Yuppie in deed!
Bret Easton Ellis
Still, there’s no denying that this is essentially a book about a guy who goes around killing innocent people because he doesn’t agree with who they are. It’s a book about a guy who hates himself and the world he lives in so much, that he simply has to murder all those whom he considers a detriment to society. And when he kills people, the descriptions in the book are truly awful. I mean this guy really goes down on his chosen victims. Perhaps you’ve seen the film and know a bit of what I’m talking about, but the book is so much more graphic then the film ever was. There are certain differences from book to film; for example, in the film Bateman’s apartment is squeaky clean, in the book his apartment is filled with human parts all over the place, bodies decaying, blood splattered on the walls…on the film they minimized this in favor of augmenting the characters obsessive cleanliness. We do see a severed head inside of his refrigerator, and he does have a couple of bodies decaying at Paul Allen’s apartment, but it’s not like in the book where it’s Bateman’s apartment that is the center of all the mayhem. In fact, in the book he has an extra apartment in Hell’s Kitchen where he decomposes bodies in acid. I did like how in the film Bateman mentions the Hell’s Kitchen apartment, though it is never shown on the film, it kind of let us know that the filmmakers knew the book very well, they just couldn’t film everything.
Director Mary Harron and Christian Bale talk out a scene
In fact, fans of the book might get a kick at how even though the film doesn’t show ever single situation and murder committed in the book, at the very least they are referenced and alluded to all through out the film. For example in one scene Bateman mentions that he killed “some old fagot with a dog” which is one of the more graphic and controversial deaths in the book. When Jean, Bateman’s receptionist finds a notebook that Bateman scribbles and doodles on, if you freeze frame those scenes, you can see that the doodles Bateman’s made on his little notebook are doodles of the murders that actually happen in the book, but we don’t see on film. Obviously they were too horrible to appear in the film, and I get that. It’s true, some of the murders described in the book are way too graphic and over the top. After all, we are talking about a novel that’s been banned in many countries, never sold to anyone under 18 in others, and sold only in shrink wrap in others! I don’t blame the people of for considering this book to be “harmful to minors”; this my friends is a truly violent book!
But were not talking about a simple slasher film here that makes heroes out of the bad guys, this is a film that means to comment on real issues dealing with the world were living in. The book and the film never show Bateman’s behavior as being good or positive or as something to emulate or admire; in fact, it is made quite clear that he is loosing it, that he is psychotic and dangerous to society and to himself, bottom line is, this is not a happy man. On more than one occasion the character actually recognizes his psychotic behavior. During a pivotal scene of the film he admits to his lawyer that he is a “pretty sick guy”, and during another scene he tells someone “I like to dissect girls. Did you know I’m utterly insane?” Bateman actually recognizes the fact that he is going insane, but it’s as if he could do nothing to stop it from happening. So it’s not like the film is making Bateman into some sort of a hero. What he is in my opinion, is a victim of the world he lives in. Society has created a monster, it’s driven him insane with its blatant consumerism, the racism that he’s been brought up in and the superficiality of society; the importance given to physical beauty as opposed to internal beauty and countless other things that make up the world we live in. Patrick Bateman -the monster- is loose on the streets of and it wants payback for what he’s been turned into! Another way to look at this character is that he is judging society for what it has become. This is the kind of film where we don’t side with the protagonist; what we’re meant to do is watch him degenerate and descend into madness and then learn from the reasons that sent him there.
Going utterly insane!
Various things drive Bateman insane, among them his intense hatred for homosexuals. Though this was ignored in the film, he murders an old gay guy who starts hitting on him while walking through By the way, Bateman also kills the old mans dog by strangling it to death. Maybe Bateman would be happier if he’d been taught to co-exist with different kinds of people? He is also portrayed as a hippy hater, always considering them to be less than him, the less fortunate are that way because they want to be, he has no sympathy at all for others. He makes fun of other ethnicity's when he considers them lower than him. One moment in the book has Bateman going into a club and making fun of a group of black people by trying to talk the way he thinks they talk; it’s safe to say that part of Batemans unhappiness comes from his blatant racism. Bateman hates the homeless for not doing something about their lives; again, no sympathy. He hates how fake his co-workers are. They never call him by his real name, a common theme through out both the book and the movie. This is the kind of world in which people don’t really know people, so they never really know each others names! They keep confusing each other with other people, which gels perfectly well with the fact that Bateman feels he has no actual distinguishable personality. He knows Huey Lewis and the News entire discography, he knows everything about Genesis and Whitney Houston (whole chapters of the book are dedicated to this knowledge) but he doesn’t know himself, he doesn’t know who he is. He is physically fit, but not emotionally or psychologically mature.
