Book Review: American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis

This was a difficult book to read. But it was also an important one. As such, this is going to be a difficult review to write. For one thing, there has almost been as much ink spilled about American Psycho as blood spilled by Patrick Bateman. Second, it’s difficult to write much about American Psycho without spoiling the entire point of it. Still, I will try.

American Psycho first came on my radar in college either in I want to say 2002. My friend Mike loved the movie, which came out in 2000, and our crew of guys would watch it, among others, laughing at Christian Bale’s creepily homicidal portrayal of Patrick Bateman and trying to figure out if it was all in Bateman’s head or if he really committed these grisly murders. One thing was for sure: the movie is as funny as it was disturbing.

I did not read the book until recently, thanks to the recommendation of my friend, writer Alexandru Constantin, who raves about Ellis’s writing. Ellis always seemed like an interesting cultural commentator, with piercing and trenchant analyses of what the hell is going on in our world, a wonderfully independent and fearless voice. It was only a matter of time before I picked up one of his novels. I always wanted to start with his debut, Less Than Zero, but at Alexandru’s urging, I picked up American Psycho instead.

I think I’m glad I did. There were parts of this book I had to skip for being too disgusting, too grisly. And yet I couldn’t stop reading it.

Bret Easton Ellis

American Psycho takes place in the late 1980s in New York City. Patrick Bateman is a twenty-six-year-old Harvard-educated child of privilege. He is a rich, handsome, and successful investment banker at the firm of Pierce & Pierce. His life consists of wearing designer clothes, conspicuous consumption of luxury goods, going to fancy and exclusive restaurants and nightclubs, working out, listening to pop music, having sex with various “hardbodies,” and torturing and murdering people, mostly women. Bateman hangs out with Pierce & Pierce colleagues, people of similar class and taste, his best friends being David Van Patten, Timothy Price, and Craig McDermott, who are all as handsome and rich and vain as he. Others from Pierce & Pierce or other firms flit in and out of his life–Frederick Dibble, Marcus Halberstam, Paul Owen, Luis Carruthers–and they often confuse each other for someone else. This is natural, seeing as they all wear the same designer clothes, the same Oliver Peoples’ glasses, go to the same barber, and like the same things.

Women are all described as “hardbodies, blonde, big tits.” They are not people. They are objects of sexual gratification or abuse. This is one of the criticisms leveled at American Psycho, though I don’t know how anybody reading this book could think Ellis is condoning such attitudes.

Patrick is . . . different than the rest. He often has says strange things to his friends and his lovers, including his so-called girlfriend Evelyn. Things like random facts about serial killers, or the fact that he has the need to engage in homicidal behavior on a massive scale. Nobody seems to hear him, or if they do, they dismiss him as being silly. They don’t take Patrick’s confessions seriously. Should we?

It bothers Patrick, to a degree. But at night, after he and his peers have gone to the clubs, Patrick’s bloodlust needs to be satiated in order to fill the gaping emptiness in his soul. Bums are casually murdered. Call girls are copulated with on film before being brutally tortured and executed (and worse . . . oh God, so much worse). Rivals are killed. He even kills a child and feels nothing, saying it’s nowhere near as exciting as killing an adult who had accomplished a lot of stuff in his life. 

The worst part, a part that even Patrick acknolwedges is pretty messed up, is that he keeps getting away with it.

Or does he?

American Psycho leaves open the question of whether Patrick is actually engaging in this homicidal behavior, or if it’s all in his mind. Because as the story unfolds, we see his murders growing more and more sadistic. And some of his encounters so absurd that there’s no way they could be real. Except sometimes . . . sometimes, some people’s reactions indicate that they know and are covering for him. But why? It’s clear that Patrick is losing his grip on sanity, if it’s not gone all ready. Did he commit all of these crimes? Some of them? Did he just wish he did? And how come nobody believes him . . . except for the people who do? Was Paul Owen REALLY seen in London? 

