Anyone who had even a passing interest in the book publishing world will remember the brouhaha surrounding Bret Easton Ellis’ most notorious novel back in 1990. Publisher Simon & Schuster dropped the book after some of its more gruesome passages were leaked and generated considerable controversy, and in particular raised the ire of feminist groups. By the time the book was published (by Alfred A. Knopf) it had received so much publicity that no advertising was necessary, and the only cover art needed was Ellis’ face and the title.
It was the controversy that lured me. I don’t care what end of the political spectrum you’re on, if you tell me not to read a book, I’m going to read that book sooner or later. I made a note to get around to reading it one day, and one day has arrived.
It’s New York in the 1980s and things are going really well for young financier Patrick Bateman. He’s fabulously wealthy from his job at investment firm Pierce and Pierce (and also, it’s implied, from an inheritance or trust fund). He has an enviable apartment (Tom Cruise lives in the same building!), a vast and luxurious wardrobe, and spends most nights out at fancy restaurants or clubs. On nights when he isn’t out, he’s at home watching porn. Or murdering someone, usually in an elaborately gruesome way. Because Patrick is, to use the clinical terminology, batshit insane.
Ellis does a masterful job of leading the reader into Patrick’s mind, as we follow the obsessive, numbing routine of Patrick’s exercise and skin care regimen, his choice of clothing, his expensive meals. Details of Patrick’s murderous activities are slipped in almost unobtrusively – stains on a tie that could be chocolate syrup (but aren’t), references to dropped assault or rape charges. But as the novel progresses, the full extent of Patrick’s murderous nature becomes clear.
American Psycho is often considered a horror novel, but it’s really a satire. The murder passages are detailed, horrifically so, but just as detailed are the passages describing what Patrick and others in his circle wear, buy, and eat. Material goods, clothes, and people are all just commodities in this society. It’s significant that Patrick’s first victims we learn any detail about are the homeless – people worth less than nothing to society as Patrick sees it (it’s worth noting that many of Patrick’s fellow businessmen are also needlessly cruel to the homeless they encounter, even if they do stop short of murder). And just as Patrick seeks out trendier places to go to and more expensive clothes and toys, so his murders become more grisly and his victims are the less marginalized members of society.
It’s a very funny book at times – several scenes made me laugh out loud, particularly those involving the food Patrick and his swank friends pay hundreds of dollars for. The meals are ill-conceived mish-mashes of flavors, all presentation and no taste, and none of it seems to be actually eaten. Also amusing are the recurring scenes in which people call Patrick by another person’s name, or when he mistakes one person for another. These yuppie businessmen are all interchangeable.
These persistent mistaken identities also help to make it clear that Patrick is an unreliable narrator. Is he really doing all the things he claims to? And not just the murders – how could a person with a day job possibly find the time Patrick does to eat out, go to clubs, work out, and kill people? (Interestingly, we never see Patrick doing the work he’s presumably well-paid for, and even his secretary seems to exist solely to set up his social appointments.) How could he possibly commit the murders that he does with no one noticing the sounds, smells, or screams? It’s possible that some of this may be in Patrick’s head. At the same time, he displays so much patently sociopathic behavior and no one pays any mind, not even when he explicitly declares that he’s an insane killer – it raises the chilling possibility that Patrick has done all these awful things, but everyone else is too absorbed in their own pursuit of money, goods, and status to notice. That is far more chilling than the killings the book is notorious for.
Unfortunately, American Psycho wears out its welcome about two-thirds in. By then we’ve understood the points Ellis is making and know everything about Patrick that’s worth knowing (sociopaths have very little in the way of character arc). By the time we’ve gotten to the third enthusiastic analysis of bland pop music, the next graphic scene of torture and murder, or the dozenth exhaustive list of what Patrick is wearing, the reader is weary. The book could have been trimmed by a third and be none the worse for it (and we could lose the scene with the rat, which I’m sorry ever crossed my retinas). As it stands, the sheer length of the book dulls the satiric edge and takes the concept well beyond overkill.
It’s very much worth reading, though. It’s an effective portrait and parody of the “greed is good” era, and peek into a mind in full-tilt meltdown.