Review: American Psycho
American Psycho is not a book one reads if one is accustomed only to pretty things. It is without question one of the ugliest books I have ever read and that is the whole of its beauty. It is worthy of attention the same way a corpse is, because it shows truth, because it happens however little we want it to, because there is something to be learned. It is a satire in the vein of A Modest Proposal, only Bret Ellis, the author, takes you through the butchering process without granting you reprieve of only smelling the succulent, cooked flesh of Irish babies. There is a difference between reading about a murderer - as anyone who has endured vampire fiction must - and having a protagonist such as Patrick Bateman who is so broken as to strip away any comforting illusions about killing. It is a revolting act performed by someone hideous for reasons beyond sane comprehension. He is much more interested in the nouveau cuisine he orders than the women he crushes to paste.
Melanie, who has only seen the movie, says that the moment she realized most of the characters were insane was when Patrick gets furious over how much better someone else's business card looks. He is a product of the most despicable parts of the eighties, the crass commercialism, the inhumanity when it comes to the accrual of money and status, but he is not a parody. He is so horrifying because he is authentic, even as his grip on reality slips far enough that he believes ATMs want him to feed them stray kittens. From what I've read, Ellis based the character on himself. Patrick is a monster of his generation (in both senses), but there are glimmers of his personal despair. I cannot help but feel that he wants to be a man but no longer understands how in his world, as evidenced by his admitting to an ex-girlfriend (who he subsequently tortures to death with a nail gun) that he works at Pierce & Pierce simply because he wants to fit in. In another instance, he is out to lunch with his doting secretary Jean and is overcome that she sees genuine goodness in him, flustering him so much that he cannot describe what she is wearing and who designed it. When he refrains from killing an associate because the associate presumes a choke hold is an embrace, Patrick demonstrates that love is the one thing he cannot handle. It is no coincidence that he tends to kill prostitutes and women with whom he has just had raunchy sex, since such misappropriation of affection is antithetical to love in his mind.
Patrick come off as a constantly unreliably narrator so, despite how unrelenting the violence is (and this is a book that will kill your appetite for day and make you feel as though your eyes are grimy), I could continue reading in hopes that all the murders were just revenge fantasies. (Some of his victims seem to later be seen by others. On the other hand, Ellis has characters answer to the wrong name to further underscores how little they are individuals, so the reader is left as uncertain as Patrick.) I did not want to root for Patrick, but I did want to believe that he wasn't beyond redemption. As the final chapter bookends the beginning, I felt a sadness that Patrick wasn't arrested and punished, because he does seem to realize just how vile he is and how much he wants to be stopped. However, Patrick is surrounded by suits that barely contain men, human beings only in the biological sense. Perhaps they do not slit the throats of children at the penguin enclosure at the zoo, but they are otherwise his twins. He cannot be cured because he is surrounded by those identically infected with a lack of compassionate depth.
The murdering, to me, was not the point of the book, though I know that is the hype. If anything, the violence was repellent punctuation. The horror, to me, was everything aside from the torture. Patrick searched for something that would have meaning to him while, owing to the perverse social mores of his peer group, eschewing anything that had a chance of getting through to him (Jean survives confessing love for him, but nearly vanishes from the story afterward). This was underscored by how gradually the murdering was introduced into the book. We are well acquainted with Patrick's sickness of the soul before he casually mentions the electric carving knife in his pocket or killing small animals. The torture is not a disease, just the most pressing symptom of it. Ellis rarely overstates the points. Patrick mentions the styles and designers of the clothing of everyone in the room, but often neglects to mention what the victims look like while they are still alive and we understand what is important to him; at no point is Ellis so on the nose as to say “Fashion and the status it implied was more important than anything else to him” because it is obvious to anyone even casually reading the work. Ellis shows without telling, letting us judge Patrick Bateman as we must. Patrick does not need to plead the case because, by the end, we know him well and feel uneasy for this insight.