It’s trippy stuff. But beyond this visceral look into a sick killer’s mind we have a caustic criticism of American yuppie consumer culture dripping with pure venom. Patrick and his friends are all non-entities. They mistake each other for other people all the time. Identity and the loss thereof seems to be a key theme in American Psycho. These people all define themselves not by their work in the sense that they are proud of what they do–in fact, we see them doing basically no work–but in where they work and how prestigious it is. They define themselves by what they own: Patrick’s long descriptions of what everyone is wearing, the brand names he has in his apartment, his skin care and work out regimes, his thoughts on Whitney Houston, Genesis, and Huey Lewis and the News . . . it’s as though Patrick is not there, his soul and his very being made up of material goods and what style magazines say about various things. Patrick is an endless source of fashion tips for men. He enjoys going to ATMs just to take money out and put it in his expensive wallet. He is always renting videos, mostly ultra-violent slasher flicks and hardcore pornography. In fact, “I have to return some video tapes” is a running gag, Patrick’s excuse for not hanging out with someone, or his explanation of where he was last night.

Patrick also has a large collection of guns, knives, and other implements of torture and pain. He seems particularly fond of his nailgun.

And yes, I have to discuss the elephant in the room: Patrick is obsessed with Donald Trump. I’m just putting that information there for you to do what you will with it.  

This is a sick book, yes, but how different is Patrick from what we see today? The popular Internet meme of the “Consoomer” exists for a reason. These are people roundly mocked for having no personality beyond Marvel movies, comic books, video games, Star Wars and whatever slabs of homogenous pop culture Hollywood pukes up at us. Like Patrick Bateman, far too many seem to have nothing behind their eyes, no God, no spirituality, no thoughts of their own. Consume product and get excited for next product.

So it’s easy to point the fingers at others, but this is another aspect of American Psycho that disturbed me beyond the disgusting violence described: Am I that much different?

Let me put that out: Like many people, I conflate the price of something and whether I’ve heard of it with “quality.” A small example: it took years of deprogramming to just buy the damn generic brand medicine instead of shelling out far more money for the name brand, despite both having the exact same ingredients. I’m something of a brand snob when it comes to music equipment and clothes. Further, like Patrick, I could go on and on about various rock groups and the deeper meaning and significance in their work–I wrote an entire book about Rush, after all.

Do I have a void in my own being that is filled with stuff?

Maybe I do. And like Patrick Bateman, I am aware of it. Unlike Patrick Bateman, thank God, I don’t try to inflict any inner pain I might feel by murdering innocent people. But might Patrick’s mental deterioration be an extreme version of the kind of mental and spiritual deterioration we are seeing in the thirty years since American Psycho was published? People in America and large swaths of the world with a similar consumer/capitalist culture that has gone to great lengths and taken great pains to eliminate the last vestiges of Christendom–and utterly co-opt, neuter, and subvert those it couldn’t eradicate–are not well in the head or in the soul. Sickness reigns. 

I jokingly wonder if the modern incel “consoomer” porn addict type of person we call “neckbeards” or whatever is this generation’s Patrick Bateman. And then I’m reminded of Elliot Rodger and it doesn’t seem so funny anymore.

American Psycho is a Godless book. Bret Easton Ellis was on to something, some raw nerve in the dark recesses of American culture, something he recognized in himself while living a similarly vapid life in the fast lane of 1980s New York City. Three decades later, this undercurrent is mainstream. 

I have not yet spoken about Ellis’s actual writing. It is exquisite. He captures the emptiness in Patrick Bateman so perfectly that you want to reread entire pages even though they may fill you with a “nameless dread.” Patrick’s disassociation and detachment from reality is made clear in how most chapters begin: “I am sitting in a taxi . . .” “I am at a booth at Harry’s smoking cigars . . .” “I am at the gym . . .” When he meets someone, he spends paragraphs describing the brands they are wearing, usually followed by a reference to the topic of that morning’s (fictitious) Patty Winters Show

Ellis’s dialogue is also perfect, realistic sounding in the way that only masters can pull off. Bateman seems normal, until he drops some weird, murderous reference with the same casual ease he drops them into his narration. Make no doubt about it, Patrick Bateman is an unreliable narrator. Can we take anything he says at face value, anything beyond the sharp, constant hell he finds existence to be?

