The Short Version: Patrick Bateman is 26 years old. He works on Wall Street, enjoys the finer things in life, takes good care of his body. Although he also does plenty of drugs. And he also enjoys acts of unspeakable violence and deprivation. This is his story.
The Review: I don’t reread that much. There are too many books to read moving forward, you know? It’s that biblioholic impulse. But there are books that you know you’re going to revisit again and again in your life. American Psycho is one of those books for me.
I read it for the first time way before I probably ‘should’ have read it – probably 11 or 12 years ago. I read it again twice in college, the second time writing a really good paper on it and Zodiac (specifically how the two ‘texts’ use the city to assist their serial killers). And now, at age 26, I find myself drawn to it again.
It’s a strange book to be ‘drawn to’ or to say is one of my favorites or one of my most frequently read. One of my very best friends in the world has gotten into serious fights about this book with me – and she doesn’t get mad ever. When I tell people I love this book, they tend to think that I must clearly have a secret desire to brutalize women or do a lot of coke or kill people. But that reading of this book is fundamentally flawed, in the same way that folks who thought The Wolf of Wall Street glorified Jordan Belfort’s behavior. This is satire at its most fearsome, daring you to see yourself inside of this monster – and knowing that (if you’re being honest) you will.
Ellis’ writing is iconic: you know you’re reading his work when you pick up one of his books. That flat numbness, the almost clinical precision with which he describes everything: from the clothes they’re wearing to the texture of a business card to the meals they eat to the various sex acts to the violence to Patrick’s deteriorating mental state. It’s all rendered in the same tone, which could be wearying except that Ellis’ frankness is actually refreshing. Although his style is a sort of ornamentation, it feels like the lack thereof and this makes for a compelling read, even as the novel is repeating a variation on a theme for the hundredth time – Patrick is at A with B, C, and D where they talk about F-J and think they see M but it’s actually R and then Patrick realizes he has to return some videotapes.
It’s this repetition, though – and the stuff that they are talking about – that makes the satire work. The sheer ridiculousness of their sartorial conversations, of the chapter-length digressions on Genesis or Huey Lewis & The News… these guys are rich, they have attractive ladies all over them, and they have power. Yet they’re all strangely dull. And I never realized, during earlier readings, that Patrick’s violence is largely a response to that dullness. He is a brilliant man, compulsive and fastidious. He speaks eloquently and thoughtfully, on everything from fashion to world issues. And when he does, he often earns brief ire from his companions – or at least vague disgust. Funny, then, that they don’t respond when he tells them that he murders people: they respond when he talks about poverty or nuclear disarmament but not when he tries to confess to killing someone.
I never thought of this book as a portrait of a mental illness – but looking at it as someone who does now deal from depression, it’s hard not to. For the hundredth time, I don’t harbor homicidal urges, etc etc – but I sympathise with Patrick, I do. He is seeking to escape from what is an utterly banal life, one that was supposed to fulfill him and has instead done anything but. When he slips into one of his crazier states (they’re not just limited to brutality and murder – sometimes he just goes loopy and, like, runs up Fifth Avenue squawking at people), you get the sense that he is attempting to escape into a fantasy state. (Or trying to provoke a reaction. This is actually potentially really interesting if he is actually doing all this stuff and nobody responds. I mean, I see crazy people in NYC all the time and I ignore it. Who’s to say…)
And I do that. There are days – quite a number of days, in fact – when I want to let my imagination take over: pretend that I’m an alien explorer, pretend I’m being chased by a spy, pretend that there might be monsters in the trees up at the end of my parents’ driveway. Who cares. And Ellis (as anyone who has read the book or watched the movie will know) spreads doubt about the reality of everything Patrick has done. One of the still most-shocking moments in the book (a book, mind you, that contains a chapter called “Tries to Cook Girl and Eat Her”) is when Patrick goes to see Paul Owen’s apartment and discovers that it’s no longer his secret hideaway of blood and gore but cleaned and being sold. And you have to realize that while we never see Patrick actually doing any work, he’s still apparently pulling down a paycheck or at least employed through all of this.
So does that mean that, when he goes to Evelyn’s and references the crime scene tape at her neighbor’s place, where he’d broken in and decapitated her… did he really do that? Or is he fantasizing? Is there a difference? If so, what does it mean – and if not, could you be a bit less judgey?
I’d like to speak briefly to the very end, as well. After Bateman’s major downward spiral, where the violence takes over the book and it’s clear that his mental state has been completely shot, we end the book nearly where we began: at Harry’s with a bunch of people. And they sit around talking about fashion, about hip places to go, chic things to do, and Patrick notices a sign over the door that says “this is not an exit.” Those are the last words of the book and you barrel through that chapter and hit the end and it’s almost like you’ve only expelled half a breath; you expect something more. But there is this moment, as Patrick sits quite ordinarily at the table with his colleagues/friends, that this life will go on. That nothing about this will change, because none of it can change because there is no exit.
It’s a startling thought, perhaps more startling than anything else in the book. I mean, on the first page when one of the supporting cast is bitching to Patrick about being creative, driven, an asset to the company and to society, so why the hell isn’t he making more money… I was like “oh fuck, the only difference between me and these guys is that they work on Wall St and I work for a non-profit.” But that’s not the only difference, because for someone like Patrick, there is no exit. This will go on. The center might not hold but that won’t matter; these same repetitious scenes will go on and on. And Patrick is trapped there. He cannot ‘get help’, he cannot change his ways, because no one understands. He doesn’t even quite understand himself.
Sometimes, this world can be enough to make you go mad, too.
Rating: 6 out of 5.