Let’s get one thing clear, American Psycho is a comedy. That needs to be understood before you read it. It’s a comedy about yuppies and how empty-headed and shallow they are: it’s about how far too much money and far too little imagination can cause you to begin to shrink your world, until you live in such a self indulgent cocoon, you cannot even spot the raving, murdering lunatic in your midst. That is what Easton-Ellis is telling us: yes, yuppies are that shallow.
This is a well-constructed work because it causes the reader to suffer from the same syndrome that grips the minds of most of its characters – only in reverse.
We have the self-obsessed city-boys, interested in the correct clothing labels and getting reservations at the right restaurant, and us, the readers, obsessing over the violent scenes of rape and murder, and – both us and them – missing the point entirely. The violence and murder are simply incidental to the plot, they are not the point. They serve the same purpose as a piece of misdirection performed by an illusionist. Just as you look the wrong way, the conjurer pulls a stroke.
Patrick Bateman is as hilarious as he is twisted: a perfectly tanned, toned and attired Metro-Sexual killing machine, drowning with pleasure in the very selfish excess that he despises, and yet must conform to the rules of. He maintains the required trophy girlfriend and adheres religiously to the latest men’s fashion, has membership of the most exclusive fitness club, styles his hair with a surgeon’s precision and forces rats into the vaginas of his victims.
There’s no accounting for taste.
His circle of co-accused are just as lacking in any sort of meaningful mental programming, treating the New York they live in as one huge private boys’ club, with membership relying on ticking certain financial and fashion based boxes on an ongoing basis. Most of the men in this work are successful, rich and stupid, and that is the point. A second point – which feeds the previous one – is that they never step out of the world in which they consume space, therefore never catch a glimpse of their own vulgarity, and, consequently, are unable to change for the better or want to. They are the small, obnoxious building blocks, whom together, make the impenetrable wall of arrogance and snobbery that protects their false, built-on-sand world.
Even between themselves, in packs of their own kind, these men are only half aware of each other. Do they even know who each other really is? They all have adopted the habit of addressing each other by their surnames, at least a large majority of the time. This is not so worrying until a particular character is introduced, and he starts referring to Bateman by the wrong surname. Why should this be worrying? Because Bateman responds to the surname as if it were correct, unable, due to the particular etiquette at work in their society, to offer a correction. This small, comical component offers to the reader some very disturbing questions about – if you will – the depths of their shallowness. When Bateman addresses an acquaintance, does he use the correct name himself? Are they just humouring him, shackled by the same etiquette? Is any of the group of friends Bateman surrounds himself with the people he thinks they are?
This question is thrust at the reader, when after killing Paul Allen, a man he has been obsessing over for sometime, Bateman learns that the same man has been seen in a restaurant in London. This is a confirmed sighting because Bateman is told by his victim’s dinner guest. So who on earth has he killed?
This particularly gruesome murder offers Easton-Ellis the chance to have another subtle kick at the world he is ripping to pieces. The killing happens in Allen’s own plush apartment. Upon returning to clean up the mess, Bateman – armed with a surgical mask to cope with the smell – has a brief conversation with a real estate agent who is re-selling the expensive property. The agent spots the surgical mask, and Bateman spots the mysteriously clean apartment. Their brief exchange involves the agent saying she doesn’t want any trouble and that Bateman should just go. So he does, walking away from the scene of his crime utterly bewildered, his fragile mind ever more confused.
It is exchanges like this that allow us to wonder if Bateman has actually been created by the world he lives in. Is the “greed is good” culture causing his psychosis? What could happen to a person’s view of what’s acceptable, when that person lives in world which lacks substance and any shred of morality; a world where even murders can be cleaned up if there’s a possibility of profit? Is Bateman the ultimate avenger for the self-indulgence of the slick-haired city boys and their air-head women? It’s possible, though I believe that Easton-Ellis lets Bateman loose on this world because he simply thinks they deserve it.
It was people of this kind that Brett Easton-Ellis was mixing with during the second half of the Eighties; he saw their world from the inside, the celebrity and credibility of being a writer allowing him rare access. He has stated that the time spent mixing with New York’s yuppie elite convinced him that they were the sort of people he would hate to be like; though they certainly left a lasting impression on the man, and this work demonstrates that impression.
He didn’t like them much.
I said this book is a comedy, and so it is. Consider this scene. Finally snapping and deciding to kill a chap whose attentions our psycho is sick of, he strides into the men’s room to confront his intended victim, his black-gloved hands ready to strangle the life out of this irritating man. As Bateman’s hands grip the man’s throat, the victim starts to smile, feeling the first stirrings of sexual desire. The victim is secretly gay (and must enjoy his own dark pleasures behind closed doors, it’s implied, if strangulation turns him on), and Bateman’s hands gripping his throat confirm Bateman must be as well. At last, the façade is dropped, now they can be together!
The comedy runs throughout this book. A urinal cake, taken from a men’s room, coated in chocolate, and then offered as a present, provides hilarity as the trophy girlfriend attempts to eat it. Bateman dropping his veil of normality and telling people directly what violent acts he’d love to perform on them (no-one really listens to each other, so he gets away with it), whilst the empty heads just nod along, paying no attention. Yeah, yeah, man. Sounds good, let’s touch base, oblivious that Bateman is telling them he wants to dig out their eyes.
The laughs are there, just so long as you don’t allow yourself to be tricked into paying too much attention to the violence. There’s plenty of it, and most is incredibly graphic, but it’s there to catch your eye – to keep you from the seeing reality: just like the soulless drones that populate the book can’t see it either. They’re too busy obsessing about designer labels to be able to.