An Essay on American Psycho (1991) by Brett Easton Ellis
Surface, surface, surface...
The secret of this review is that it will be a little less than a review. Instead, I suppose it's simply another in a long line of my interminable essays. Whatever the case, I've been listening to an audio book of American Psycho by Brett Easton Ellis, which inspired the famous cult film, whose cliche lines, such as "I have to return some videotapes," have now passed over into pop-cultural points of reference.
Of course, I am not really, as it were, listening to every single minute of American Psycho. Such overly-attentive listening is unnecessary; even, self-defeating. American Psycho is not a novel whose conventional "plot" must be accorded scrupulous attention, as it is episodic; comic, alternately banal and horrific. Dinner parties and Christmas festivities rub elbows with microwaved heads, and prostitutes turned into literal meatloaf. It's all told from the unreliable, curiously bored, and detached psychopathic Wall Street exec, Patrick Bateman's, personal viewpoint, which invests the pedestrian with elevated significance; whose strict attention to surfaces compels him, obsessively, to note the designer behind every expensive piece of wardrobe worn by himself, his friends, and co-workers, female love interests, etc.
The character, defined by the performance of Christian Bale in the now famous film version from 2000, is a being that, lizard-like, chameleon-like perhaps, slithers along the surfaces of his world of indulgence, materialism, and affluence, blending in, but never quite doing so entirely successfully. His circle of friends—Pryce, McDermott, Carruthers, etc.—serving the same function, in the career, corporate world, similar individuals must have served in the world of prestigious college fraternities; they are there to underscore the misogyny and decadence of a social class that may, because the true American religion is acquisitive, materialistic capitalism (such individuals as can accrue "the moot toys" are accorded the most value and respect, no matter their individual merit, as fully-sentient or sensitive, aware individuals) in point of fact, do as it pleases at the expense of anyone and everyone, and even the society that has afforded them such luxuriant comfort and ease.
Human beings, mostly women, are stripped of their relative human value, and divided up, and judged as an assemblage of individual parts—thus, a woman is a "hard body," has a "great ass," "great tits," etc. The major conflicts and emergencies faced by Bateman, and his crew of fellow board room jocks are whether or not they can get reservations to Dorsia, if they can get a good table, if the club has a "good restroom to do coke in." Bateman, a cold and lethal chameleon, a psychopath of monumental, and sickening aspect, is fixated on the superficial to the point of madness; a business card superior to his own infuses him with a desire to kill. To that end, he courts the luckless Paul Owen, murdering him, and taking control of his apartment; a place where he can, of course, commit more serial killings.
We are never, at any time by Bateman, informed of what made him this way. Was it childhood abuse or trauma? Or, was he simply "born to kill"? We don't know. The opening of the novel, taking us back to the gritty streets of NYC at the end of the 1980s, contrasting the pampered and luxuriant life of Bateman, and a friend (who is wondering, humorously, if dyslexia could be transmitted as a virus), thrusts itself up against the realities of the ever-present homeless, the rampaging AIDS epidemic, and the ubiquitous posters advertising "Les Miserables"; the presence of the play symbolizing an easily-digested examination of poverty and class struggle, one that can be packaged, for the Patrick Batemans of NYC, as a mere Broadway extravaganza, another in a long, dreary succession of entertainments and distractions; repackaging the plight of the poor until it is nothing more than another superficial surface, a cause to be paid lip-service to by affluent, bored yuppies, who could, in all actuality, care less.
"Everyone in interchangeable, anyway." ―Bret Easton Ellis, American Psycho
One of the most telling aspects of the novel is the running theme of the "interchangeable" nature of all the characters—they, quite literally, are always mistaking each other for someone else, some other phony creation, a being comprised of perfect surfaces, attractive exteriors... and little else. Patrick's world is a living hell of banal, meaningless beauty, resting atop the cruel, cold, and meaningless sewer of a city that is crawling with homeless men and prostitutes, innocent bystanders that are randomly chewed up and spit out of Bateman's never-ceasing meat grinder of nihilistic, psychopathic rage. The quote from Dante upon entering Hell, "Abandon all hope..." begins the novel; indeed, Patrick's personal world is a living hell, but not one of bubbling cauldrons of excrement, or tortures of insects (unless of course, these are the punishments Patrick metes out to his victims). Instead, it is a hell of empty luxury, shallow emotion, soulless materialism, and narcissism; it is a world where Patrick can admit, casually, that he beat up a homeless girl, nearly to death, and elicit little response from his date; indeed, his psychopathy is manifested in little cues that are seemingly always ignored, or shrugged away by his circle of friends.
