American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis – Pervert or Prophet?

I read this book the way I watch grizzly slasher films. I squint my eyes so they’re barely open and quickly scan over the gruesome parts, trying not to comprehend too much, but for some godawful reason, I’m unable to just turn the page and move on to the next scene. Bret Easton Ellis will be remembered for this book—one of the strangest “horror comedies” ever to spew from a mind more twisted than Edgar Allan Poe’s, more macabre than H.P. Lovecraft’s, and more harrowing than Stephen King’s. With American Psycho, Ellis raised the bar for thriller writers.

Allow me to reproduce here just a few sentences of a scene that goes on for a number of pages. WARNING: I’m not joking.

Read this scene only if you’re sitting comfortably with easy access to strong alcohol and/or a flight sickness bag. Otherwise cut to after the blockquote.

I keep spraying Torri with Mace and then I try to cut off her xxxxxxx with xxxx xxxxxxxx and finally I pour acid onto her xxxxx and xxxxxxxx, but none of this comes close to killing her, so I resort to stabbing her in the xxxxxx and eventually the blade of the knife breaks off in what’s left of her xxxx, stuck on bone, and I stop. While Tiffany watches, finally I saw the entire xxxx off—torrents of blood splash against the walls, even the ceiling—and holding the xxxx up, like a prize, I take my xxxx, purple with xxxxxxxxx, and lowering Torri’s xxxx to my lap I push it into her bloodied xxxxx and start xxxxxxx it, until I xxxx, xxxxxxxxx into it. Afterwards I’m so xxxx I can even walk around the blood-soaked room carrying the xxxx, which feels warm and weightless, on my xxxx.
[I knew you wouldn’t believe me about the flight sickness bag, so I had mercy on you and lightly edited the text. — A.S.]

They locked the Marquis de Sade in the Bastille dungeon for writing scenes less graphic than this. Here in America, land of free speech, the book is published by Random House, the premier New York publishing giant of the twentieth century; in Vanity Fair, Norman Mailer compares Ellis to Dostoevsky; the book is made into a major Hollywood film starring Christian Bale and Reese Witherspoon, followed two years later by American Psycho 2, directed by Morgan Freeman and starring William Shatner. (I never saw either of the films, but that Shatner one has gotta be a winner.) And it’s all because of people like me telling everyone I know, “You gotta read this book!” (Well, okay, more likely because of Norman Mailer and the New York Times and Publishers Weekly saying, “You gotta read this book.”)

Like many tales of horror, the book starts slowly, primarily introducing the main character, Patrick Bateman, a Wall Street whiz kid who’s making money hand over fist as an investment banker, and spending it freely on booze, broads, and status symbols, which seem to be his prime concerns in life (the story takes place in the 1980s).

For quite some ways into the book, I was under the impression that Bateman—who narrates the story—was gay, not because he ever makes any references to any overtly homosexual inclinations, but because of his obsession with designer clothing. This is not to say that all gay men are obsessed with designer clothing, but Patrick Bateman’s initial demonstration of his passion for all things expensive and trendy comes across as he describes the clothes being worn by anyone and everyone he sees.

As an example, from page 30:

… He’s wearing a linen suit by Canali Milano, a cotton shirt by Ike Behar, a silk tie by Bill Blass and cap-toed leather lace-ups from Brooks Brothers. I’m wearing a lightweight linen suit with pleated trousers, a cotton shirt, a dotted silk tie, all by Valentino Couture, and perforated cap-toe leather shoes by Allen-Edmonds.

Descriptions like these are relentless throughout the book. He has such a passion for fashion that he immediately recognizes designer clothes—male and female—and there is no piece of clothing nor any fashion accessory he does not recognize by the designer’s name, and often the store where it was purchased, as he comments on all of it. In scenes where there are half a dozen or more people in a club or restaurant, these descriptions go on for pages. (You could probably cut fifty pages of text from the novel just by removing the descriptions of what everyone’s wearing.)

And the first time Bateman seems about to have sex in the book (p. 24, with his fiancée Evelyn), he abruptly stops with no explanation, saying: “After attempting to have sex with her for around fifteen minutes, I decide not to continue trying.” Huh?

Not too far into the book, however, he exhibits an obsession for electronic equipment, automobiles, furniture, artwork, and high-tech gadgets (high-tech for the 80s), basically proving himself to be the ultimate follower of fashion, not so much trying to keep up with the Joneses as with the Trumps. And all of his actual sexual exploits are with women, though many of these trysts end in him murdering his lovers, often after torturing them in horrific fashion.

There’s something very disturbing about the concept of a wealthy tycoon—he’s a vice president at the firm where he works—chopping up innocent, unsuspecting people, with never a hint of remorse, almost as if it’s a hobby. (Or is this what investment bankers do, figuratively speaking? At the time Ellis wrote this book, investment bankers did not have such an evil and greedy reputation as they now have. This book packs such a political wallop today that one wonders if Ellis was more prophetic than shocking.) Bateman has no financial worries and as many friends and lovers as any man can handle (though, admittedly, all of these relationships are as shallow as shallow can be, based as they are on wearing the right shoes).

There has been some criticism of this book for its brutal treatment of women, but Patrick Bateman acts equally vicious toward men, children, and even animals. He tortures and murders a male friend and coworker, Paul Owen, in one scene, repeatedly stabs a crippled male beggar, cuts his eyes out with a knife, and then breaks the beggar’s dog’s legs by stomping on them, kills the dog of an effeminate gay man he meets on the street, then shoots that guy in the face, stabs a five-year-old boy in the throat in the penguin habitat at the Central Park Zoo, etc. He really is an equal opportunity maniac. But the torture scenes with women often go on for many pages and are more horrific than any I’ve ever read. And these scenes of depravity are often followed by Bateman meeting up with his yuppie friends again at another trendy Manhattan club or eatery to snort some coke and engage in another vapid discussion of clothes, wine, “hardbodies,” and which new club is the place to be seen.

One weird feature of this book is that sporadically, a chapter is presented where Bateman critiques at length some singer or rock group—Whitney Houston, Genesis, Huey Lewis and the News… These are not short commentaries, but carefully constructed, serious, lengthy reviews that discuss the performers’ influences, history, evolution, stature in the music world, etc. Totally outside the style of the rest of the novel—he never once mentions what kind of trousers Phil Collins is wearing, or what disturbing fantasies he’s having about Whitney Houston—these reviews seem out of place, pasted in.

Do you know why Ellis wrote American Psycho? Here’s the inside scoop:  Bret Easton Ellis wanted to get his music reviews published.  Remember, you heard it here first. Those critiques were the only chapters Ellis put his heart into. The man tried for years to get backstage passes so he could hang out with bands. He was a teenybopper groupie locked in a dorky nerd’s body. American Psycho was his last ditch effort to get a gig writing articles for Rolling Stone.

And this is why I tell everyone I know to read this book. Bret Easton Ellis has written the deepest, most profound critique of Huey Lewis and the News ever to see print. Everything else in the book is filler—just descriptions of Armani jackets and silk-satin d’Orsay pumps, interlaced with accounts of eyeballs being gouged out and human intestines being eaten like hors d’oeuvres.

Get this book! Norman Mailer says two thumbs up! 


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