points of dress etiquette, and the relative degree of luxury demonstrated by their attire. They are all relatively interchangeable: the reader could be excused for mixing the identi-kit bankers up, and indeed they are frequently confused for each other, and other people, throughout the novel.

Bateman describes — in vivid detail — nearly every item of clothing worn by both his male and female associates, describing both their cut and which fashion house they have come from, occasionally passing judgement. The murders are typically described with the same vivid detail as his more public activities.

As well as a yuppie, Bateman is a psychotic, and probably a serial killer: there is a small amount of ambiguity, partially due to the frequent confusions of identity between the various male banker characters in the book. It's possible that Bateman has fantasised his killer side, or embellished it. He's clearly an unreliable narrator. It takes a relatively long time before this aspect of his personality emerges. It's also possible that he is a killer, but the people he kills are so interchangeable that nobody notices, or cares. There is a passage towards the end of the book that strays into Hollywood action-thriller levels of absurdity, possibly the only moment in the book where you have difficulty believing that the events could have occurred as described. Bateman tries repeatedly to talk to people about his crimes, but never succeeds in holding people's attention, or being taken seriously. This particular theme reaches a particularly amusing climax.

Reportedly Ellis wrote the novel without the violent scenes and later added them in. I can believe that. The novel is carefully constructed to manipulate the reader in a way I've never been aware of before. The everyday and the horrific mesh to make the whole seem very consistent and lucid. There is a small surreal element woven into the story which is so subtle and downplayed that you can't withdraw into the safety of "this is a fantasy". Similar scenes recur over and over: heading to a restaurant. Heading to a club. Sex. Murder. Ellis uses repetition to lull you into a false sense of security before hitting you hard with an about-face, mid-sentence, like a movie jump-cut. This book has the dubious distinction of being the second novel ever to have made me feel physically queezy after reading a passage (and I was reading the other book in a car, which may have been a contributing factor).

The book has been criticised for the level of violence meted out against women. Numerically, Bateman describes a roughly even number of male and female murders. However his female victims are dispatched with a shockingly higher level of planned sadism: most of his male victims are opportunistic rather than planned. Some critics theorise that the even male/female victim count is a deliberate pre-emption on the part of the author from criticism for the violence against women. I don't quite see the argument, here: Bateman is not a sympathetic character. He's a monster, and the fact he's a sexist monster is only one unpleasant facet of many. To me, the disdain and hatred shown towards homeless people was a far more prevalent problem, not least because it wasn't limited to murders, or even Bateman: many of the other characters are cruel towards them.

What would this book be, without the murder? Quite similar to a number of Ellis' other stories, if their blurbs are anything to go by: explorations of the emptiness of the lives of privileged, upper class contemporary Americans. Is the psychopathy central to the story? I think so. The contrast between the corporate and the murderous is at the core. Would I recommend this novel? I'd hesitate to do so to anyone with a nervous disposition: otherwise, it has left a lasting impression and a desire to discuss it further, which you can take as praise.

There's a good critical review at the M/C Journal.


Comments

comment 1
Nice review :) I have yet to read it.
Comment by David Banks
comment 2

Well written review!
I have yet to find another book that is such a harsh criticicism of consumerism, on par with Fight Club. Ellis's interpolation of capitalism to its natural climax is an acute picture of understanding.

If you have any further reading recommendations, especially in this genre, please feel very much encouraged to write about them :-)

Comment by Anonymous Coward