by Bret Easton Ellis
399 pages, Picador
I AM THE EXIT by Pat Black
Bloody slaughter aside, bland, bored and baleful Patrick Bateman is the type of person who you’re quite glad to meet occasionally: someone of wealth and influence who makes you feel better about being poor and insignificant.
I once listened in on a conversation held by about half a dozen businessmen all sat near my table at the gym cafeteria. I couldn’t help but bridle against the smug, oleaginous banter these puffy, expensively tailored alpha males passed around each other. Seriously, guys – were you for real? One of them said: “My wife once had a go at me for having a Porsche. ‘Why do you want one of those?’ she asks me. So I tell her: ‘Because... I f*cking... can.’”
Patrick Bateman would almost certainly use the phrase, “Because... I f*cking... can,” probably in response to the young lady who asks him why he is about to puree her head with a road drill. This creative use of power tools actually does take place in Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, a look at the world of high finance and rampant consumerism in the late 1980s through the eyes of a shark in a suit. It has a simple concept: what if one of the movers and shakers of the dog-eat-dog world of Wall Street during its yuppy era zenith was actually a serial killer? You don’t have to be mad to work there, Ellis supposes, but it helps.
The book is unique; an undeniably brilliant piece of work which is also nigh-on impossible to like or enjoy. If using nail guns or industrial drills on people isn’t quite your bag, then don’t worry – Patrick has a lot more tricks up his sleeve. More than you can imagine, I would hope. There is a modus operandi to suit every armchair serial murderer.
Bateman's utter banality forms a believable mask for a serial murderer. Ostensibly a high-flying stockbroker for Wall Street firm Pierce & Pierce, this twenty-something Harvard graduate doesn't actually have to work, owing to his fabulously wealthy family. And it’s just as well, because he doesn’t actually work - spending his days avoiding meetings, primping and preening himself, trying to return rented video tapes, listening to his Walkman cassette player or trying to get dinner reservations at wildly over-priced restaurants.
Bateman isn’t a monster in the mould of Hannibal Lecter or Norman Bates; he might well be the guy who appears on the TV news one night, to the accompaniment of vox-pops from neighbours and work colleagues all telling the cameras: “I would never have believed he could be capable of something like that.”
Real serial killers are van drivers, repair men, cleaners, former military personnel, the low-paid, the socially and economically disenfranchised, the chronically ordinary. While Bateman's social status doesn’t quite match that template, his very greyness does. He is - as many of the characters who pass through the book tell him - almost unbelievably dull and dim despite his obvious wealth. Bateman’s rage may have its roots in some daddy issues, but it’s mostly the focal point for his suffocating sense of ennui.
It takes a while for Bateman's bloodlust to spill over. We begin with a dinner party scene on April 1 in which we are given a painful sketch of Patrick’s life with his friends and work colleagues, including his facile girlfriend Evelyn. The rules of attraction are set out early: everyone appears to be sleeping with everyone else, and personalities blend in to one another in a manner which confuses the characters in the novel as much as it does the reader. Nobody actually matters; although people are obsessed with status, appearance, clothes, business cards and fine dining experiences, there’s little sense of anyone in Bateman’s social group having progressed much beyond the playground.
As Bateman rather chillingly states when asked why he works when he doesn’t have to: “I - want - to - fit - in.” His true motivation is almost reminiscent of the creature in Frankenstein; slightly pathetic, something to be pitied if he wasn't so undoubtedly lethal.
But not quite so ugly, of course. Appearance means everything to Patrick Bateman and he spends a lot of time and money on it - exercise, clothes, a baffling array of male grooming products. When he explains in great detail why he can’t use such and such an aftershave because it dries his skin out, or why he might have some entirely spurious political reasoning behind why he doesn’t use another, we are forced to take a look at the book's over-riding concern: consumerist pornography.
Bateman’s loving descriptions of things like clothes, shoes, haircuts, furniture, food and - memorably - business cards, may be American Psycho's true horror: the idea that people are defined not by who they are or what they are like as people, but by what they buy.
We may not quite be able to put ourselves into the shoes of a man who turns a prostitute's head into a mantelpiece adornment (at least, I hope you can’t), but the idea of shopping as a therapeutic exercise may cut rather close to the bone for lots of readers. It’s cathartic for Bateman to spend money. When he feels the world beginning to squeeze him, his first instinct is to run into a record store and buy five copies of a new CD. It’s an addiction all on its own, in a book stuffed with less than healthy obsessions.
