1. A few weeks ago, I took a break from holing up inside my apartment and writing my thesis to walk to Powell’s Books here in Chicago. I mostly just wanted to get outside for a minute, but I ended up walking around the bookstore for an hour. I first grabbed Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho and a John Cheever story collection, then decided I didn’t want the Cheever but accidentally put the Ellis back instead. In retrospect, this seems like an unheeded signal from the Book Gods of the universe not to read American Psycho.
2. Bret Easton Ellis has been on my mind twice recently: (1) his Twitter rant about David Foster Wallace where he called the writer “the most tedious, overrated, tortured, pretentious writer of my generation” and “a fraud” (2) his tweet about Tao Lin’s upcoming novel Taipei: “With ‘Taipei’ Tao Lin becomes the most interesting prose stylist of his generation, which doesn’t mean that ‘Taipei’ isn’t a boring novel…”
(I guess what I really had on my mind, then, was Bret Easton Ellis’s Twitter account). So I connected “master prose stylist” and Bret Easton Ellis in my head. After reading the book, I stand by that statement.
3. The place where I felt creepiest while reading American Psycho was eating alone at a diner. It had eerie resonances with the scene in Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes where John Dee enters a diner and whips all the customers into a crazed frenzy, causing them all to kill one another within 24 hours. Like American Psycho, there’s flesh mutilation and cannibalism in this Sandman scene. Luckily, the worst damage to me that night was my friend blowing me off (hence, the eating alone).
4. My cover has these almost delicate ribbons of what is presumably blood, but it’s light red, shading off into pink at parts, and doesn’t blood darken when it dries? It could just as well be wisps of smoke…red smoke…and this could just as well be a novel about drugs, which play no small part in the book.
5. A Time Out blurb on the back proclaims that American Psycho “examines the mindless preoccupations of the nineties preppy generation.” It was first published in 1991, though, so I guess that makes the book a harbinger of the decade that was to follow. Another blurb calls American Psycho a “satire in which the hedonistic, coke-fueled consumerism of the Eighties was taken to its brutal conclusion.” Q: is this a novel of its time, tied closely to the period in which it was written and set? Will we be reading American Psycho differently, or at all, in 50 years?
6. There’s plenty here to date the story, mostly technology-wise—videotapes, compact disc players, no cell phones—but what keeps signifying “90s” to me is the pervasiveness of cocaine. There’s a lot of coke here, people using it, people trying to get it. At one point, main character Patrick Bateman’s credit card snaps in half from being constantly used to do the drug.
7. Basic plot: American Psycho is about a closet psychopath, the moneyed Wall Street banker Patrick Bateman, following him around Manhattan as he violently tortures and murders various individuals. Many of his victims are women, some men; lots are existing acquaintances of his, some are unknown parties—homeless people, delivery boys, and prostitutes—and some are animals. Bateman displays a particular (and racialized) cruelty towards beggars, hitting them with the familiar “get a job” lines and dangling dollar bills in their grasp then snatching them away. For Chrissakes, one of his victims is a 5-year old child at the zoo.
8. American Psycho was turned into a movie in 2000, directed by Mary Harron and starring Christian Bale, Chloe Sevigny, Reese Witherspoon, Jared Leto, and Willem Defoe. I have not seen the movie. Of the friends I’ve told that I’m reading this book, most have seen the movie and about half have read the book. I keep getting it confused in my head with the movie American Beauty (1999), which also portrays murder, but only a single one.
9. I think I’ve twice had to tell people that this is my first Bret Easton Ellis book, which makes me feel like a poorly-read cretin.
10. Bateman meticulously reports on the dress of most every male and female character and stranger he encounters, along with his own attire at every turn. Like, there are just a lot of brand names, proper nouns, in this book. Sample line: “Price is wearing a six-button wool and silk suit by Ermenegildo Zegna, a cotton shirt with French cuffs by Ike Behar, a Ralph Lauren silk tie and leather wing tips by Fratelli Rossetti.” Ad nauseum, every other page. There are also numerous discussions among the characters over the niceties of dressing well: the proper color socks and belt to wear with a gray suit, what kind of tie knot to wear with a rounded collar, the rules for sporting pocket squares, and so on and so forth. At one point, referring to a fellow diner, Bateman asks Evelyn “Hasn’t it occurred to him that his suit might inspire loathing?”
