The website of UK writer Dan McNeil

AMERICAN PSYCHO

Bret Easton Ellis | 1991
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“And as things fell apart
Nobody paid much attention.”

(Talking Heads quote, from the introduction to American Psycho)

From its chilling opening line “Abandon hope all ye who enter here”, the virtually plotless American Psycho drags us screaming and giggling into the empty heart of a decadent society obsessed with money and status.

Wall Street trader Patrick Bateman’s relentless restauranteering and terrifyingly banal monologues on designer clothes juxtapose powerfully with him graphically torturing and killing lots of people – predominantly women. These outraged by the violence however – and there have been many, including the usual suspects, some who shamelessly admitted to not having actually read the book – miss the point entirely.

Firstly, the horror is more real than that within, for example, the equally violent Hannibal Lecter sequence, significantly (although not entirely) because American Psycho is written in the first person.

Secondly, American Psycho might not be what it seems; Patrick may (or may not be, such is the ambiguity of the narration) fantasising. One clue to this well-discussed theory is in the quotation from Dostoevsky at the beginning of the novel:

“Both the author of these Notes and the Notes themselves are, of course, fictional. Nevertheless, such persons as the composer of these Notes not only exist in our society, but indeed must exist, considering the circumstances under which our society has generally been formed. I have wished to bring before the public, somewhat more distinctly than usual, one of the characters of our recent past. He represents a generation that is still living out its days among us. In the fragment entitled “Underground” this personage describes himself and his views and attempts, as it were, to clarify the reasons why he appeared and was bound to appear in our midst. The subsequent fragment will consist of the actual “notes,” concerning certain events in his life.”

Another clue: when asked what he does for a living, nobody reacts to Patrick’s reply of “…murders and executions, mostly.” His Ted Bundy obsession is largely ignored. Hysterical telephone confessions to a colleague following an apparent murderous rampage are laughed off as a joke. Neighbours appear deaf to the sounds of nail-gun bangs and screaming emanating from Patrick’s apartment. And almost nobody seems to miss the victims.

Despite these ambiguities, the violence – real or imagined – is shocking, but not half as shocking as the realisation that Patrick’s numbing monologues on Whitney Houston, Phil Collins and Huey Lewis and The News satirise the shocking acceptance by western consumers for undemanding, banal and mentally degenerative art-forms. Look around you. Be very afraid. That charming young man at the bus stop could well be a Phil Collins fan. His greatest fan, even. Such a nice man, said baffled neighbours, after the police broke into his flat and found the freezer stuffed with body parts.

American Psycho vividly and violently makes a powerful case that society is responsible for creating the warped aspirations of people like Patrick Bateman. Very bleak, very funny and very unsettling, this ferocious satire forces the reader to confront issues they would perhaps rather ignore.

Even more relevant now than when first published in 1991, American Psycho is essential reading. If you can be bothered, of course.

©Dan McNeil 2003
[This review first appeared in Laura Hird’s Showcase]