It’s difficult to say whether or not American Psycho has spoilers to ruin.
It’s the strangest start to a book review, but there’s little other way to describe the events of Bret Easton Ellis’ bestseller. Not so much a matter of plot or story, the novel is a character study of the life and depraved mind of 26-year-old Patrick Bateman. New Yorker, socialite and member of the Wall Street elite, Bateman’s free time consists of going to Zagat’s highest rated restaurants, doing coke with his friends in nightclub bathrooms, obsessing over Donald Trump (really) and dissecting prostitutes with power tools.
When first published in 1991, it is unlikely anyone knew the direction the book could and would go. But the extremity of the content could not be kept secret. In fact, looking at another article by Donna Lee Brien about the outrage the book garnered following its release, the negative publicity seemed to have ironically drove sales.
Bateman seemingly introduces himself as an ordinary yuppie, a dandy who tries just a tad too hard to “fit in.” He is the perfect consumer of the 1980’s, as his vast knowledge of fashion and the cutting-edge never fails to impress his colleagues. Bateman’s catalog-like detail of merchandise is shockingly authentic; articulating hundreds of items and consumer goods which he and his friends one-up each other with, and the shoes and suits from the designers right down to the number of buttons and exact colors. The book takes this one step further in a trio of chapters that deliver biographies about musicians and bands, including Genesis, Whitney Houston, and Huey Lewis and the News.
The focus on materialism is a fine cover, as are the blatantly hypocritical and crowd-pleasing sentiments he holds above his friends, such as when he chastises his enigmatic friend Timothy Price for racial sentiments shortly before muttering slurs about the homeless. Angry thoughts rise to the surface, but the eye-catching trick comes through the unreliability of Bateman’s narration: casually tossing hints of bloodlust into conversations to which people either mishear or assume are jests, or using false names which no one save his fiancé Evelyn Richards seems to notice.
The descent into Bateman’s psyche is gradual but the turning point of his antics begins with his murder of Paul Owen (changed to “Paul Allen” in the movie). Something of a business rival, Owen held the much-coveted Fisher account, of which our protagonist sought information and gossip. The first half of the book seems to mount anticipation of the moment, the execution suggesting catharsis for Bateman.
Instead the act proves a catalyst of violence to come.
The latter half of the book highlights a critical difference in how Bateman views the sexes. With men, he prefers to execute in a swift though brutal manner, as was Paul Owen. But the rage Bateman holds for women deserves special examination, as death alone is not enough. Rather torture, agony and utter submission are an aphrodisiac against which he has little control, the details of which shall not be communicated in this review. Though rest assured that the movie was… remarkable tame by comparison.
There have been books in the past I have struggled with before putting down. Several times American Psycho was almost one such book. It was not the prose; Ellis is a brilliant and clear writer, his intentions perfectly conveyed in every sentence, every lie his character commits to print. Rather it was the episodic chapters with little-to-no connections between them, save for a brief investigation into Owen’s disappearance.
There is a lesson in this novel about careful construction of a person. Statistically speaking, the odds that a reader is also a psychopath are low, and as such there is something to learn about crafting a unique perspective and voice. The value of American Psycho rests in brilliant character development, an essential tool for fictional writers to master.
Although, as one must admire Ellis’ careful control and skillful writing, he firmly tests the reader’s limits and vitality. Anyone else may prefer the book’s rage quintessentially handled through the black comedy that is the film version.