There is no exit. 

Bonus: Movie Review: American Psycho (2000)

After reading this book, I decided to revisit the movie version for the first time in almost twenty years. WIth a screenplay by director Mary Harron and actress Guinevere Turner, the American Psycho movie hews very close ot the book, even using language direct from the book for the bulk of its dialogue and voice-over narration (it’s that good), albeit in different order. Some scenes are changed–in particular, Patrick’s first date with Jean, Patrick’s date with the model, the whole “chainsaw” thing which isn’t in the book, the events of the chapter called “Chase, Manhattan” are truncated, and lots of stuff is left out–but these are actually good choices that make a pretty unfilmable book into a good movie.

The thing is, the movie is nowhere near as graphically violent as the novel: there is violence and blood, but most of the actual act of killing is not shown. Second, as Ellis himself pointed out in criticising the movie, film is visual and as such the ambiguity you are left with at the end of the novel doesn’t translate as well into film; in other words, the movie leaves a far stronger impression that it’s all in Patrick’s head. 

This is not to say the movie version is bad. Far from it! It’s funny. Harron turns American Psycho into a dark comedy/slasher flick, emphasizing the book’s satirical elements over the psychological ones. Christian Bale is stunningly perfect as Bateman, giving a controlled performance of a man struggling to keep it all in and pass for human . . . until his frenzy takes over. The other actors are fine as well: Willem Dafoe as Detective Kimball, Josh Lucas and Justin Theroux as two of Patrick’s louche comrades, Jared Leto as Paul Allen (who is Paul Owen in the book), Chloe Sevingy as Jean, Reese Witherspoon as Evelyn . . . the entire cast does a bang-up job. The sets recreate 1980s New York City, the fashion and music are spot on (though the same INXS song that plays in every club in the book isn’t played here), and the film has some indefinable quality that makes it eminently rewatchable. This explains why we must’ve watched it ten times in college.

I don’t know how a film with such ugly subject matter makes me want to watch it again even though I just watched it two nights ago. Maybe because it, and everyone in it, looks so good. This also explains why I absolutely see myself rereading the book at some point in the not-too-distant future.

Abandon hope all ye who enter here. 


Luckily, my books are positive.

11 comments

  1. I have yet to read the book, mostly due to forgetting to do so, but the movie was quite the experience when I was younger.

    I was always left with the impression that it doesn’t matter whether he did those things at all but that he wanted a feeling, a sensation, higher than the mediocrity of the material modern world to satiate his bottomless appetite. He thought of sex and violence constantly because that’s the only pleasure he can imagine–the only thing shocking enough to jar him out of mundanity.

    There is a level of relatability that remains with Patrick Bateman, even if what he does is depraved and ghastly. We see the same vapid boomer consumerism today, the same sex obsession, and the same flagrant disregard of life. If you stand still too long you can be washed over in it all, and think . . . maybe this guy does have a point. But even a broken clock is right twice a day. As dehumanizing and depraved as modern culture is, we do have to remember we were all built for more than this and that there is always more going on than what we see before us. This is not an exit.

    The part where he moonwalks into the room with the axe is still hysterical, though.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Great points JD. You’re right: whether Patrick did this is an ancillary point. The real point is, as you say, that he either does these things or fantasizes about doing these things just so he can feel something. His world is sex and violence-laden entertainment (nightclubs, movies, etc.) that stand out in stereo contrast to the materialistic, homogenized, empty world he lives in. Whether on purpose or not, and I doubt it was, Ellis shows pretty powerfully what a world without God or any other form of religion or spirituality can lead to. Sure it’s absurd, but reductio ad absurdum is often the only way to make a point.

      “The part where he moonwalks into the room with the axe is still hysterical, though.”

      “Is that a raincoat?”
      “Why yes, Paul! It is!”

