“American Psycho”

January 20, 2009 at 6:46 pm | Posted in Fiction | 2 Comments

American Psycho appears in the list of 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, along with two other titles by Bret Easton Ellis.  There has been a certain amount of debate over which books have made the cut and which appear to have been unfairly excluded.  I approached this one with excitement, because I love true crime and I know way more than I should about serial killers.  Having read it, I see its value as a period piece, but I’m not sure it will hold up as an enduring classic.  I also take issue with its inclusion as something that must be read, because its scenes of sex and violence are frankly X-rated and would be too difficult for many readers to stomach.  Again it makes me wonder why there isn’t a ratings system for books the way there is for film.

In 1991 the cultural references in American Psycho must have been quite current.  Now, it’s pretty funny to read about Betamax and answering machines and the amazing mysteries of the compact disk player.  You know that Ellis’s characters would have jumped all over the smart phone if only it had been invented.

Ellis succeeds in parodying 1980s materialism, though the constant descriptions of every article of every character’s clothing become grating.  (Bret Easton Ellis himself said, “Look, it’s an annoying book”).  His ear for dialogue is sharp.  His technique of popping a shocking thought into the midst of vapid conversation is effective.  Patrick Bateman as a psychopath is, unfortunately, not convincing, particularly when he reads Garrison Keillor and enjoys listening to Phil Collins sing “Groovy Kind of Love.”

Was Bret Easton Ellis really trying to portray the inner mind of a psychopath?  [Spoilers]

I argue no.  I believe Patrick Bateman exhibits classic neurotic symptoms and that Ellis leaves plenty of clues that what we’re witnessing is a very vivid, though sick, fantasy life.  (Any woman would detect this early on, because the sex scenes clearly have no basis in female reality).  Yes, Bateman is a narcissist.  Yes, he fantasizes about sadistic acts.  Yes, he has difficulty deferring gratification.  But he’s constantly having anxiety attacks and holding back tears.  He’s almost entirely unable to manipulate people, even when he wants to.  The main difficulty is that Bateman is too aware of others’ emotional needs and cares too much what they think about him to be a convincing psychopath, and due to Ellis’s reading of the available literature on serial killers, I’m sure this was planned.

I asked Rocket Scientist what type of music he thought this “American Psycho” would like.  Without hesitating, he said, “Alice in Chains.”  I said, “Guess again.”  He said, “Metallica.”  “Nope,” I said, “try Phil Collins, Whitney Houston, and Huey Lewis and the News.”  Look, he’s telling us something here.

The other problem is whether Bateman is believable as a serial killer.  (About 1% of the population are estimated to be psychopaths, while the FBI thinks there are maybe one dozen active serial killers at large at any one time).  Frankly, I can’t buy it.  For starters, we’re meant to believe he’s habitually been dropping off bloodstained clothes and sheets at the dry cleaner.  (My theory is that these stains come from an entirely different bodily fluid).  He kills people in his social circle, he kills on his own turf, and he supposedly kills in public places with bystanders.  In broad daylight.  It’s impossible for any true crime fan to believe he’d be able to pull this off for any length of time, especially after he hauls a body out in a sleeping bag past a doorman.

I choose to read American Psycho as a metaphor for the spiritual void that is materialism; an indictment of shallow 1980s values.  On that level, it works.


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  1. I haven’t read this one yet, but hubby gave me an in-depth overview of it when he read it a few months ago, and he said it was one of the only books he’s ever had to put down and walk away from for a few minutes because the violence was so graphic and the character so disturbing. Having heard about the book and seen the movie, I agree with the theory that Bateman is fantasizing but is not actually murdering people. Guess I’ll have to bump this one up on the list now.

  2. […] American Psycho – Bret Easton Ellis 1/17/2009 […]

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