Book Review: American Psycho

Without a doubt, the most insane novel I have ever read, American Psycho will surely leave the reader with an overwhelming sense of astonishment, disgust, captivation and laughter. If you enjoyed the film, staring Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman, then I highly recommend that you check out this ground-breaking, one of a kind book.  You won’t be sorry…. or maybe you will.

American Psycho, by Bret Easton Ellis (1991), is a story is narrated by the protagonist Patrick Bateman, a 27-year-old Wall Street operative who is obsessed with his appearance, sex, material possessions, and murder. Bateman is a self-conscious psychopath who lives the lavish, yet meaningless lifestyle of a yuppie during the late 1980s.

The book is essentially about a man who lives a double life; one where he associates with the rich and powerful, and the other where he brutally murders people. Bateman loathes himself and the society he lives in, and uses murder as a release from the banalities of his meaningless life.  The sheer brutally of the murders committed by Bateman represent his dark sense of being, and it is only in these deranged acts that he can feel truly alive.

When reading American Psycho, it is important to understand and appreciate Ellis’ writing style. A lot of the text is spent describing the superficial aspects of the characters and their environments such as their hair styles, clothes, interior decors, etc. “He’s wearing a linen suit by Canali Milano, a cotton shirt by Ike Behar, a silk tie by Bill Blass and cap-toed leather lace-ups from Brooks brothers. I’m wearing a lightweight linen suit with pleated trousers, a cotton shirt, a dotted silk tie, all by Valentino Couture, and perforated cap-toed leather shoes by Allen-Edmonds”. The importance of maintaining physical beauty in Bateman’s life is to overshadow his lack of internal beauty.

Ellis dedicates chapters and lengthy passages to Bateman’s fascination and excessive knowledge of music icons, fashion brands, technology and serial killers. He knows everything about Huey Lewis and the News, Genesis and Whitney Houston, yet he doesn’t know himself. Bateman takes excessive care looking after his body and appearance, but he is incapable of feeling any emotion, except for greed and lust.

A large portion of American Psycho is devoted to Bateman’s exploits with women. He is constantly engaging in violent acts of sexual intercourse with prostitutes, and is involved in a long-term relationship with a woman named Evelyn. The only thing Bateman can achieve however is sex, and when he can’t even find pleasure or excitement in the women he sleeps with he turns the act into a twisted and immoral feat, often resulting with him slaughtering his mistress.

Ellis brilliantly captures the true essence of America during the late 1980s and uses cultural references to reinforce a country that is dominated by Armani suits, personal hygiene, business cards, and video stores. He uses satire and black humour throughout his novel to illustrate the farcical lifestyle and corrupt mentality of Patrick Bateman.

It is quite shocking that even the most ruthless scenes of murder, rape and torture can come across as comical to the reader, not necessarily the acts themselves, but the way in which Bateman narrates them. “I tried to make meat loaf out of the girl but it becomes too frustrating a task and instead I spend the afternoon smearing her meat all over the walls, chewing on strips of skin I ripped from her body.”

Do you like Huey Lewis and The News?
Do you like Huey Lewis and The News?

The way he observes and describes what he is doing is what gives the story its life, and it is through this commentary that we learn to understand the true mentality of Patrick Bateman as a man, yuppie, psychopath, and a product of his time.  The off-handedness of some of Bateman’s references about his exploits indicate the banality and insignificance of the crimes he commits: “Earlier in the day after a meeting with my lawyer about some bogus rape charges, I had an anxiety attack in Dean & Deluca which I worked off at Xclusive.”

It is quite clear from the early stages of the novel that Bateman is fully aware of his psychotic condition, and frets knowing that whatever sanity he has left is involuntarily declining as the story progresses.

American Psycho is not a story about a troubled man who eventually changes his ways for the better, nor is it about a monstrous villain who ultimately faces his just desserts. I believe that Bateman is actually the victim of the world he lives in. The material possessive and self-centred society he lives in has turned him into a supercilious monster that has forced him to wreak havoc on the world.

A large part of Bateman’s self-hatred comes from his negative depiction of others. He hates the homeless for not showing any initiative or ambition in life, and detests how shallow his co-workers are. They often mix him up with other business associates, which reinforces Bateman’s belief that he has no distinguishable personality.

Ellis does not expect his readers to like anything about Patrick Bateman or any of his other characters for that matter. It is his way of describing how shallow and sick our society has become.

The climax of American Psycho comes when Bateman completely loses touch with reality, seemingly blending the real world with his demented imagination.  It is the moment when he shoots a taxi driver and frantically drives away in the stolen cab. We know that he has become completely detached because he starts to refer to himself in the third person: “I lose control entirely.”

After this scenario, the book takes a significant turn.  The absurdness of the scenes that occurred in this chapter (shoot-outs with the police, car explosions, SWAT men scaling down helicopters) are obviously apart of Bateman’s imagination. This raises the question of whether any of the crimes he previously committed actually happened. When he reckons that all hope his lost, Bateman leaves a message on his lawyer’s answering machine admitting to all the crimes he committed, but when everything blows over, he realises that his confession meant nothing, thus coming to the conclusion that “what’s inside doesn’t matter”. Bateman now has no idea what the difference between reality and fiction is. Ellis later stated that it doesn’t matter whether Bateman committed all these murders or not. The point he tries to make is that even though millions of people are heinously murdered every year, the world will remain unaffected: “Society inevitably adopts the outlook of the psychopath; this is why Patrick Bateman finds that he fits so naturally within the environment around him.”

Bateman lives his life believing that he has no real identity in the world and that people are insignificant and replaceable, which he proves to himself by killing them off. One of the starkest examples of Bateman’s intolerance for human life is when he arbitrarily kills a child at the zoo. He later states that he found no pleasure in murdering him because the boy had no life history or past experiences.

The narration in American psycho is particularly unique in literature as it cannot always be relied upon. At certain times throughout the novel Bateman makes subtle errors in people’s names and description of things, which strengthens the reader’s suspicion that he is making up everything he does. Towards the ending of the book when Bateman attempts to own up to his crimes he discovers that no one will believe him, leaving the reader to realise that it doesn’t even matter whether they happened or not.


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