American Psycho

Easton Ellis, Bret. New York: Vintage Books, 1991. 416 pages, $14.00, softcover. ISBN: 0679735771

Whenever a work is censored, advocates of the offending text must answer: Do you defend it on principle, or because you actually like it? Often the motivation is the former, and the work is consigned to Purgatory; it can neither be venerated nor damned, but is merely allowed to exist. For Jacobsen, the motivation is the latter. Unapologetic and with no pretense of analytic distance, Jacobsen offers redemption to a work that has "no redeeming qualities." Reading Jacobsen reading Ellis illuminates the conjoined condition of fiction and the everyday in which there is no distinction between such texts as novels and newspapers.

<1> No book since American Psycho has created as much of a scandal. And few books have been as misunderstood. In 1990, months before it was set to be released, certain violent passages were leaked to the press that, taken out of context, made the book seem like a depth-less celebration of sexual violence. Right after Simon & Schuster canceled the book, an employee of the publishing house said, "The most unfortunate thing about this whole controversy is that the book is a piece of shit. It's hard when something like this becomes an issue of censorship, because you want to rush to its defense, but you can't" [1]. This quote sums up why I like American Psycho so much: it has no redeeming qualities. Ellis doesn't provide socially redeeming qualities. There is nothing nice in the book. Nothing about any of the characters, nothing about anything -- there is no plot; characters are not developed. You could take the things that the people in the book say, and switch them around with other characters, and it wouldn't change anything, at least as far as character development goes. Patrick Bateman literally has no personality. He's totally blank. My favorite paragraph in the entire book:

...where there was nature and earth, life and water, I saw a desert landscape that was unending, resembling some sort of crater, so devoid of reason and light and spirit that the mind could not grasp it on any sort of conscious level and if you came close the mind would reel backward, unable to take it in. It was a vision so clear and real and vital to me that in its purity it was almost abstract. This was what I could understand, this was how I lived my life, what I constructed my movement around, how I dealt with the tangible. This was the geography around which my reality revolved: it 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 a look or a gesture, of receiving another person's love or kindness. Nothing was affirmative, the term "generosity of spirit" applied to nothing, was a cliché, was some kind of bad joke. Sex is mathematics. Individuality no longer an issue. What does intelligence signify? Define reason. Desire -- meaningless. Intellect is not a cure. Justice is dead. Fear, recrimination, innocence, sympathy, guilt, waste, failure, grief, were things, emotions, that no one really felt anymore. Reflection is useless, the world is senseless. Evil is its only permanence. God is not alive. Love cannot be trusted. Surface, surface, surface was all that anyone found meaning in... this was civilization as I saw it, colossal and jagged...(274-275)

<2> Every bad thing said about American Psycho is an understatement, and misses the point. You, as a reader, are not supposed to like Patrick Bateman. There is absolutely nothing likable about him, or any of Ellis' other characters for that matter. But the characters are not really the focus. A lot of critics have argued that Ellis is, in fact, a moralist writing about how sick our society is. Eileen Battersby, for instance, wrote: "Some reviewers have decided his work is pornographic. It isn't. True, at its most violent he is raiding the world of Jacobean drama, yet Ellis' fiction is ultimately a highly moralistic reading of a sick, vicious society" [2].

<3> Nonsense. Ellis is writing about himself, not society. He uses society as a backdrop; part of the purpose of writing for him is to find his place in society. As he once said in an interview:

Writing is really a very selfish thing. You're writing a book because you want to write a book and you're interested in these characters and you're interested in this story and you're interested in this style and you're basically masturbating at your desk...You're pleasing yourself when you're writing, you're not pleasing a bunch of other people. [3]

<4> Sure, there is a moralistic tone in his writing, but that doesn't mean he is a moralist. That just means he enjoys writing about the bad stuff and throws in some satire for the sake of intriguing literature, and the satire makes some of the things going on in the book look disapproving. One of the refreshing things about Ellis is that he never points his finger at anyone, he just expects the reader to decide for him/herself what is wrong and right. And concerning pornographic literature, well, pornography is only that which works as pornography. Porn is in the eye of the beholder.