Bateman tries finding love in his life, but all he can achieve is sex, and he manages to turn even that into a sick and twisted affair of the most aberrant kind. In the film Batemans sexual encounters are not as graphic because again: what’s described in the book is way to visceral to film. Same as the violence, the sexual situations described in the book are totally out there and described in detail. Bateman actually ends up having sex with a dismembered head if you can believe it! The sexual elements are so strong in the book, that the filmmakers had to edit 18 seconds out of a scene involving a threesome just so it could get an ‘R’ rating instead of an ‘NC-17’; if they had actually filmed the sexual situations seen in the book, the film would have never seen the light of day. Reading those sequences was like watching a sick twisted porn flick where all those involved get dismembered in the end. Hell, in the novel Bateman actually eats some of his victims! This is yet another big difference between the film and the book. In the film they only allude to Batemans cannibalism, while on the book it is described in splendid detail.
What would this film be without Christian Bale? I mean, I don’t think a better actor could have been chosen. Do you think Di Caprio could have pulled this film off with as much vulnerability and rage and insanity as Bale did? I seriously doubt it, but Di Caprio was considered for the role. What's great about Bales performance is that he really goes nuts in some scenes, my personal favorite is the one where he does his phone confession, he really talks and acts as if he was crazy. He also plays it with this sense of comedy, you kind of get the feeling that Bateman is actually making fun of people through out his life, mocking them, which in my opinion he is. Aside from Batemans stone cold performance, we have Willem Defoe playing a detective who has a hunch that Bateman might be the one behind all the killings. Dafoe's character was expanded for the film, he isn’t in the book as much. Chloe Sevigny plays Batemans innocent and naïve receptionist, she is so in love with Bateman that she doesn’t even see his dark side or she chooses to ignore it. The whole cast of young actors that make up Batemans body of co-workers is fantastic as well: Jared Leto, Justin Theroux, Josh Lucas, all great in my book. They really captured that fake superficial lifestyle and attitude. Reese Witherspoon plays the gloriously ditzy air head of a girlfriend that Bateman has. She ignores that their relationship is non existent and instead chooses to plan their wedding.
All in all, I’d say the film captures very well the essence of the book. Though it does leave a lot of things out, it is completely understandable considering just how graphic the book can be. I mean, one moment in the book has Bateman actually capturing a kid in a zoo and killing him in the shadows! He later accepts that there is no joy in killing a child because the child has no history or life experiences to extinguish, which is the pleasure he gets from killing adults. But damn, even I say that moment was a bit too much! So the film is basically a more “controlled” version of the book that manages to say what the book has to say as well, it comments on the same issues, but it does so in a slightly more constrained manner. Still, the movie does have its extremely bloody, violent and sexual moments, just not as graphic as in Ellis’ novel. Director Mary Harron delivered a stylish and slick looking film, appropriately cold looking. She squeezed out a magnificent performance from Bale! And kudos to Harron, this is a woman directing a film about a guy who treats woman with complete disdain; it took guts for a woman to make this film. I also applaud Easton Ellis for writing such a great yet misunderstood book, the themes and issues commented on the book needed to be addressed and Ellis was not afraid to do it; here’s a writer with some true guts to say what has to be said about the kind of society we’ve turned into. Can we look at our collective fractured psyches and fix things up a bit?
Rating for the Book: 5 out of 5
Rating for the Film: 5 out of 5
American Psycho is one of the greatest novels of our time. Since its publication, its petulant, unerring and uncompromising face-off with this age has the effect of making most serious literary works seem obscured by an unedifying veil of sophistry. It is one of the two zeitgeist pieces of fiction that defined America at the end of the last century and the start of this one, the other being Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club. The latter novel looks at disaffection from the perspective of an excluded new underclass of youth, debt-shackled and devoid of opportunity. American Psycho, on the other hand, focuses on the ennui of morally bankrupt extreme privilege.
