01 December 2010

"American Psycho" by Bret Ellis Easton

American Psycho
Bret Easton Ellis
Date of Publication: 6 March 1991
Cover Price: $14.95
399 pages

Disclosure: I saw the movie first.

Patrick Bateman, the first person narrator of American Psycho, is psychotic, a Wall Street yuppie whose off-the-clock activities include expensive meals, exclusive clubs, chasing the latest trends and indulging his sexual and violent urges.  Other reviewers have noted that the novel lacks moral redemption, that it's misogynistic and taxing on all but the most jaded reader.  I'd like to explore those three charges, rather than provide yet another summary-driven review that the world really doesn't need.

Most of us are conditioned to expect--even if we're too cynical to believe it--that good guys win and bad guys answer for what they do.  When a novel such as this comes along, in which the bad guy is the main character, commits atrocities and gets away with it, that rankles people.  I suspect many kept reading, waiting for Bateman to be busted, to get his comeuppance...and then their heart sank when they concluded the novel and realized he was still at large and even less stable than at any previous point.  Ellis's crime, then, is in not conforming to the convention of reinforcing our ingrained expectations.  I understand why it's jarring for so many readers.  It does require a certain philosophical maturity to see the value in what Ellis has done here with a character as despicable as Patrick Bateman.  As for the graphic nature of his crimes, I can only say that I earned my degree in history.  When you step away from John Woo-style movie violence and focus in-depth about what has gone on in real life to our ancestors, it's kind of hard to be overwhelmed by much of what takes place in these pages.

The charge that American Psycho is misogynistic can only be made by a reader incapable of distinguishing between an artist and his art.  Patrick Bateman is a misogynist, but that doesn't mean that the novel is.  Yes, he objectifies women (the term, "hardbody" is one of the five words that appear the most) and yes, the majority of his victims are women.  And yes, those victims are almost exclusively attacked after (and even during) sex.  Patrick Bateman is, by his own admission, incapable of caring for another human being in any capacity.  The closest to compassion he gets is in chasing away a woman while struggling to refrain from attacking her.  But it's not just women; Bateman preys on the indigent and dogs, too.  He murders a young boy in the penguin exhibit at the Central Park Zoo.  He's racist--despite admonishing others for racist remarks--and clearly despises minorities.  In short, Bateman is an equal opportunity discriminator.  There is no demographic safe from his contempt.  If it says something that Bateman murders women, then it surely also says something that others would seemingly ignore that many of his victims are male.

Lastly, the novel is taxing but not strictly because of the graphic nature of Bateman's murders.  There are whole paragraphs namedropping fashion designers responsible for the attire of Bateman and his companions, and the lavish meals on which they frequently dine.  The specificity is ridiculously dense at times, to the point that I sometimes wished I could finish finding out whether his suit was from Ralph Lauren or Givenchy and get to some actual interaction.  But then, that's the point of the entire novel: This is not a person like you or I.

Bateman obsesses over trends; he clearly wishes to have the best in clothes, electronics, even his business card needs to be top of the line.  Despite all his money, though, Patrick Bateman is a nobody.  He is often mistaken for other people.  He never acknowledges that he wants people to get his name right; rather, he often adopts the wrong name and simply goes along with it.  He makes remarks to those who would likely consider themselves his friends, telling them pointblank his thoughts and even mentioning his acts, only to find his candor mistaken for a dark sense of humor.  His girlfriend, Evelyn, rarely even responds to his declarations, preferring instead to simply continue babbling her own self-important tripe.

If a reader walks away wondering what kind of an author could pen American Psycho, then that reader has allowed the graphic nature of the novel to overwhelm him and has missed the point.  The real question is, what kind of society could create--and allow to exist--a monster like Patrick Bateman?  The answer is clear: One in which people pursue and value excess for the sake of excess; one where names only matter if they're sewn into your clothes; one in which we don't listen to a thing the person across the table from us is actually saying; one in which we each exist in a bubble, crafted to keep us from seeing the misery in another because it might be a downer for us.  In short, a society in which empathy is considered a weakness at best and a liability at worst.  Patrick Bateman is, effectively, the spawn of Hannibal Lecter and Carrie Bradshaw.


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