11. It’s much the same with restaurants as with clothing in the book, with inexhaustible detailing of the names of the hot places and the drinks, appetizers, entrees, and desserts that all parties order. At Bateman’s query, Luis Carruthers even relays the dishes eaten by some faceless clients in Phoenix. It’s a sensual orgy. Like clothing, restaurants are a clear status marker—the spots that characters can acquire reservations at and how well-placed a table they can get seated at telegraphs volumes about their social standing (and about the amount of capital they have—bribes to maître d’s and waiters are so common as to be unremarkable). Paying the check becomes a game of one-upmanship to see who gets to show off their platinum American Express card. Zagat, the Holy Bible of these characters, is one of the only books mentioned in the story. One character, McDermott, gets seriously offended at Bateman for calling the pizzas at his favored place “brittle,” swinging his opinion only by showing him a newspaper article where Bateman’s hero Donald Trump speaks highly of the restaurant’s offerings. It reminds me of this GQ article about the insanity of restaurant culture in New York.
12. Bateman takes special pride in his perch on Wall Street, constantly emphasizing to his various companions that he works at the investment firm Pierce & Pierce, which repeatedly gets mistaken for a shoe boutique by those not in the know. Like so much else in the novel, Bateman’s place of employment serves as a status symbol, indicating that he and his colleagues are flush with cash and high class. In conversation, it eventually slips out that Bateman’s got a tidy inheritance, and has no need to work, but does so anyway because he wants to “fit in.” This is a rare admission from someone who is otherwise so socially aberrant (though I wouldn’t exactly take a psychopathic serial killer at his word).
13. Despite the emphasis he places on his occupation and his obsession with the Fisher account that Paul Owen is handling, Bateman doesn’t seem to do much of anything at work. He’s constantly working out and running off to lunches, but it’s not really clear what the substance of his job is. In the entire book he only has one meeting with his colleagues. I thought yuppies were supposed to be big into meetings? Even his field, mergers and acquisitions, is only mentioned a few times. This aspect reminded me of Cheever’s stories, where work significantly structures social relations but is itself kind of obscured, the suburban characters uniformly heading off to dull unspecified office jobs by day and returning by train at night.
14. These characters find meaning not in their work, but in stuff: money, clothes, food, drugs. The trifecta: consumerism, materialism, hedonism.
15. In addition to possessing an obsession with clothing and restaurants that nears mania, the characters in American Psycho regard women in a way that’s, well, kind of disgusting. This is perhaps of a piece with the violent murders that Bateman performs on women’s bodies. Women are bodies in the book, inane “hardbodies,” “bitches” to be taken home and fucked. Psychopaths lack empathy for those who surround them; layer in the murder element, and you’ve got someone who removes any shred of humanity from his victims. This much is apparent in the way that Bateman regards others, victims or not—“I just remind myself that this girl, this meat, is nothing, is shit”—as well as himself, acknowledging his “virtual absence of humanity.” But in a less extreme form, the ritual dehumanizing of women extends outside of Bateman to other characters as well, a characteristic of the circles he travels in, if not the Zeitgeist as a whole.
16. Foucault: the body as a site where power relations are reproduced. The many, many bodies in American Psycho, dismembered, mutilated: a canvas on which Bateman’s depravity is performed and inscribed, or one for the degenerate culture that spawned Bateman? Both?
17. All of these threads, the emphasis on appearance and status symbols, money, drugs, the poor conception and treatment of women (and minorities—the book is peppered with racial slurs), all weave a picture of a vacuous, hedonist, materialist culture tied to a particular late 80s-early 90s historical moment. It’s also tied to the very particular place of Manhattan, but the mindless superficiality kept making me think of Los Angeles. Ellis’s bio says he splits his time between Los Angeles and New York, and a number of his other books—Less Than Zero (1985), the short story collection The Informers (1994), and Imperial Bedrooms (2010)—are placed in LA. Could American Psycho happen in Los Angeles? Could it happen in any place that wasn’t a major metro area? As much as I hate hewing to these overbroad place stereotypes, it’s impossible for me to imagine this story happening in Chicago.