The seismic effect of both books was genuinely felt, yet in the case of American Psycho, there also followed a highly disingenuous outrage. Those reactions were mainly directed towards the passages of extreme violence contained in the book, the objectification of women, the use of pornography and the supposed “manipulation” of the reader. Yet, they were often acts of bad faith and were based on fatuous notions.
American Psycho holds a hyper-real, satirical mirror up to our faces, and the uncomfortable shock of recognition it produces is that twisted reflection of ourselves, and the world we live in. It is not the “life-affirming” (so often a coded term for “deeply conservative”) novel beloved of bourgeois critics. It offers no easy resolutions to suburbanites, serves up no comforting knowledge that the flawed but fundamentally decent super guy is on hand to rescue them from the bad folks. There is no suggestion that either love or faith can save the day. All that remains is the impression that we have created a world devoid of compassion and empathy, a fertile breeding ground for monsters to thrive while hiding in plain sight. But though the novel offers no such hiding place for the reader, it furnishes us with that most impenetrable of shields: dark humour and irony. More than anything else, American Psycho is a black comedy, a satire on our dislocating culture of excess.
The tone is set when the protagonist, Patrick Bateman, and his co-worker, Timothy Price, take a cab to Bateman’s fiancee’s home. Price narcissistically sounds off about what he believes to be his virtues: “I’m resourceful … I’m creative, I’m young, unscrupulous, highly motivated, highly skilled. In essence what I’m saying is that society cannot afford to lose me. I’m an asset.” This statement redefines the American dream, as distorted by individualistic consumer capitalism. But Price is unaware that he’s sharing a car with a monster. Bateman’s greater obsession with living the same dream fuels a paranoid, jealous, incandescent anger, and a demented desire for power and domination. This compels him to rape, torture, and murder a multitude of victims.
It’s almost impossible to separate American Psycho from the reaction to it, and examining those objections helps in discerning the subversive nature of the novel. The manipulation of the reader is one of the book’s most arresting features. By presenting us with a glamorous, murderous protagonist (inherited wealth, elite schooling, gym‑hewn body, expensive clothes, competence in the financial world), Bret Easton Ellis rejects the norm. It’s a profile light years removed from the stock reality of the serial killer as a sullen, inadequate loser. Bateman would probably be held up as an archetypal model of American success, were it not for the fact of him being a murdering psychopath. The book directly compares the power-longing, money-grubbing tendencies of the American WASPish elite to mental dysfunction.
Through mixing Bateman’s mundane daily activities with his brutal homicides, American Psycho uncomfortably closes the gap between the psychotic cultural aspects of the US – its wealth fixation, gun obsession, overseas militarism, increasing military fetishism at home – and that of the morbid, depressive preoccupations of the serial killer. The running metaphor is one of a culture succumbing to a materialist consumerism that destroys society by eradicating its human values in favour of an obsession with image.
I recall, around the time of its publication, having an argument with a female friend about the violence towards women in the novel. She said (and I’ve heard this argument several times): “If you are yourself subjected to the violence and misogyny of the patriarchy, then this text becomes not a criticism of, or satire on, late capitalism, with the abuse of women deployed as a metaphor, but a rendering of that abuse, a public display of it for entertainment.”
While it is hard not to be sympathetic to this view, and to accept that the book will resonate, in the context of a patriarchal society, in a very different way with women than men, I argued then, as I will now, that the novel opens up a broad discussion on the workings and limits of fiction.
The first important thing to remember about American Psycho is that everything within the novel is completely constructed, based on the culture surrounding the time during which the book was written. This truism is only worth restating as many people still childishly insist on confusing protagonists with their authors.
The second thing is that the novel is always as much about the reader as the writer. As readers, we filter novels through the lens of our own cultural background and respond to them accordingly. The best of them evoke something strong in both ourselves, and the world around us. Thus there can be no “objective” analysis of the novel.
The book’s detractors were generally polemicists or activists rather than artists. Those who came from a different place, such as the writer Fay Weldon, tended to rejoice in it, for the very same reason their sisters loathed it: “Feminists – that’s me too – see Ellis’s book as anti-women. So it is. So is the world, increasingly.” Had a woman written American Psycho, it probably would have been perceived as a great, visionary feminist work; the tendency to want to shoot the messenger, rather than read the message, comes from a place of politics, not art.