      The book is funny in a vitriolic, vicarious, and caustic deadpan kind of way. The movie is far funnier—albeit darkly—and does a really good job of only hinting at the violence than explicitly showing it. It makes the whole movie work far better than if it was super-gory.

      Seeing a blood splatter but not seeing what precipitated it, or hearing a scream but not seeing why the victim is screaming can make the horror more chilling, at least in my opinion. Still gross though.

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  2. I wrote this part before reading your review:

    —I hate this novel. For years I’d heard about it and finally went to the bookstore and bought a copy. A couple days later they kindly let me return it when I got the gist of it. I don’t care if the novel is a satire of 80s businessmen and cultural decadence; reading lurid descriptions of murder is fucking dull. It felt like a book people patted themselves on the back for having read.

    Now to read your take:

    —That was more worthwhile to me than slogging through the book. Most interesting is your correlation between Bateman and the “Consoomer.” Again, it feels like returning to the older Christian wisdom regarding the vanity of the world, the pointlessness of materialism. There’s a natural balance, enjoying a book or movie or series of movies, even engaging in discussion can be fun but if that’s all one has than something has gone terribly wrong.

    —But corporate culture is just going to foster it.

    “…I’m something of a brand snob when it comes to music equipment and clothes…”

    —-I’m lucky that particular issue pretty much passed me by, not through any self-discipline but just intrinsic to how I am. Good on you about switching from brand name to generic as it suits the situation.

    —Back to the book, it was a grotesque lecture, making points I didn’t need while spouting off a litany of brand names that didn’t interest me. Aside from the murders, maybe it nailed some of the population and culture of the time but for me, that didn’t justify the time and energy of reading it.

    —Glad you got something out if though and nice review.

    cheers

    Liked by 1 person

    • It is a grotesque book but it never felt like a lecture to me. There isn’t a hectoring tone, and I think the dullness of the violent scenes is the point: Patrick is so desensitized to its it becomes banal.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the review even if you didn’t care for the book. Ellis, likely unintentionally though I’m not too sure, makes the argument that an existence without any spirituality or God or anything higher, in a similarly spiritually empty materialistic world, is living hell. Patrick never figures out the reason why his life is hell, though he touches on it obliquely.

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  3. Alex made a good point: “…..that an existence without any spirituality or God or anything higher, in a similarly spiritually empty materialistic world, is living hell.”

    —I agree. It sounds like a living hell. As others have noted in the past, consumption of goods, over immersion in shows and comics etc. are an attempt to fill a hole.

    —I’m glad I was raised as an Orthodox Christian, despite how much I didn’t want to go to church on some Sundays.

    —I don’t think this panic over covid, this blind trust in vaccines would have occurred decades back, I think people would have weathered it better because of their faith. And being free of a constant barrage of information and fearmongering from news channels and social media.

    Liked by 1 person

    • “I’m glad I was raised as an Orthodox Christian, despite how much I didn’t want to go to church on some Sundays.”

      Right on! There’s a reason we haven’t left the church after all these years, right?

      Faith helps a lot. So does, as you say, avoiding or ignoring what morons on social media or the news tell you.

      Like

  4. […] 1. AMERICAN PSYCHO by Bret Easton Ellis. A modern masterpiece that I finally got around to reading in 2020. Bret Easton Ellis is one of my favorite writers and his mastery of voice and style is unmatched in modern American writing. American Psycho is a violently disturbing look into the sick ennui of 80s consumer culture that feels more appropriate and insightful in our day than it did in 1991 when it was first published. I recommended this novel to Alexander Hellene and he wrote a great in depth review at Amatopia. […]

    Like

  5. Alex said “….There’s a reason we haven’t left the church after all these years, right? Faith helps a lot. So does, as you say, avoiding or ignoring what morons on social media or the news tell you….”

    —I gotta be honest, my church going is much much much reduced pre-covid and the few times I attended since it started, the masks were not a good feel, though I’m still glad I was there. There’s a power in the Orthodox services.

    But I’m not much of a churchgoer overall. Faith though, yes, I agree.

    cheers

    Liked by 1 person

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