<5> Ellis likes making fiction out of his real life. It's the way he prefers to deal with his life. In his earlier books, he would place the main character in a situation and environment very similar to his own. Then he would write a story about the character. The writing process would serve to help him figure out what was going on in his own life, and give him a reflection to look at for reassessing his situation. Yet he insists that he's never written an autobiographical novel. Maybe it's much easier for Ellis to evaluate the lives of fictional characters than real lives, so that's his reason for infusing aspects of real life, our world, into his fictional world. Like when Patrick Bateman meets Tom Cruise. This serves to make us think of Bateman as existing in our reality. Ellis does this to help him see our reality as fiction.

<6> Time was the first to pan American Psycho...three months before it was even published. R.Z. Sheppard wrote in an article entitled "A Revolting Development": "But to write superficially about superficiality and disgustingly about the disgusting and call it, as Ellis does, a challenge to his readers' complacency does violence to his audience and to the fundamental nature of his craft." Writing disgustingly about the disgusting and superficially about the superficial is what makes Ellis so great. His aesthetic mirrors the content. There is no contrast. The reader is forced to play a large role in processing the book.

<7> The clash between the horror of Bateman's crimes and his indifference toward them is what abuses the reader and is the reason it caused such fury in so many readers. The reader wants to find someone in the book that says, "This is terrible!" but there is no one. The reader is forced to introspect. George Corsillo, the artist who designed the covers for Ellis' first two books, refused to do the cover for American Psycho, stating "I was disgusted with myself for reading it" [4]. This is a sign of great literature.

<8> American Psycho is a book that alienates its readers. Its objectionable content discourages one from paying the close attention to details, which is needed for a better understanding of the book. Here are some examples of how the critics allowed their taste to prevent them from understanding a powerful work of art.

<9> Peter Plagens, in Newsweek, wrote: "Bateman is a sloppy murderer and a bad housekeeper, so it's especially odd that none of his handiwork hits the papers, not even the sensation-seeking New York Post (which Ellis repeatedly mentions)" [5].

<10> Bullshit. Page 5 of American Psycho:

Pan down to the Post. There is a moderately interesting story concerning two people who disappeared at a party aboard a yacht of a semi-noted New York socialite while the boat was circling the island. A residue of spattered blood and three smashed champagne glasses are the only clues. Foul play is suspected and police think that perhaps a machete was the killer's weapon because of certain grooves and indentations found on the deck. No bodies have been found. There are no suspects.

Page 33:

"Hey, when were you guys there?' I ask. 'Why wasn't I invited?"

"You were on that fucking cruise thing. Now shut up and listen..."

Sure, Patrick doesn't admit to the murders on the cruise, but this is just his passive style. And, page 89:

But Paul Denton keeps staring at me, or trying not to, as if he knows something, as if he's not quite sure if he recognizes me or not, and it makes me wonder if maybe he was on that cruise a long time ago, one night last March. If that's the case, I'm thinking, I should get his telephone number or, better yet, his address.

And again, page 385:

I'm coming back from Central Park where, near the children's zoo, close to the spot I murdered the McCaffrey boy, I fed portions of Ursula's brain to passing dogs.

He killed the McCaffrey boy back on page 298, and when he did, he didn't know the boy's name. So obviously he learned the boy's name from the papers. I think the reason he doesn't talk about his crimes' appearances in the papers is because he usually doesn't see any connection. Everything is disjointed for him. That's why the story about the cruise murders was only "moderately interesting." But I'm sure none of the critics took enough time with the book to notice this.

