From its chilling opening line, “Abandon hope all ye who enter here,” the virtually plotless American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis, drags us screaming and giggling into the empty heart of a decadent society, obsessed with money and status. Wall Street trader Patrick Bateman’s relentless restauranteering and terrifyingly banal monologues on designer clothes juxtapose powerfully with him graphically torturing and killing lots of people- predominantly women.
Though American Psycho has most commonly been attributed to be a fantastic social satire, many, however, have misconstrued what the book’s true meaning is. Those outraged by the violence- and there have been many– miss the book’s point entirely. American Psycho might not be what it seems. Patrick may, or may not be, (such is the ambiguity of the narration) fantasizing about each and every one of his graphic, gratuitous and gruesome murders. One clue to this well-discussed theory is in the quotation from Dostoevsky at the beginning of the novel:
“Both the author of these Notes and the Notes themselves are, of course, fictional. Nevertheless, such persons as the composer of these Notes not only exist in our society, but indeed must exist, considering the circumstances under which our society has generally been formed. I have wished to bring before the public, somewhat more distinctly than usual, one of the characters of our recent past. He represents a generation that is still living out its days among us. In the fragment entitled “Underground” this personage describes himself and his views and attempts, as it were, to clarify the reasons why he appeared and was bound to appear in our midst. The subsequent fragment will consist of the actual “notes,” concerning certain events in his life.”
Another clue: when asked what he does for a living, nobody reacts to Patrick’s reply of, “.murders and executions, mostly.” His Ted Bundy obsession is largely ignored. Hysterical telephone confessions to a colleague following an apparent murderous rampage are laughed off as a joke. Neighbors appear deaf to the sounds of nailgun bangs and the screams emanating from Patrick’s apartment. And nobody seems to miss the victims.
Despite these ambiguities, the violence, real or imagined, is shocking to say the least but not half as shocking as the realization that Patrick’s numbing monologues on Whitney Houston, Phil Collins, Huey Lewis and the news satirize the shocking acceptance by Western consumers for undemanding, banal, and mentally degenerative art forms. That smooth young man at the bus stop could well be a Phil Collins fan. “Such a nice man,” said his baffled neighbors, after the police broke into his apartment and found the refrigerator, wardrobe and garage stuffed with the dismembered and rotting corpses of several different escorts and a tub full of rats soaking in acid.
American Psycho vividly makes the case that society is responsible for creating the warped aspirations of people like Patrick Bateman. Bleak, funny and unsettling, this savagely clever satire forces us to confront issues we’d rather ignore. Even more relevant now than when published in 1991, American Psycho is essential reading. If you can be bothered, of course.