American Psycho

Christian Bale starred in the film adaptation of American Psycho

Patrick Bateman: “When I see a pretty girl walking down the street, I think two things. One part wants me to take her out, talk to her, be real nice and sweet and treat her right.” 
David Van Patten: And what did the other part think? 
Patrick Bateman:What her head would look like on a stick… ” 

Oh my god. Do I need to say anything? Have you read this book? I don’t know whether I should recommend it, or rush to my window and hurl it out of my house and out of my head. The cover says ‘Bret Easton Ellis has done it again’ – well what exactly did he do last time? I haven’t read any of his other books (Less Than Zero, & The Rules of Attraction) but this one knocked me off my feet, terrified me, bored me, surprised me and disgusted me all at once.

American Psycho. Serial killer/Manhattan businessman, Patrick Bateman leads you through his life, starting with a seemingly pointless sushi dinner. Patrick is 26, wealthy and obscenely proud of the fact, and as the book picks up pace, seems much nicer than his arrogant, ignorant, pig-headed friends who quote false AIDS stats, hungrily devour women in their minds and make racist jokes. A passive character in the beginning, we barely notice him because we’re focused on the incessant chattering of another character, Timothy. In fact, the reader is deluded into not really caring about our narrator at all, and we end up carefully absorbing details about what Timothy is doing, and what Timothy just said, trying hard to pick up on any hidden clues – because we’re accustomed to reading books a certain way.

Bookworms like myself may not know it, but subconsciously, our minds have learned to pick up on certain things. When the author gives you details that might normally not have been included, it means they’re important. This is especially true of any mystery/thriller-type story. We know the writer will reveal the plot to us somehow, and we zero-in on those details – the color of a glove, the look in a certain character’s eye – as we hunt for clues in the narrative. This process repeats itself in novel after novel, and it is this hundrum repetition that Bret Easton Ellis manipulates.

The first thing you realize when you start reading American Psycho is the tiring, exhaustive, lengthy details – where a man shaving his face takes over a page and a half – where a woman isn’t just wearing a blouse and skirt, but a Krizia cream silk blouse, and a Krizia rust tweed skirt with silk-satin d’Orsay pumps and every outfit that every character is wearing is described painstakingly. An example: “The guy who let’s them pass is wearing a double-breasted wool tuxedo, a cotton wing-collared shirt by Cerruti 1881 and a black and white checkered silk bow tie from Martin Dingman Neckware.” – and this is just a random guy your narrator passes on his way into a club.

The reader gets so caught up in all this, this incessant attention to detail, reference to money, designers, high-quality, the finer things in life – and most glaringly obvious of all, how the characters in this story pay no attention to all of this. For them the details are obvious. They can spot a the make, company, year and style of your entire outfit a mile off. And while Bret has effectively blown your mind with his satirical expose of high society, you totally fumble. You don’t pay any attention to the line about two people who disappeared from a yacht party – “a residue of spattered blood and three smashed champagne glasses” – the words are so bold, so sharp, but you don’t even see them, because your mind is focused on how many buttons are on Price’s Armani overcoat.

Patrick Bateman is a psychopath, and Ellis is taking you on a trip through his mind, through his world. So blindingly arrogant are his upper-society friends to the world around them that they manage to trick you into being arrogant too. You read through their conversations about hardbodies, and AIDS, and whether or not you can wear tasseled loafers with a business suit, and you almost miss the details about Bateman nailing his ex-girlfriend to the wall, the subtle sentences that suggest he used a sharpened coat hanger to maul a prostitute, the way he ‘crushed’ a little dog’s trachea while walking the street.

Here’s a little clue-in from the folks at Wikipedia: Bateman comes from a privileged background, having graduated from Phillips Exeter AcademyHarvard (class of 1984), and then Harvard Business School (class of 1986). He works as a vice president at a Wall Street investment company and lives in an expensive Manhattanapartment on the Upper West Side, where he embodies the 1980s yuppie culture. Through present tense stream-of-consciousness narrative, he describes his conversations with colleagues in bars and cafes, his office, and nightclubs. The first third of the book contains no violence (except for subtle references apparent only in retrospect), and is simply an account of what seems to be a series of Friday nights, as Bateman documents travelling with his colleagues to a variety of nightclubs, where they snort cocaine, critique fellow club-goers’ clothing, trade fashion advice, and question one another on proper etiquette.

The second half of the novel finds you punishing yourself for not paying closer attention. Now it’s more obvious. Forget looking for clues, this is right in your face. As the book progresses, Bateman’s control over his violent urges deteriorates. The description of his murders become increasingly sadisticand complex, progressing from stabbings to drawn out sequences of torturerapemutilationcannibalism, and necrophilia. “His mask of sanity appears to slip” as he introduces stories about serial killers into casual conversations, and confesses his murderous activities to his co-workers. People react as if Bateman is joking with them, appear not to hear him, or otherwise completely misunderstand him (“murders and executions” is mistaken for “mergers and acquisitions”, for example).

Of his uncompromising, unapologetic diatribe against yuppie culture, and the upper echelons of society, Ellis says:

[Bateman] was crazy the same way [I was]. He did not come out of me sitting down and wanting to write a grand sweeping indictment of yuppie culture. It initiated because my own isolation and alienation at a point in my life. I was living like Patrick Bateman. I was slipping into a consumerist kind of void that was supposed to give me confidence and make me feel good about myself but just made me feel worse and worse and worse about myself. That is where the tension of “American Psycho” came from. It wasn’t that I was going to make up this serial killer on Wall StreetHigh concept. Fantastic. It came from a much more personal place, and that’s something that I’ve only been admitting in the last year or so. I was so on the defensive because of the reaction to that book that I wasn’t able to talk about it on that level.

I haven’t finished the book yet, but how will it end? What will happen? And do I even want to know?!

Patrick Bateman: I like to dissect girls. Did you know I’m utterly insane?