18. Even though the book is narrated in a stream of consciousness style and filled with tons of mind-numbing stuff—names of clothing designers, trips to restaurants and clubs, a rotating door of Bateman’s colleagues and dinner dates—Ellis keeps a good sense of pace up. Even though the plot didn’t feel like it was working towards any particular end—Bateman’s continuing descent into madness, maybe—I never felt like the action was lagging.
19. On the back of the book, Norman Mailer comments on its “deep and Dostoyevskian themes.” One of the epigraphs is from Notes from the Underground. I took a class that was entirely on Crime & Punishment, and that novel, with a single murder at its center, continually came to mind as I was reading American Psycho. Raskolnikov and Bateman, feverishly wandering around their respective St. Petersburg and Manhattan, both spiral further and further into insanity. Ellis and Dostoevsky alike push nihilism to its extreme, devastating conclusion.
20. And indeed, as Bateman becomes more bleakly introspective, the end of the book takes a markedly nihilistic turn. Breaking down into tears, he finds himself “cursing the earth and everything I have been taught: principle, distinctions, choices, morals, compromises, knowledge, unity, prayer—all of it was wrong, without any final purpose.” And in the book’s closing, Bateman’s nihilism and disconnect from humanity are made sharply clear: “[I]t did not occur to me, ever, that people were good or that a man was capable of change or that the world could be a better place through one’s taking pleasure in a feeling or look or a gesture, or receiving another person’s love or kindness….Reflection is useless, the world is senseless. Evil is its only permanence. God is not alive. Love cannot be trusted.”
21. I’ve written most of this review without getting into its grisly scenes of violence, torture, and rape, which I will not be providing any specific details of. Ellis left the murder scenes unwritten as he completed the rest of the book, filling them out with details from actual serial killings gleaned from FBI criminology textbooks at the New York Public Library. It is some comfort that the author himself didn’t really want to write those scenes. In certain parts of Australia and New Zealand, the book is sold shrink-wrapped and cannot be sold to under-18s.
22. Sophomore year of high school, we had to give oral book reports in English class. I did mine on Richard Preston’s scientific thriller The Hot Zone, and read a very graphic scene where a man bleeds out and dies of Ebola. When I got my grade back, my teacher Matt Mitchell called my choice of excerpt “harrowing.” Shit’s bush league in comparison to this book.
23. This Believer piece asks if American Psycho wouldn’t be better if it was stripped of its violent scenes and refined down to its satirical lambasting of the “culture of vanity.” The writer of the piece suggests that the novel would still unsettle with its “blithe nihilism—the unappeasable boredom, the obvious entitlement, the disgust with imperfection,” an effect which would sink in deeper without the nausea engendered by the scenes of carnage. Without the violent scenes, though, Ellis wouldn’t be pushing the degenerate hedonism of the culture nearly as far to its logical limit, and the effect of the book would be weakened.
24. Re: American Psycho’s scenes of violence, these words keep coming to mind: disturbing, disquieting, depraved, deranged, etc. Disgusting doesn’t do it. I don’t have a weak stomach, and I’m frankly the last person to get disturbed by depictions of violence. One of my most-watched movies is Saw, whose central character shares Bateman’s relish for horrific torture, if not his nihilism. Nevertheless, shocking even me, I found the violent scenes extremely challenging to get through. I had to close the book at multiple points, and there might have even been tears at one point? I don’t know. There’s a lot going on in my life right now, you guys. Again, I’m not someone who embargoes certain topics of conversation just because people are eating, but even I got tripped up as I was reading some of the horrific murder scenes while putting food in my mouth. I actually stopped reading before I did a phone interview because it was having a palpable effect on my emotional state.
25. Whether or not American Psycho endures as a novel, this piece of wisdom from Bateman seems apposite, then and now: “This is no time for the innocent.”
Rachel Hyman runs Anthology of Chicago and is the co-editor of Banango Lit and Banango Street. Her work has been published in Red Lightbulbs, NAP, Untoward Magazine, and elsewhere. She lives in Chicago.