Oh, American Psycho, where to begin?
Let’s begin by saying that this is a brilliant piece of work. As a boots-on-the-ground view of the materialistic madness of wealth-obsessed, alienated, depraved yuppies in Eighties’ New York City, this book positively vibrates. Starting on page one, Ellis drowns us in designer labels as the narrator, Patrick Bateman, meticulously, obsessively notes the provenance of every tie, jacket, pants, dress, scarf, shoe, watch and pair of earrings within sight. Needless to say, a culture so completely self-absorbed in appearances – appearing wealthy, appearing cool – has no interest in, or energy for, looking beneath the surface. Especially when that surface is so shiny.
In fact, one of the funniest continuing bits in this book occurs when characters constantly mistake acquaintances for someone else. Nobody seems to really know who anyone is. It is so pervasive that when Bateman kills one of his colleagues, Paul Owen, nobody notices. In fact, people continue to see Owen in London months after his death, including Bateman’s own attorney who claims to have had dinner with him just a few days ago. It is this last bit of information, along with an odd, unsettling encounter Bateman has with the realtor showing Owen’s apartment to prospective clients that made me wonder if Bateman wasn’t an unreliable narrator. The fact that the cops never show up to question him about any of this can also be used to support the unreliable-narrator-he-dreamed-all-this-up argument.
To show you how much I hate unreliable narrators – I’d rather Bateman actually be a heinous serial killer than a delusional, or lying, unreliable narrator.
However one could also argue the scenario put forth by the author – large, crowded city full of materialistic, alienated people plus handsome, rich-guy psychopath striking at random – is equally plausible.
So, let’s talk about Patrick Bateman, the first-person narrator, or star if you will, of American Psycho. But first, a disclaimer – I am not the kind of person who cringes when I hear a bad word, or who faints at the sight of blood. I grew up reading extensively in the field of horror, both fiction and non-fiction. I’ve seen some godawful, nightmarish movies that should have never seen the light of day. I know people are capable of terrible things. For these reasons, and more, I believe I can safely say that I’ve read, seen, heard, written, and even experienced some pretty foul shit in my life.
But all of that pales in comparison to the misogynistic horror I see in American Psycho.
To be fair, times change and what was once shocking is now considered “transgressive”. Doing research on this novel I came across that word, so I looked it up. Transgressive fiction, I discovered, is a genre that deals with taboo subjects, like drugs, incest, cannibalism, and sexual activity, along with violence, urban violence, crime, and violence against women. Transgressive fiction is a thing, it is a recognized literary genre deserving of study and respect.
This from the Wikipedia entry on “Transgressive Fiction”: A literary genre that graphically explores such topics as incest and other aberrant sexual practices, mutilation, the sprouting of sexual organs in various places on the human body, urban violence and violence against women, drug use, and highly dysfunctional family relationships, and that is based on the premise that knowledge is to be found at the edge of experience and that the body is the site for gaining knowledge. Transgressive fiction shares similarities with splatterpunk, noir, and erotic fiction in its willingness to portray forbidden behaviors and shock readers…. Unbound by usual restrictions of taste and literary convention, its proponents claim that transgressive fiction is capable of incisive social commentary.
That phrase “incisive social commentary” is such an interesting, and auspicious, term. After all, when something can be said to have “incisive social commentary” then it’s good, right? And American Psycho has quite a bit of that, and it’s often funny –the aforementioned misidentification of characters; the nightly stampede to get into the newest, coolest restaurants; the slavish devotion to designer clothing – all paint a hilarious picture of poor, tortured yuppies in the Eighties. Also, does the novel also show “its willingness to portray forbidden behaviors and shock readers”? Check. Ellis shows he is well-aware of what would shock readers when he has Bateman kill a blind man’s dog, kill a child at the zoo, and torture and kill a rat that wanders into his apartment. You can almost hear the author chortling as he crosses these deaths off his list of taboos.
At first glance, Patrick Bateman seems like an equal-opportunity killer – he kills animals, men, women, children, young and old, rich and homeless, black people and white people, native-born Americans and immigrants, even some cops. So there’s your “violence” element, and the “drugs” theme runs throughout the novel. It appears that American Psycho ticks off a lot of the boxes associated with this genre.
So what am I bitching about? It’s the “violence against women” part.
Because even though Bateman kills all kinds of people and animals, these are usually impulsive, spur-of-the-moment killings, shocking in their casual spontaneity. Bateman strikes then saunters off, the picture of harmless and blameless. Who, me? (I can actually imagine seeing Bateman committing one of these “casual killings,” and disbelieving my own eyes – Hey, did that cute, rich guy just kill that homeless guy? Nah. That’s ridiculous!)
But when he kills women, it’s a whole different ball game. Then Bateman makes an effort to show his charming side. At least initially. He makes plans, there are drinks (usually drugged), conversation, and there is even consensual sex. But it’s like all this “normal” stuff is just foreplay for Bateman’s real interest – the complete annihilation of the female body. He rapes, tortures, burns, mutilates, chops, hacks, electrocutes, slices, bites and eats his victims until there is almost nothing left of them. Once in awhile he’ll keep a finger, or a bit of hairy pubis as a souvenir. And he does this over and over again, recounting the sequence of events with the same obsessive detail he devotes to telling us about his wardrobe.
Plus, it is NOT okay that a literary/academic definition of a genre specifically mentions “violence against women” as one of its tropes. By comparison, is there a genre that includes “violence against men in kilts” or “violence against armadillos” as part of its definition?
I didn’t think so.
I haven’t seen the movie yet. I hear it’s a “black comedy”. They just made American Psycho into a musical, for crying out loud. A musical. This is why ironic literary types are so easy to manipulate – bookend your snuff porn novel with “incisive social commentary” and you’ve got yourself a cult classic. As I said in the beginning – brilliant.
On a related note, Bret Ellis has given quite a few interviews where he’s said, “Patrick Bateman is me, was me in New York then. I was living that life.” This made me think of all the times in the book that Bateman told people he was a killer, but no one believed him.
Hey, wouldn’t it be funny if …?
Nah. That’s ridiculous.
Ellis, Bret Easton. American Psycho. Vintage Books, 1991.