Sunday, September 7, 2014
Published by: Vintage
Publication Date: March 6th, 1991
Format: Paperback, 401 Pages
Patrick Bateman and his friends are the epitome of yuppiedom. Young, highly successful investment bankers, they wear the right designer labels, they are seen at the right restaurants, and they drink the right bottled water. Bateman could be any one of them, only he harbors something darker behind the veneer that is the true depth of those around him. He satisfies a violent blood lust killing women and men. They might have offended him, they might have merely looked at him the wrong way, or they might have a better business card. As Bateman fuels this dark need his desire to kill comes sooner and sooner. But with everyone living in their own hermetically sealed bubble who would even notice his crimes?
American Psycho is one of those books that everyone knows about. Like classics that people brag about reading, I'm not sure how many of those people have actually read this book. The bookseller at Barnes and Noble who checked me out and who has literally never said more then a few words to me ever (even more impressive when you think how often I go to the bookstore) got all gushy about this book and Bret Easton Ellis, but with the caveat that it is violent. He wasn't wrong. This book is not an easy read. The violence and culture of the time make it hard to swallow. Yet there's something about the underlying message lambasting our culture that calls to us and makes the book still relevant. Why else would there not only be a movie but a musical, which actually makes more sense then you'd think, and a contemporary television show about an older Bateman in the works? Because Patrick Bateman is the zeitgeist of the late 80s in New York, whose afterimage can sadly still be seen today.
There's a thin line between camp and horror that Ellis walks in the book. American Psycho succeeds when it's subtle. Before we witness Bateman kill firsthand it's scenes like the one at the laundromat when he's trying to explain through belligerence and a language barrier the importance of getting his sheets whiter then white. Of course the sheets bear the hallmarks of the previous night's killing, but having not seen the killing the interaction is laced with dark humor. Not to mention my favorite scene where he decides his colleague must be killed for having a nicer business card. Being suggestive works far more then being graphic, and it's not long before Ellis is graphic. This is when the book shifts, and in my mind, starts to fall apart. Our imagination can be pretty horrific with just implying what happened, but Ellis, he is one sick fellow for some of the imagery he conjures, especially what happens to Bateman's ex from college.
Yet one does wonder how deliberate this downward spiral is. It's clear that Bateman's killing spree is ramping up, and therefore it does make sense to go gorier and grosser as he unravels, but it makes for a less readable story. The unraveling raises the question of how much of this is real? Was Bateman so sick that he hallucinated it all? How else would Paul Owen be seen after Bateman killed him? I have a theory about Paul, but that will hold for a minute. It's the questioning of Owen still being alive as well as his seeming ability to get away with it all that makes one think perhaps it didn't happen. With the amount of drugs Bateman takes and looking to scenes like the chase with the helicopter, one can see how the "it's all in his mind" theory is plausible. And is it any less horrific to know that these are just his thoughts? For my money, I think he was a murderer, but I do like the ambiguity.
Going back to the zeitgeist and Bateman's mindset, I think American Psycho is a scathing attack on our culture during the late 80s. It's a flawed attack, but it gets it's point across admirably. One of the reasons it's hard to get into this book is the sheer number of designer brands Bateman lists. Every article of clothing in the whole book from Bateman's own wardrobe to everyone else he encounters is stripped down to their socks and shoes. After awhile you think that perhaps Ellis could lighten it up because he's gotten the point across, but he doesn't. I think that the fact that he doesn't give it up shows even stronger the relentless consumerism in our society. But it's not just the buying of more and more designer labels, it's also the lifestyle that goes with the designer labels, the physique that must be maintained, the music you listen to, everything is detailed to the nth degree and it shows how vapid and shallow our culture can be at it's very worse.
But not only does American Psycho attack our habits, it attacks what these habits make of us. Throughout the book Bateman is again and again mistaken for other investment bankers. He is interchangeable with his colleagues. Indistinguishable. Hence Paul Owen also being interchangeable and being able to be seen from beyond the grave. The only thing that really separates Bateman is his blood lust. He is just a cog in the machine that is our culture. When he finally confesses his crimes they are viewed as a joke. Not only that, but the man he confesses to doesn't even realize he is Bateman! Once again he could be anyone. Everyone is only concerned about themselves and their problems, nothing else is relevant or even absorbed into their consciousness. This anonymity gives Bateman great freedom in being able to commit his crimes, but reflected back on us, this interchangeability means that Bateman might not be the "American Psycho" of the title. What do you see when you look in the mirror?