Friday, January 21, 2011

American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis

American Psycho
By Bret Easton Ellis

This paperback had been collecting dust on my bookshelf for some time, but I had seen the film version upon its initial release, and being less-than-impressed, I felt no rush to dive into the source material.  But recently I had seen some favorable reviews of the author's other work, and since I had a lack of other reading material at the time, I figured what the hell?

It's the late 1980s.  The heyday of bad hair and worse music, acid washed jeans and AIDS.  But beyond all that, it is the Age of the Yuppie, that curiously pretentious breed of young professional who craves nothing more than status and envy, making more money than most of us will ever see, and blowing it all on fine clothes, cocaine, hookers and hair product.  They are motivated by greed and popular opinion, always having to have the latest fashions, eat at the trendiest restaurants, and play with the most expensive toys.

Patrick Bateman is perhaps your prototypical yuppie.  He seems to have it all, and yet it's still not enough.  He wants more, and more, and more.

He knows full well that you want his life, and he's okay with that.  Because he wants your life too.  Or, more precisely, he wants to take your life, and watch with pleasure as you gasp your last breath as a result of his actions.

Told in first person, narrated almost as if we were eavesdropping on Bateman's own private thought processes, what is initially most disturbing is how casually he mentions his little hobby, dropping it in amidst his other daily activities:  woke up, went to work, disemboweled a prostitute on my lunch break, made plans to see Cats on Broadway, rented a video on my way home.  He's so nonchalant and undetailed that we almost don't believe him, much like his friends and coworkers.  Bateman occasionally drops hints to others about his true nature, and they either think he's telling a sick joke or pay no attention to him whatsoever.

But as the pages roll on, Bateman begins to let us into his murderous games more and more, to the point where we almost wish he would stop.  Graphic scenes of sexuality quickly devolve into even more graphic scenes of torture and murder until we realize that sex and death are interchangeable with this sick man--they are, after all, the only two methods of release that he has.  The only times he is free to be himself.

American Psycho is obviously, at least in part, a scathing satire of that peculiar subculture.  However, we are so far removed from that culture at this point in time that it is sometimes difficult to discern what Ellis is trying to get at.  If it took place only a decade or so later, Bateman would have been a dot-com millionaire, and perhaps easier for us in this day to comprehend.  A few decades may as well be a few centuries with as fast as the world changes these days.

He seems, at least to me, to be commenting on the identity of others--or the lack thereof--when one is focused solely on themselves.  Throughout the book, there are dozens of instances in which characters confuse one person with another, and indeed mistaken identity is a recurring theme here.  In theory, this could appear to be a theme devised by a particularly devious humanitarian, but it's difficult to imagine any humanitarian who would detail the atrocities that Ellis spells out for us here.

American Psycho.  I alternately loved it and hated it, was compelled and repelled.  There are a lot of books that have the power to polarize its readers into two distinct camps.  It's rare to find one that has the power to polarize a single reader into the same.

Guess it's time to give that movie another shot.



  1. I alternately loved it and hated it, was compelled and repelled.

    Yep. I well remember the controversy this book caused upon publication in early 1991. At the time I was working in a bookstore and when my boss tried to order copies, the person at our book distributor launched into a tirade against it over the phone. It took me a reread to get the black, Burroughsian humor and I do think had it been published a few years earlier it would have been more effective as satire. Ellis has said it was tough to write. I liked the movie okay, I loved that the realtor at the end was not going to turn him in (if I remember correctly, that's not in the novel) but nothing compares to the book. Whew.

  2. A great great read. I love the universe Ellis crafts. I would love to finally see a full crossover of Patrick Bateman with his little brother Sean Bateman (RULES OF ATTRACTION)


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