American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
It has been 27 years since American Psycho came out and yet with all the talk of the numbing of society, this work still manages to shock. It can’t be sold to anyone in Australia under the age of 18 and in Germany the book only became available for purchase in the year 2000.
Something sinister lurks in the book behind it’s refined prose, the evil of Bret Easton Ellis, the evil of capitalism, of Yuppies, of the cocaine-fuelled 80s, and of the ever-present weight of society, forcing us to be less than we dream.
Everyone has an opinion of the story, often garnered from the 2000 film starring Christian Bale. Some judge it to be a worship of the aestheticism of violence, others see it as a hilarious black-comedy about the price of success. American Psycho is strangely seductive, hypnotising in its hyper-attentiveness. Told through the mind of Patrick Bateman, the book is sometimes unsteady, unreliable. After all, how can we trust a man as vain and concerned with image as Bateman to actually be telling us the events? How much of it is fantasy or hyperbole, told for the sake of venting the frustrations of Bateman?
Bateman is a businessman, an investment banker. Bateman is also, possibly, a serial killer. He is obsessed with image, with no regard to substance, to the point that many of his colleagues form an indistinguishable gestalt being. Mistaken identity is common, both in the narration and as a frequent topic of discussion amongst Bateman and his peers. He is involved in a loveless engagement with fellow socialite Evelyn, although he takes any chance to sleep with other women, all of whom seem to bear a passing resemblance to his fiancée.
After murdering his colleague, Paul Owen, Bateman uses his apartment as his own personal slaughterhouse, a place to kill and dispose of bodies. Bateman kills without a pattern, the only consistency being his ever-increasing lust for violence, progressing from simple stabbings to long sequences of rape, torture, cannibalism and necrophilia, all told through the dispassionate monologue of Bateman. In one of the most poignant moments of the book, he begins to wonder if his “mask of sanity has begun to slip,” if others have become curious about his connection to ever-more frequent crimes. Arrogantly, Bateman begins to talk about serial killers in casual conversation, almost daring people to call him out on his crimes. However, each of his colleagues is equally only interested in their own lives, ignoring most of what he says, reducing it to background noise until they can begin to talk again, about their new suit, the restaurant they scored a reservation at, their new car, the girl they hooked up with before. On several occasions, Bateman actually explicitly confesses, yet his tone and the disinterest of the listener always leave him walking away from these confessions.
Reading American Psycho changed me as a writer. Gone were simple stories, in their place a struggle to tell more than the plot. Morals and metaphor, and challenges to form and taste, all became apparent in my work.
Reading this didn’t revolt me, it fascinated me—on a mechanical level—and it continues to be a book I turn to for inspiration. I may never write as alluring a book as Ellis has, but the incentive—the hunger to be more than a common storyteller—will stay with me.
The book ends on a final image (Spoiler alert!), a sign that boded accurate for Bateman as he evolved into a film character, a reoccurring character in Ellis’ work, and more recently a stage figure; “This is not an exit.” Indeed the closing of the book doesn’t mean you are done with Bateman, nor he with you. Perhaps, in an era where the banker is once again the villain of society, American Psycho and Patrick Bateman are more alive than ever. Bateman is the Instagram celebrity that snaps pictures of his abs, he is the Twitter figure who divulges his breakfast every morning. In many ways, Bateman is perfect for the modern world. With all the attention one can receive at any given time, perhaps he wouldn’t necessarily be an American psycho.
A final aside, fans of this book would do well to read Ellis’ oft-forgotten pseudo-sequel Lunar Park, which features Ellis himself coming face to face with Bateman.
© 2018 Connor Sansby
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Connor Sansby is a Margate-based writer, editor, poet and publisher through his super-indie Whisky & Beards publishing label.