Review: “American Psycho” by Bret Easton Ellis [1991]

It is the late eighties and there is an extreme culture of decadence and excess. Wealth is easily made and lost and anybody can be somebody. Patrick Bateman, who also narrates, is a successful twenty-six year old working on Wall St. He is rich (he lives in the same apartment complex as Tom Cruise), attractive and drips with luxurious and designer brands – Armani, Rolex, Gucci. Teasing the numerous beggars on the streets of New York with money bills is a favourite amusement for Bateman and his friends. He is living the high life, moving in the right circles but he is utterly bored and, while acutely aware of the issues that plague the world such as poverty and corruption, he is disconnected from society. During a dull dinner party, Bateman lectured to the astounding amazement of the guests:

“Well, we have to end apartheid for one. And slow down the nuclear arms race, stop terrorism and world hunger. Ensure a strong national defense, prevent the spread of communism in Central America, work for a Middle East peace settlement, prevent U.S. military involvement overseas … better and more affordable long-term care for the elderly, control and find a cure for the AIDS epidemic, clean up environmental damage from toxic waste and pollution, improve the quality of primary and secondary education … ” – p. 14.

I found this lecture very ironic particularly since I’m reading it almost twenty years later since it’s been written and we’re still dealing with these issues. Bateman’s days are consumed with narcissistic grooming, working out, discussing which restaurant and which bar he would go to that night and the on-going effort of securing a booking at the ultra exclusive and ultra hip restaurant, Dorsia. He has several girlfriends with his main squeeze being another yuppie and insanely dull woman named Evelyn. Bateman is fastidious, to the extent of an obsession, for perfect grooming and knows the ins and outs of fashion rules. Despite his success in his career and relationships, Bateman is portrayed as very insecure. This is one side of Bateman’s life.

The other side is Bateman’s frequent and ever increasing uncontrollable rage and he uses sadistic murder methods as an outlet for these rages, saving the most sadistic and painful torture and murder for young women. As the novel progresses, Bateman becomes even more violent and at one stage indulges in necrophilia and cannibalism:

In the kitchen I try 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, then I rest by watching a tape of last week’s new CBS sitcom, Murphy Brown. – p. 323

He also becomes increasingly mentally unstable to the point where the narration is thrown and Bateman begins to narrate in third person, giving the feel that he is experiencing an out-of-body experience. Bateman’s mental state deteriorates that it becomes quite possible that he did not commit these gruesome murders after all but only did so in his imagination. A man he thought he had murdered is revealed to have been seen living in London, he miracalously comes out of a man hunt unscathed and he is never under any suspicion from the police despite all the murders he have purported to have committed. Most of all, his maid seems happy to go about cleaning his apartment, ignoring the decomposing bodies and puddles of blood scattered about.

Despite all the violence and horrific scenes in the novel, the majority is a quite funny read. Ellis’ portrayal of vapid, wealthy women and their mundanities and the new generation of cashed-up yuppies who don’t really do anything substantial. Most of all, none of them see, or they refuse to see, what is going on in front of them. There were numerous times when Bateman tells his friends loud and clear that he is a homicidal psychopath and nobody listens, particularly Evelyn:

She gushes breathlessly. “Or mariachi. Or reggae. Something ethnic to shock Daddy. Oh, I can’t decide.”

“I’d want to bring a Harrison AK-47 assault rifle to the ceremony,” I say, bored, in a rush, “with a thirty-round magazine so after thoroughly blowing your fat mother’s head off with it I could use it on that fag brother of yours. And though personally I don’t like to use anything of the Soviets designed, I don’t know, the Harrison somehow reminds me of …” Stopping, confused, inspecting yesterday’s manicure, I look back at Evelyn. “Stoli?” – p. 119

Again, we aren’t sure if Bateman do actually commit these murders or even say these comments out loud as we only have his perspective. Of course, the American psycho could also refer to the yuppies who represent the next generation of leaders and who are in charge of the nation’s wealth. Curiously, with the current economic crisis,  and with most of Bateman’s generation and colleagues in senior positions at this stage, this idea is not so foreign.

American Psycho is a quite good read despite its gore and violence but it is relatively tame in the context of today’s movies. Bateman is an ambiguous and curious character. Part of the story could have been cut or better edited as it seemed to lose its way a bit in the last third of the book. The various analyses on Bateman’s favourite singers (Huey Lewis, Whitney Houston) were all lost on me and I did not get any significance from their inclusion. Nonetheless, an interesting read but not something I would read again in a hurry.

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28 comments

  1. I have often wondered about reading this. BUT do I want that gore and violence. My favourite book about the excesses of the 1980s is Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the vanities. But it is a completely different book to this one!

