American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis is a truly horrific novel. It’s not only the scenes of terrible violence, mutilation and murder that make it so, but the entire construct of the society the characters live in. A disturbing satire of 1980s American ‘yuppie’ culture, American Psycho stays with you in a way that most novels never manage.
Though the violent scenes take up only approximately 20 pages of the book, the novel is filled with occurrences and descriptions that unnerve the reader but that represent the norm for the protagonist Patrick Bateman. As each character is introduced they are described not by their physical attributes but by the designer clothes they are wearing. This extensive list of shirts, suits, shoes, ties and dresses occurs every time a character is described – they have little or no other aspect to their personalities. This is further reinforced by the way in which characters are constantly misnamed, mistaken for someone else and introduced to others under the wrong name. This happens so often that it has become normal, and Bateman frequently carries on conversations and even sets up meetings and dinner reservations as someone else.
The characters’ lives revolve around nothing more than eating obscure dishes in expensive restaurants, working out at the gym and comparing business cards. It is consumerist culture at its worst, its most distorted, and because of this, some darkly comic moments often arise. The characters are constantly misunderstanding each other or simply not listening. A classic example is when Bateman tells a girl he has just met: “I’m into, oh, murders and executions mostly”, and she mishears this as “mergers and acquisitions”. “That’s not what I said”, he replies, but she has moved on to another topic. Each character exists in their own self-obsessed world with a ‘personality’ formed entirely from branded goods and a lavish lifestyle.
This allows Bateman to operate in a world where his wealth and his perceived social status allow him to do whatever he wants. He is a hateful character – racist, homophobic, misogynistic – and he tortures and murders men, women, children and animals. Surely, you’re thinking, SOMEONE will have noticed SOMETHING, but that’s just the point, as Andrew Miles Jacobsen summaries succinctly in his essay: “The reader wants to find someone in the book that says, ‘This is terrible!’ but there is no one.”
There are instances where we think Bateman may have been discovered, such as when a McDonald’s worker notices his blood-spattered jacket, or when a cab driver recognises him as the man that murdered his colleague, but the McDonald’s worker is distracted by the queue and carries on serving, and the cab driver simply robs Bateman, taking his cash and sunglasses, and leaves. Even the laundrette workers that clean his bloodstained sheets don’t ask questions.
There is one significant incident in the novel where we think Bateman may finally be caught and punished for his crimes: he shoots a beggar in the street, not realising that there is a police car close by, and as they chase him, he steals a cab and shoots the driver, crashes the car (toppling a market stall and knocking down bystanders), has a shoot out with the police, runs into the wrong building and shoots a doorman and guard, and finally escapes into his own building where he hides until morning. This scene stands out in that it jumps from the first person perpective, in which the rest of the novel is written, to the third person. Bateman is suddenly outside the situation, narrating the action as though it were a movie.
Far from offering an outside perspective, this sudden switch draws us deeper into the tangled workings of Bateman’s brain. The over-the-top action and movie-style shootout make us question the reality of Bateman’s actions and experiences, especially when towards the end of the novel he describes an ATM that instructs him to “Kill the President” or “Feed Me a Stray Cat”, and the park bench that follows him for six blocks.
The unreliability of Bateman’s narration, coupled with the fact that no one seems to notice his murders, lead us to question whether they did in fact take place. Paul Owen, who Bateman murders halfway through the novel, apparently turns up in London, seen by several people – but this could again be a case of mistaken identity. Bateman also leaves the bodies of two prostitutes in Owen’s apartment, and then later discovers that the property is on the market, clean and smelling of flowers, with no report of the murders.
Despite this deliberate ambiguity, I don’t think we, as readers, should attempt to take solace in the fact that the murders may not have happened, as this misses the point of the novel. There is no hope or happy ending, and there are no likeable characters or chance of redemption for them. As Jacobsen puts it: “[the novel] has no redeeming qualities. Ellis doesn’t provide socially redeeming qualities. There is nothing nice in the book. Nothing about any of the characters, nothing about anything — there is no plot; characters are not developed. You could take the things that the people in the book say, and switch them around with other characters, and it wouldn’t change anything, at least as far as character development goes. Patrick Bateman literally has no personality. He’s totally blank.” This is why, at the end of the novel, Bateman is exactly the same as he was at the beginning. Despite his horrific actions and behaviour, mental deterioration and repeated confessions, he is still the same person, or non-person. There is no personal development or breakthrough; it is only the reader that has changed.
The way I see it, the reader is carrying the burden of guilt throughout the novel. Ellis does not provide us with a scapegoat – another character or omniscient narrative voice that condemns Bateman’s actions – instead we are left to squirm our way through the horrifically detailed scenes of torture, feeling the guilt in having read them that Bateman does not feel in acting them out.
This, I think, is why the novel is so haunting. Some of the most violent scenes are followed by a mundane chapter describing songs and albums in detail (by artists such as Whitney Houston or Genesis), which Ellis appears to have included simply to allow the reader’s mind to brood on the events that have just happened, in stark contrast to Bateman’s lack of concern. The descriptions are almost meaningless and read like advertisements, simply background music, interrupted sharply by the reader’s re-surfacing memories of the violence in the previous chapter.
For example, the first scene of torture the reader is exposed to (Bateman attacking a tramp) is followed straight afterwards by a chapter on Genesis. The reader’s memories of the violence are sparked subtly, to begin with, by song titles such as ‘Who Dunnit?’, ‘No Reply At All’ and ‘Man on the Corner’, and Ellis toys with this as Bateman notes “‘Man on the Corner’ profoundly equates a relationship with a solitary figure (a bum, perhaps a poor homeless person?)”. By mentioning the bum, Ellis acknowledges the fact that the violence is resonating in the reader’s mind, and allows Bateman to mock this by the casualness of his tone and the use of brackets to indicate the insignificance of the event.
Far from being boring chapters to be skimmed over, these mundane descriptive passages are often the most psychologically insightful. For example, when Bateman mentions the song ‘Mama’: “I couldn’t tell if the singer was talking about his actual mother or to a girl he likes to call ‘Mama’”, and ‘Just a Job to Do’: “though it seems to be about a detective chasing a criminal, I think it could also be about a jealous lover tracking someone down.” Though these could be valid interpretations from anyone else’s point of view, coming from Bateman they seem to present his slightly warped view of what is acceptable in society.
Another interesting point to note is Bateman’s criticism of stream-of-consciousness lyrics, when his whole life unfolds in a stream-of-consciousness manner. The things he says and does are unacceptable, based on impulse and desire with no thought of the consequences, yet his head is filled with rules on social etiquette, dress code and convention. As a human being, he is inside out, but part of what makes the novel so interesting is that we are never quite sure what is inside and what is out.