You don’t generally hear about American Psycho. Generally speaking, people get up in arms about Harry Potter teaching kids witchcraft, or maybe racism in Tom Sawyer, for god’s sake. After reading American Psycho (turned into a 2000 movie starring Christian Bale), I have to wonder why anybody ever gets offended by something as, well, silly as a boy wizard. But, of course, American Psycho is one of the ALA’s most challenged books (due to, of all things, claims of misogyny).
Let me first say that I more than understand Ellis’ intent: Patrick Bateman, the well-to-do sociopath who serves as the book’s main character and narrator, is a product of the excesses of the 1980s; tenuous lines can be drawn between his disregard for his victims and his disregard in general for the homeless or the lower classes.
I say victims because, as you probably know even before cracking the book open, Bateman is a serial killer, and a particularly gruesome one at that. Ellis does a good job at disguising that fact, however, as the first murder doesn’t occur until page 166; prior to that, we are only treated to brief asides that pass as perhaps morbid jokes. This exceptionally long exposition is mostly an intricate illustration of both Bateman’s obsessive attention to detail (his ridiculous grooming ritual) and the wealth bordering on hyperbole that pervades every aspect of his life. Each chapter seems to be detailing yet another dinner scene with Bateman’s rich friends (who always mistake each other for other businessmen), ordering exotic dishes, lighting cigars, and scoring with “hardbodies.”
Then, out of nowhere, Bateman disfigures and eviscerates a bum (and his dog; animals, unlike in Hollywood, are not spared in Ellis’ horror show), and so begins an accelerating path of violence. I believe the total comes to seven men and seven women that are killed in total (the accusations of misogyny arising from the generally differing methods of murder), and each murder is more and more depraved. I consider myself fairly indifferent to this sort of thing, but even I was disturbed by the end. Which, it is important to notice (and which the back of the book lets you know ahead of time) does not end in Bateman’s death or incarceration. “This is not an exit”
There were two more points that I think are important. The first concerns the actual merit of the book, and the latter a crucial plot point. First, this was an exhausting book to slog through. As I said, it is comprised primarily of Bateman’s social life, which is basically just expensive dinners and a litany of women. There are only so many paragraphs like this that I can handle, and there must be hundreds:
He’s wearing a linen suit by Canali Milano, a cotton shirt by Ike Behar, a silk tie by Bill Blass and cap-toed leather lace-ups from Brook Brothers. I’m wearing a lightweight linen suit with pleated trousers, a cotton shirt, a dotted silk tie, all by Valentine Couturem and perforated cap-toe leather shoes by Allen-Edmonds […] Van Patten is wearing a double-breasted wool and silk sport coat, button-fly wool and silk trousers with inverted pleats by Mario Velntino, a cotton shirt by Gitman Brothers, a polka-dot silk tie by Bill Blass and leather shoes from Brooks Brothers. McDermott is wearing a woven-linen suit with pleated trousers, a button-down cotton and linen shirt by Basile, a silk tie by Joseph Abboud and ostrich loafers from Susan Bennis Warren Edwards.
I understand the point Ellis is making by filling the book with such an anal-retentive attention to clothing (remember, the book is narrated by the killer himself); but neither is it effective to carry on such prattle for 400 pages. The book would have been just as effective at 250 or 300, perhaps less. Also, there are sporadic chapters which are—I kid you not—music reviews. Once again, I understand that this is all painting an indirect portrait of the killer’s insanity, which is 1980s mentality writ small, but lord, does it get tedious.
The second point that I feel I must make is that near the end of the book, after most if not all of the horrible murders and tortures (which, as I’ve said, degrade from simply if sadistic homicides to all-out Buffalo Bill craziness), there is a line which clearly makes us doubt whether any of the things that Bateman has described have actually happened. Oh, we get glimpses of such a thing: during the frequent dinner conversations, he’ll be talking about, oh, crocodile loafers and slip in a line about his unquestionable thirst for homicide, and no one will notice. Initially, I took this to mean, metaphorically, that everyone is so self-centered that they fail to even pay attention to what Bateman is saying. As it went on, however, I got a sneaking suspicion that what Bateman says he said (what he narrates) and what he actually says are two very different things. It’s an interesting concept surely, but it also makes one feel a bit cheated, as though it’s an overly elaborate “And then I woke up…” kind of ending.
Ellis himself has said that the most interesting part about making American Psycho was writing from the killer’s perspective, and I think he pulls that off brilliantly. However, I must warn again that this is a disturbing book; extremely disturbing, and it is not for the light-hearted. There are other good books you can read that don’t involve unimaginable cruelty. Yikes.