    1. This is quite the rollercoaster of a book. The violence was truly horrific to me, but I found the descriptions of clothing and food especially to be very funny satire indeed. And I kind of agree with whisperinggums, it did remind me in some ways of the Bonfire of the Vanities. The sad thing to keep in mind is that the ostentatious excesses of the 1980s are nothing compared to the scale of wealth on Wall Street these days. I think the difference is that mainstream culture has so adopted the luxe life as something that everyone can participate in (usually through branded goods such as handbags and sunglasses), that the majority of Americans are clueless as to how different life is for those in the top 1%.

      1. The violence *is* horrific but I guess I’ve been a little desensitised to it after all the movies that feature gratuitous violence. This is quite tame in comparison!

        I agree with the trickling down effect of ‘luxury’ consumption by mainstream society – what, with all the designer diffusion lines and making entry level merchandise so everybody can have a little bit of Chanel or Tiffany. I really shudder to think how the top half really lives with all their excesses…

    2. I’m really not the blood and gore kind of girl and crime fiction don’t appeal to me. I don’t really know what made me want to read this but I have always been curious about it because I see it being sold in shrink packaging which adds that ‘oooh’ aspect to it, I suppose.

      I’ll look out for Tom Wolfe’s book but the excess of the eighties also doesn’t appeal to me all that much and I’m only vaguely familiar with me. Do you watch the First Tuesday Bookclub? I remember Jennifer Bryne recommended a book that discussed the eighties excess in Australia awhile ago.

  2. I’ve been very intrigued about reading this book – especially since seeing the movie. It was awesome, btw – Christian Bale did an amazing job. Thanks for the review! I think I’ll add this to my TBR list after all.

    1. I don’t think I would be able to handle the movie!! The book was disgusting in itself although I am partial to Christian Bale. I was slightly stunned to find out it was Laurie from Little Women!

      1. Omg! He was Laurie?! And here I was in awe of him being in “Swing Kids”! I feel a walk down memory lane via film coming on. I can’t recall how gory the film was beyond one scene that particularly horrified me – but it was a brilliant commentary on the fractious existence so many are capable of. Pretty brilliant film work.

        1. I’m sure the film is good but since I know what’s coming, I’m not exactly leaping to watch it! Christian Bale is always excellent. Your reaction was exactly like mine! Laurie? No! Wasn’t he so sweet and innocent in the film? It was gorgeous. Marry him, Jo!

  3. Interesting review! I had to read an excerpt of this for a class once but never read on. I want to read it eventually but there are so many other books I´d rather read 🙂

    1. To be honest, I don’t know why I did read this. 🙂 It has never appealed to me but I don’t regret it. Ah, must be the full moon.

      1. Haha, you should note down what you´re reading on the full moon and then make a post, “How the full moon affects reading” 😀

  4. I really dislike gratuitous violence, but somehow reading your review, I feel like I want to read this. It definitely does NOT sound like my kind of thing … yet it really grabs me. Quite a paradox. 🙂

    1. I’m not a fan of gratuitous violence too but, as strange as this sounds, I didn’t find any of the scenes in the book gratuitous or unnecessary. Each scene added something to the novel and weren’t there for some sheer sadistic pleasure of the author or reader. If you cut out the violent scenes, it’s really a funny read and very satirical.

  5. Your review gives a really good flavour of what the book is about without giving too much away. I found it pretty grim but have a high tolerance for grim books! I also thought it was quite funny and for me a very quick read.

    1. Thanks Polly. I was very surprised to find myself sniggering throughout the first third of the book sine I was expecting the horror immediately. I think the violent scenes in the book have overshadowed the cleverness and dry humour of the story which is a shame.

  6. I’ve always wanted to read this one… you’re just tempting me even more with this review! It kind of sounds a little like the Dexter series, which I love. It’s horrific but humorous at the same time, an outlet for social commentary. You forget that he’s a serial killer because his internal dialogue is so “normal”.

    -Lydia @ The Literary Lolipop

    1. It *is* a little like Dexter (or I would assume since I’ve never read or watched it) except Bateman kills anybody willy-nilly and not just the bad guys! Dexter is more like Robbin Hood… :-p

  7. I have often wondered about this novel and you have made it sound very intriguing. I don’t know how much I’d be able to tolerate the gruesome scenes though – but I do go through reading phases where my tolerance level goes up!

    1. My tolerance for blood and gore goes through phases too. The book was more tamed that I had imagined it to be but it was still quite disturbing.

  8. Gosh I don’t think I will ever read this book. The passage about the cannibalism alone may give me nightmare :(. I caught part of the movie a while back and it was just as shocking. I guess I just don’t get the whole point of the story.

    1. Hmm, I don’t really understand the whole idea of all the gruesome scenes either but I guess it’s suppose to show that the average Joe can be capable of such things and a reminder that looks can be deceiving. I don’t think I’ll be able to stomach the movie at all!

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