Bateman goes on, at yawn-inducing length, about what clothes people are wearing and what they are eating. Often, this makes very little sense to me. He might be unleashing an ancient incantation, reciting the Iliad in Greek, or spouting pure gibberish. The faddish foodie nonsense will make another piece of painful reading for some, in these days of Balsamic vinegar, goji berries, sodomised petit pois or whatever. In describing his obsessions, the cadence of Bateman’s first-person present tense narrative takes on the tone of a blurb in an advert you might see on a wall at an airport, or between the pages of a glossy magazine:
Paul Owen is standing near the bar holding a champagne flute, studying his antique silver pocket watch (from Hammler Schlemmer, no doubt), and I’m about to walk over and mention something about that damned Fisher account when Humphrey Rhinebeck bumps into me trying to avoid stepping on one of the elves and he’s still wearing a cashmere chesterfield overcoat by Crombie from Lord & Taylor, a p-eak-labelled double breasted wool tuxedo, a cotton shirt by Perry Ellis, a bow tie from Hugo Boss and paper antlers in a way that suggests he’s completely unaware, and as if by rote the twerp says, “Hey Bateman, last week I brought a new herringbone tweed jacket to my tailor for, uh, alterations.”
It's quite clear that we are meant to link that kind of description, and its objectification of people, to this one:
I’m trying to ease one of the hollow plastic tubes from the dismantled Habitrail system up into her v*gina, forcing the v*ginal lips around one end of it, and even with most of it greased with olive oil, it’s not fitting in properly. During this, the jukebox plays Frankie Valli singing “The Worst That Could Happen” and I’m grimly lip-synching to it, while pushing the Habitrail tube up this bitch’s c*nt. I finally have to resort to pouring acid around the outside of the p*ssy so that the flesh can give way to the greased end of the Habitrail and soon enough it slides in, easily. “I hope this hurts you,” I say.
Yes indeed, we arrive at the meat and bones of the matter (and not a little blood, too). The violence is why you came, of course. It’s in the same vein as the clothing descriptions, going on and on and on; punishing in its cruelty and sadism, unremittingly ugly and degrading in its treatment of women. Bateman is a lust murderer first and foremost, using women for gratification both pre- and post-mortem. He seems to be modelled mostly on Ted Bundy, the posterboy for American serial murder, but his modus operandi is haphazard, inventive, frenzied and unforgettably icky. If you think the section above is appalling, then it’s only fair to warn you that it is barely scraping the skin of what you’ll read – sometimes going on for pages and pages at a time – throughout this book.
Bateman’s hatred for women shouldn’t need much explanation – for him, they are simple commodities to be enjoyed and disposed of - but what I find most curious about the killings in this book are when they’re carried out on men. The only death which has any motive attached to it is that of Bateman’s business rival Paul Owen. It almost makes sense that Bateman would like to kill him to remove him from his carefully balanced life equation. Down-and-outs receive a lot of attention, too – quite often stabbed to death, their pathetic pets stomped upon for good measure. So we’ve got a searing hatred for the underclass, too. Then there’s a quite appalling killing carried out on a little boy at a zoo one day. Bateman admits to himself that he does this just to see if he can get away with it. He does, and is somewhat disappointed.
So, good golly, it’s all so wicked. But, wait a minute... It might not have been real!
Yes, I’m afraid that American Psycho has that most gut-wrenching of modern fiction cliches; the unreliable narrator, telling you about something which might not actually have happened... and even worse, might just have been a figment of his imagination. I hate, hate, hate this convention. It’s almost as bad as one we see again and again in horror fiction: “Was it a ghost, or is the narrator mad?” It deserves to be placed against the same wall as “and then he woke up, and it was all a dream”, and turned into chunky salsa by machine gun.
Bateman’s escalation into more and more extreme murders would be quite plausible, but he undercuts it with things which are definitely fantasy – bank machines issuing orders; talking furniture – and things which could be fantasy, including a bizarre police chase and shoot-out, with exploding helicopters and gunned-down officers. In another reality check scene, a flat Bateman has supposedly been using as an abattoir is suddenly transformed into an apartment for sale one day, when the killer returns to his lair; no sign of any bodies, and no explanation given, although Bateman describes a nasty smell as he flees the scene when an estate agent grows suspicious.
I have to ask the question – if none of these killings actually happened, and Bateman is a psychotic fantasist, then what is the point of the book? Surely the killings are a search for meaning for Bateman, as much as a way of enjoying brute sensation in an insipid world. To suggest that they never takes place is lazy ambiguity; perhaps a search for depth on the part of the writer, a shot in the dark.
This ambiguity plagues the book. Everyone mistakes each other for another person. On a positive note, it does add a layer of plausibility to the idea that Bateman – just a face in a suit – could get away with his crimes. Paul Owen thinks Bateman is someone else, even up until his very last moments. People talk about Bateman in the third person, disparagingly, while he is sat among them. “I am simply not there,” he states. Even worse, it could well be that Bateman has got it wrong himself. After he breaks down and confesses to his lawyer, revealing that he has chopped Owen up, his lawyer baffles him by saying that this can’t be true, as he had dinner with his supposed victim in London the week before. The private detective, Kimball, who is on the lookout for Owen takes an interest in Bateman, but even that’s explained away by Owen’s supposed London appearance. Unless, of course, Paul Owen was mistaken for someone else entirely in England.