The Switch

<11> There is a moment in the book when Patrick completely loses it. The supposed "real" world around him becomes as one with his insane imagination world. All distinctions between subjective and objective are temporarily, or perhaps permanently, erased. It is the moment when Patrick drives away in a stolen taxicab, and he doesn't realize the blood is on the inside of the windshield; he thinks it's on the outside. And right after this, "I lose control entirely" and it's then that he begins referring to himself in the third person, he becomes completely detached (349). Escaping the police, Patrick flees to his office building, but first he enters the wrong building, and in his frustration, kills the night watchman and the janitor. Then he runs out of the wrong building and into the right one, and up to his office. But the police don't know that he went to another building, so he doesn't get caught. After he gets to his office, he finally resumes speaking of himself in the first person. This is what it takes to sober him up, to the point where, at the end of the chapter, he decides to call his lawyer and confess all his murders: "I decide to make public what has been, until now, my private dementia" (352). After this moment, there is a switch in the book. All of Bateman's crimes up to this point in time become unreal, like they never happened. They always seemed kind of unreal, but Bateman assumed they were real. Then after he learns that his confession meant nothing, even when he made himself as clear as possible to his lawyer, he realizes that his long-time suspicion is true: What's inside doesn't matter. That is, there is no cause-and-effect between one's private actions and one's public life as long as one upholds the right socially constructed self image.

<12> After this milestone in the monotony of American Psycho, there are certain switches that pop up during the rest of the book. The first is when Patrick hears some Japanese tourists in a restaurant singing "Witchcraft." Patrick hears: "that sry comehitle stale...that clazy witchclaft..." (363). Instead of hearing l's as r's, as would be appropriate to a Japanese accent, he hears r's as l's. Later, Patrick mentions that the saddest song he knows is "You Can't Always Get What You Want" by the Beatles.

<13> When Patrick goes to Owen's apartment to clean up the mess he made, he finds a real-estate agent there, and describes her as "distressingly real-looking" (368). She asks him to leave. Is this because she can tell he's the guy who killed all the women found in the apartment, or is it just because he looks suspicious and acts weird? Things are suddenly less clear than ever before. Bateman can't tell the difference between the truth and what his lawyer Carnes is telling him. Carnes doesn't even realize he's talking to Patrick, and tells him that Patrick is such a goody-goody, a lightweight, that Evelyn dumped him, that he couldn't even pick up an escort girl, let alone kill one, that he himself had had dinner with Owen in London recently (Owen was supposedly one of Patrick's earlier victims). Is this the truth that Bateman's been ignoring the whole time? Or could this encounter be another product of Bateman's imagination, giving him a reason to believe that he didn't kill anybody, that he imagined all of it. See, the switch is a switch of reality with imagination, and Patrick has no idea which is which. But the point is that it's irrelevant. Ellis' point is that this was a place (Manhattan) and a time (the Reagan eighties) in which someone could commit all these atrocities and it wouldn't make a difference in his life. His world is unaffected. It doesn't really matter whether Patrick committed all the murders or not.

<14> Finally, the first sentence of the book is: "ABANDON ALL HOPE ALL YE WHO ENTER HERE is scrawled in blood red lettering" (1, emphasis added). Then, the last sentence of the book is: "and above the doors covered by red velvet drapes in Harry's is a sign and on the sign in letters that match the drapes' color are the words THIS IS NOT AN EXIT." Notice: he doesn't say the letters on the sign are red; he says they match the color of the drapes, and the drapes are red. Why doesn't he just say they're red? Blood red? Because the flesh has been replaced by the picture of it. Reality only exists on the surface. The text has replaced its subject. Bateman finds that his insane world-view fits in perfectly with his environment. He has not at all deviated from the American Dream. Patrick Bateman never faces any consequences for his actions, and they become unreal. Serial killer Ted Bundy once said, "How can you say you're in touch with the past? You can't! It's a dream!"

<15> You may think, "All these things you've pointed out are so insignificant. I mean, the way the Japanese tourists talk, Bateman switching the Beatles with the Rolling Stones. So what? That doesn't mean anything."

<16> It does mean something. You see, the things I've pointed out are superficial, but that's all American Psycho is! The entire book is made of superficiality. The only heart that the book has lies on its surface. Ellis himself said you have to pay attention to the book's details.