But I believe the main source of unease concerning the novel is that, despite its portrayal of Bateman as superficial, pompous, lying, misogynistic, racist and narcissistic, the narrative style of American Psycho forces the reader to adopt his point of view. As happens in present-tense, first-person narrative, the reader generally assumes the protagonist’s concerns: the “How to get rid of the body” syndrome. Thus, the reader is implicated in both the violence and the objectifying processes of consumer society. But this participation also crucially demands that the reader makes some kind of moral judgment on the nature of these acts. That could be on a spectrum ranging from total disgust to detached indifference, perhaps even to perverse fascination. The point is that the reader is forced to confront his or her emotions in the context of the values of a society that we are all part of.
The objective of pornography is to produce sexual arousal. While American Psycho includes pornographic scenes, they are carefully crafted and placed, and juxtaposed with horror and gore. They are not about a twisted writer’s deviant projections, engineered to fuel the misogynistic fantasies of a (hopefully small) contingent of dysfunctional male readers. In those scenes, I see only a technician at work, albeit one operating in tandem with a monstrous character he has forged as the (appropriate) tool to guide his story and address his themes. “Making a killing” on Wall Street might be a harmless turn of phrase, but it only enjoys traction because of the culture it takes place in. When Bateman answers “Murders and executions” to the question of what he does for a living, his reply is heard as “Mergers and acquisitions”. By reducing his victims to material, Bateman is the alienated, urbane Ivy League serial killer in the suit. Therefore, Easton Ellis was correct to be as graphic as possible in the dismemberment scenes. Without them the novel would have been a compromise and a failure.
But there is little to be gained in trying to analyse the violent scenes in the book. To do so is far more pathological than the scenes themselves, which function solely in order to show the barbaric legacy of the consumerist/imperialist world we live in, the true thematic concern of the novel, by illustrating their divergence from Bateman’s everyday life. Violent scenes will be upsetting to people who are sensitive or lack the ability to abstract themselves from them. Yet they are absolutely essential in American Psycho. In a more general sense, any attempt to prescribe what is and is not acceptable material in a novel must always be inherently censorious and ugly. The scenarios are always played out in the imaginative domain of the reader. Censorship of the novel is therefore a direct attack on thought and creativity.
Bateman, like Tyler Durden in Fight Club, heralded the epoch of the US cable-television antihero. Popular flawed heroes such as Dexter, in whom the psychopathic agent of destruction is recast in a cynical and reactionary way (as the good guy who aims to serve and protect the decent suburbanites), would not have emerged without Bateman. He is the purer version of the Gordon Gekkos, the wolves of Wall Street, and the plethora of movie pantomime dames of corporate capitalist villainy.
The negative reviews the novel received now sound a little like the stampeding of frightened children. That they came from intelligent people who couldn’t get past their own shock and discomfort to ascertain the true nature of it is utterly delicious. This spectacular wrong-footing is a testimony to the power of the book. But in a deeper sense, the moral panic around its publication represented a smokescreen, nothing less than a refusal to engage with the fact that American Psycho, like Fight Club, is essentially a “decline of empire” piece.
America, with its traditions of freedom, has generally, both on the left and right, been uncomfortable with seeing itself as an empire. There exists a huge disconnect between the nation’s self-image and how it is often perceived abroad. The violent contradictions of our post-democratic elitist epoch might have been displaced to an overseas “theatre of war”, but by resolutely associating them with Wall Street privilege and power, Easton Ellis’s novel makes a comment on the ugliness of modern capitalism and its relentless consuming-towards-extinction programme.
Given that the blandness of modern capitalism (depicted brilliantly in American Psycho) involves rendering art into mass entertainment and crass escapism, with the novel now dominated by formulaic genre fiction slotting into marketing holes and peddling easy resolution, Easton Ellis produced a groundbreaking work, with an increasing relevance to the world we live in. He forced us (and himself) to engage with intolerable material, and the anger and fear this generated only came from a place of being struck by the terrible truth of it. We are now a good way into the 21st century, and American Psycho remains literature’s most indispensable and savage exegesis of the society we have created.
•American Psycho is published as a Picador Classic.