American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis book cover
American Psycho (1991) is Brett Easton Ellis’s critique of 1980s consumerist culture viewed through the eyes of deranged serial killer, and ever-presentable yuppie, Patrick Bateman (brother to Sean from The Rules of Attraction). The novel follows Bateman as he glides through the streets of New York, surrounded by wealthy, vacuous companions; reflections of himself. Bateman’s New York: a wretched, filthy place to exist; the stink of shit and money inexorably linked, consumerist pornography dripping from every billboard and leaping from every store front. Bateman immerses himself in this world, and the narrative slides between Bateman’s banal opinions on music, fashion, and fine-dining, and jarring fits of graphic sex, violence and murder.

Bateman’s world, only a slight exaggeration of our own, is a society entirely swept up in the allure of materialism, spiralling to ever greater heights of gratuity. Indeed, whilst the reactionary press choose to focus on the violence, the key to understanding Ellis’s novel is in the long sections of consumerist babble. American Psycho should be read as a scathing attack on neoliberal politics and the consumerism that holds sway amongst Bateman and his peers, who even themselves are expendable commodities. In line with a neoliberal reading, Bateman doesn’t view the world down fixed gender, or racial lines – he judges people on the value they bring to the world, whether they create, or are a drain on society. When he murders, he eliminates surplus humanity, those that fail to deliver, in a warped form of vigilantism; it’s social justice by market forces.

With every individual treated as a commodity, identity, or lack of, becomes fundamental. Bateman desperately desires to ‘fit in’ with the yuppies who surround him, all of whom are all but physically identical and entirely interchangeable, and thus he fashions himself as an uber-yuppie, expert in all the vacuous fields of interest valued by his peers. His fashion advice, his music reviews, all are tortuous pastiches of the banal and pompous drivel spouted by the media. In his attempt to set himself apart, to forge his own identity, Bateman goes to horrific lengths, but even this fails to provide him with the identity he desires. But Bateman not only struggles with his identity as an individual, but also as a man. He represents a failing breed of man, the yuppie, a modern ideal, clinging on to life in a post-modern world. He fails to adapt to the new world and retreats into himself, creating a splintering effect on his personality; his actions are the death throes of a dying archetype. Freudian theory suggests that to become a man, boys must sever ties to their mother and their own feminine side, thus causing the heroic, masculine ‘self’ and the undesirable feminine ‘not-self’. In an increasingly feminised world, Bateman struggles to adapt, and kills females again and again, never receiving the severance he requires to become the man he desires. Bateman fears losing control and is threatened by those who identify his inner-hysteria, his lack of composure or intellectual limitations, and there is an argument to say that the majority of characters are projections of Bateman’s own mind and that, in killing them off, he is symbolically dismantling his own ego.

Ellis’s writing is provocative, and Bateman’s voice is eerily pitch-perfect, an exaggerated version of the mantra pedalled by the media, only a sliver from reality. Out of Bateman’s snobbery, his insistence on taking everything so seriously, come moments of perfectly observed humour. The dull monotony of the commodity fetishism can become frustrating for the reader, but reflects Bateman’s existence perfectly. On the flip side, the scenes of violence are not realistic, but ultra-realistic, as though imagined by a mind bred on televisual violence. This is one of the observations that has led some commentators to suggest that the murders are all inside Bateman’s mind. Ellis’s genius is to leave the matter ambiguous. If Bateman is simply a lone psychotic, then he presents no indictment of society, and is merely a troubled soul, an individual. Ambiguity allows the reading that society is willing to allow, indeed encourage, the elimination of competition, for market forces control all commodities. The difference between committing psychic and psycho murders is simply the act, that either exist is an indictment of society and its nurturing effect. Bateman and his world highlight a failing of the reader and his world, this is the important thing.

At the novel’s end there is no moral message, simply the acknowledgement that humans no longer care for one another, aren’t interested in the plight of others until it affects themselves in some small way. Bateman isn’t given a psychological history that explains his behaviour, nor is there a counter-point in the novel that speaks of respectability. This is what makes the book, for some, so unpalatable and, with no psychological reason given for Bateman's behaviour, the reader is forced to acknowledge that he represents the violence of class power, not just of an individual. Ironically, the book itself has now become a commodity: like Bateman, its dangerous and explosive energy is overlooked and it’s treated by many as designer shock-lit. To focus on the gruesome violence is to turn one’s face from the real horror of the book, of the world that surrounds us.

I took a while mulling this one over, trying to get a good handle on the book. Overall, it's a fascinating way of representing the commodity culture that grew out of the 1980s, and what it means for society. There are a lot of myths and misconceptions about the book, but I would definitely recommend it; provided you're not too squemish.

Useful Links
Reviews of American Psycho on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of American Psycho on Amazon (US)
Movie Adaptation of American Psycho on Amazon (UK)
Movie Adaptation of American Psycho on Amazon (US)

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