Psychotic America

If, according to Jean Baudrillard, the constant (mimetic) depiction of a thing sooner or later makes the thing itself disappear, and finally only the image remains...the deluge of reports about serial killers/merchandising/movies/videos, etc. has devaluated murder as the final act of exceeding...The murderer has become the partner of the media. [6]

<17> When you look at all the pictures of John Wayne Gacy's victims, you have difficulty feeling for them, each one is just one of thirty-three. When a psychopath kills this many (or even only as many as seven or eight), the subsequent media attention is focused on the killer, and the victims become second in the spotlight. The killer becomes celebrated and his victims are dehumanized. The insensitivity of the psychopath rubs off onto the rest of society, people who read the newspapers, slowly run their eyes over the pictures of the twenty-two identified victims of Gacy, and try their best to remember (remind themselves) of how horrible it all is. But it's difficult; the victims and the crimes become depersonalized to the masses almost as much as they were to the psychopath.

<18> What we ought to think is, "(Gasp!) That poor boy! He was handcuffed, tied up, raped, tortured, sodomized, and killed by a man whose motive was simply to satisfy his sick sexual urges! All the pain, all the inhumanity. And think of his parents and family and their pain and mourning when they finally discovered what happened to their missing son. Imagine what they've had to endure!" But how can we sincerely feel this way for every single victim? We can't. There are just too many. And they all exist merely as pictures on a page. Not to mention Gacy's eleven unidentified victims. It's incomprehensible to us. Society inevitably adopts the outlook of the psychopath; this is why Patrick Bateman finds that he fits so naturally within the environment around him. He remains, in the end, at large. And this is what American Psycho is partly about. Rather than the psychopath changing his outlook to match society's, he instead portrays an image that is completely socially constructed, maintains his "inhuman" outlook, and eventually society changes its outlook to match his. What's important is that he looks like us, not that he is like us. Bateman laments, while watching a nameless victim struggle with a starving rat eating away at the inside of her vagina: "I can already tell that it's going to be a characteristically useless, senseless death, but then I'm used to the horror. It seems distilled, even now it fails to upset or bother" (329).

<19> In American Psycho, Bateman's insane outlook replaces reality; the surface fully substitutes reality. Bateman never bothered feeling for his victims. In turn, Ellis never really defended the book, made no excuses for it, no apologies, and has since become so much more of a celebrity, his perception taking over his original identity. He said so in Rolling Stone magazine. When asked what his personal event of the last millennium was, he answered: "Becoming a public person -- which caused a separation. The perception of who I was took over the real person -- which caused a strange and massive rift and made me re-evaluate what it means to be myself." And in American Psycho, the perception of Bateman, as a boring rich Wall Street yuppie ultimately replaces the reality of his crimes.

<20> I think that this is what American Psycho is really about. It is Ellis dealing with his new identity as a result of becoming "quasi-famous" after Less Than Zero was published and became such a big hit while Ellis was so young. Here's a rundown: Bateman is twenty-six, so was Ellis when American Psycho was published. Both Ellis and Bateman lived in New York and were rich. Less Than Zero made him famous at age twenty-one and "caused a strange and massive rift." In American Psycho, Bateman's identity is a complete blank. He knows that people are replaceable and not very important, and he proves this to himself by deleting them throughout his life. Then at the end of the book, when he tries to bring his crimes into view of the public, he can't. No one believes him. He resorts to believing that it doesn't really matter whether they happened or not. On the back cover of the book there is a picture of Ellis next to a description of Bateman. Ellis has also stated that American Psycho was his most autobiographical book so far.

Andrew Miles Jacobsen


[1] Hoban, Phoebe. "'Psycho' Drama." New York Magazine: Vol. 23 No. 49, 1990. p.36 [^]

[2] Battersby, Eileen. "From the Moral Low-Ground." Irish Times: February 25, 1999. [^]

[3] Clark, Jamie. "An Interview with Bret Easton Ellis." November 4, 1996; October 22, 1998. [^]

[4] Sheppard, R.Z. "A Revolting Development." Time Magazine: Oct. 29, 1990. p. 100 [^]

[5] Plagens, Peter. "Confessions of a Serial Killer." Newsweek: Mar. 4th, 1991. p. 58 [^]

[6] Fuchs, Christian. Bad Blood. (London: Creation Books, 2002) p.206 [^]