The general flow of events in the novel does have a hook in the murder of Paul Owen, who mistakes Patrick for a man named Marcus Halberstam. After dinner, the famous movie scene wherein Paul is killed while "Hip to Be Square" by Huey Lewis and the News is playing in the background, commences; Patrick will later rhapsodize for a long chapter about the musical and spiritual evolution of Huey Lewis, investing him with a "punk" anger that seems alternately comical and puzzling. To Patrick, Huey is as "angry as The Clash, or Billy Joel," musical acts that are essentially bourgeois and radio-friendly pop. His investing of the banal with political, social, or philosophic significance is humorous, but underscores the shallow and utterly surreal nature of his demented mentality. Of course, this novel is a satire of social concern repackaged as cheap "entertainment," the ubiquitous presence of the "Les Miserables" poster giving a symbolic nod to the functioning sociopathy of a man who can feign concern for the suffering of others—but who can never feel it. And, we can extrapolate this as a statement the author is making about society at large.
“Nothing was affirmative, the term “generosity of spirit” applied to nothing, was a cliche, was some kind of bad joke. Sex is mathematics. Individuality no longer an issue. What does intelligence signify? Define reason. Desire—meaningless. Intellect is not a cure. Justice is dead. Fear, recrimination, innocence, sympathy, guilt, waste, failure, grief, were things, emotions, that no one really felt anymore. Reflection is useless, the world is senseless. Evil is its only permanence. God is not alive. Love cannot be trusted. Surface, surface, surface, was all that anyone found meaning in… this was civilization as I saw it, colossal and jagged…”
―Bret Easton Ellis, American Psycho
There are long chapters devoted to Whitney Houston, Phil Collins, and home stereo systems. These are sandwiched between long, lurid, and repellent pornographic passages, and mind-numbing violence and cannibalism; splatter movie details of burnt breasts, nails hammered into hands, brains eaten with a dollop of Grey Poupon; Patrick smears blood and flesh on the wall, assaults and kills strangers at random, seemingly indulges in even little cruelties, because he is compelled to hurt others, whether it is through mutilation and murder, or simply feeding an unsuspecting lover a chocolate-covered urinal mint.
And life goes on for him, on and on, interminably; a never-ending succession of reservations at exclusive restaurants and hot night clubs, designer clothing, and expensive toys—but, Patrick informs us, this is "not an exit." He tells us this is not the "real world," his real one being the world of the savage and sickening primitive mutilations and murders he is increasingly compelled to commit; this is the true Patrick Bateman, the animal self covered on the surface by the impeccable and sophisticated world of the yuppie scum whose souls are so numbed that they can listen to Patrick describe "beating the shit" out of a homeless girl, and simply shrug it off; perhaps they think it is a fantasy; perhaps the capitalist fantasies proffered them by television and commercials, and the relative embalmed luxury of their affluent existences, has served to inure them to suffering, any suffering, ALL suffering; everything is an indulgent pleasure, another way to jolt the jaded sensibilities of the morally vacuous and empty. Think decline and fall of the Roman Empire.
The conversations over gourmet dinners, and across the table at boardroom meetings are so banal and insipid, yet, also, brutally revealing as to the calloused depths of the yuppies spouting them, they might well be satirical takes on lines cut from the teleplays of ancient, saccharine situation comedies, the majority of which were as bloodless, colorless, and interchangeable as Patrick's cadre of not quite fully-formed friends.
“There’s no use in denying it: this has been a bad week. I’ve started drinking my own urine.” ―Bret Easton Ellis, American Psycho
There is not much left to ruminate on, or so I feel. The novel famously juxtaposes the bourgeois lifestyles of a group of young, decadent 80s yuppies with the sadistic, monstrous tendencies of a man whose mind can conceive infinite torture and brutality, but who tears up at a Whitney Houston ballad. Patrick Bateman invests Phil Collins with heroic importance, as if he were musing over the relative merits of Baudelaire or Rimbaud, and attaches greater significance to the inner workings of an expensive timepiece than the inner organs of a call girl he is chewing on in the form of meat loaf. His friends are as two-dimensional and hellishly underdone as himself, his lovers the perfect Stepford-ready cyber women, who pop Valium and Clonopin in between trips to the restaurant Lady's room to puke up dinner. Butting up against this world of paltry simulation, in which no one is a real person, and so much so that sex is a kind of de facto necrophilia, Patrick can only reach out to the human, again, through the nexus of bestiality and murder. He can only reclaim himself by letting loose the darkness within.
But, what does it all mean? Is it an indictment of materialism, of bourgeois American consumerism and materialism, of Reagan-era greed? Of misogyny? Racism? What? Is it cautioning us against the soullessness of these positions, or is it embracing them? The detached, yet, at times, darkly humorous aspect of it, leaves us never quite certain. The novel seems to finish ambiguously, with Patrick uncertain as to whether he has engaged in actual killing, or whether it is all simply in his tortured mind; which, of course, he cannot escape.
So, indeed, to quote the killer himself, "This confession has meant nothing."
This is not an exit.