At least this ambiguity had a point, but like much of this book it is one that doesn’t really need to be made more than once. American Psycho could have functioned as an almost perfect machine if it was a short story. Imagine how lethal that would have been, how chilling: we follow Bateman from a dull dinner to a nightclub with his vile, coked-up friends. Then he picks up a prostitute, kills her very graphically. Then he books a facial for himself down at the health club. Job done, thirty pages max.
So why do we return to American Psycho? Why is it that I cut through those pages so quickly, compelled to return to the crime scene again and again? The copy I’m looking at now is very well-thumbed; one of my most-loaned books – and very curiously, it has been consistently given back to me rather than kept by the borrower.
I think it’s to do with pornography in its purest, dictionary definition form. This is the very worst of all human behaviours, as savage as it is cold, and the blood and horror was fascinating and compulsive in ways most decent people would find it almost impossible to admit to. It is pure nihilism – Bateman rejects his place in society, his privileges, his peer group, his family, his own carefully constructed image, and this is exhilarating to us, we exult in it, even if we don’t identify with it. You can imagine a yuppie being bored to tears with his life, if not quite bored to murder. Breaking free of any kind of constriction is an attractive prospect, even if it requires sex killings to make it happen.
And violence is always fascinating to us civilised folks. Much as the audiences thrilled to the excesses of the Grand Guignol, so readers will gut American Psycho in very few sittings. Then there’s the rhythm of it, the frenetic pace which guides us through both the murders as well as the cascade of pointless information on clothes and whatnot. It reminds me of when I saw Romper Stomper, Russell Crowe’s breakout role, where he plays the leader of a gang of racist skinheads. Deplorable people, but the burning rage on-screen was scored to the tunes of an actual far-right rock band. And despite myself, despite everything inside me, I found myself humming some of this band’s tunes to myself after watching the movie. I hated myself for it, it’s hard to admit to, but bad art finds its mark in the most civilised heart now and again. I didn’t enjoy Bateman’s descriptions, but I didn’t ever look away.
And there’s the laughs to think of, too. They are sometimes overlooked, but there are great comic moments in American Psycho, which the superb (and restrained) movie version did justice to. Bateman is ridiculous, even to himself. His jealousy over clothes, restaurant reservations and business cards is a source of great fun. I sniggered when he describes a “moment of horror” that causes him to freeze in the middle of his bloody work, as he realises that Paul Owen’s flat has a superb view of Central Park, and is therefore better than his.
Then there’s the descriptions of music. In a past life that I don’t care to talk about much, I was a music journalist. In his silly reviews (panegyrics, almost) of the work of artists such as Huey Lewis and the News and Phil Collins, Bateman chilled me to the soul. I could have been listening to my own voice; it was awful. In his afterword to From Hell, Allan Moore wrote that this was “as close to the heart of a serial killer as I ever want to get”. In cringing at Bateman’s lavish praise of his favourite bands, I knew where Moore was coming from.
We’re still looking for a point, though. Bateman tells us that there isn’t one; that he is no-one; that his whole lifestyle is a joke. In one of the book’s many great unnecessary scenes, Bateman has an exchange with a cab driver, who robs him then insults him thus: “You’re a yuppie scumbag.” Gasp, really? We knew that to begin with.
Pathos appears in the form of Bateman’s secretary, Jean. For all my bloodthirstiness, I was fearful that Pat’s appetites would get the better of him with this poor lass, who adores him. Bateman appears to realise it too, and stays his hand. But why? There’s no redemption for this man, no angle to be worked. Is there some tacit admission that this soulless individual will find happiness with Jean – the epitome of someone humble and down to earth in this world of cruising sharks? He doesn’t really care for her. He’s incapable of love. It’s a patronising idea at best.
The book takes place in a peculiar kind of hell, signposted by the first and last sentences in the book, a reference to Dante’s Inferno. But it might have been nice to know just how the sinner came to be there, other than vague hints at a less than happy adolescence. Which brings us, at last, to the author himself.
As Paul Fenton touched on in his fantastic review of Less Than Zero, Bret Easton Ellis exhibits some pattern behaviour in his fiction. There’s the loss of identity, there’s a hint at daddy issues, there’s the emotional dissonance that comes as a result of too much f*cking with too many people. I can take it or leave it; it’s not what you take away from American Psycho. What is clear to me, and what Bret Easton Ellis possibly fears to admit, is that Patrick Bateman, in all his real (and possibly imagined) awfulness, is the author’s gift to the world. He is truly magnificent, up there with the greatest characters in all American literature. Easton Ellis seems to have found it hard to escape Bateman’s shadow. He references the character in other works, and even went so far as to kill him off in another book (or did he..? Ugh, there we go again).
And that’s a shame. Because I think we need Patrick Bateman in our culture, in a sequel, brought right up to date. We needed Bateman around when the banks started sinking in the quicksand of toxic debt; we need to see a middle-aged Bateman, with children of his own, playing the patriarch, perhaps in control of his own Wall Street firm. We need to see how Bateman will behave now that his beloved video tapes – Body Double rented 38 times, and an appreciation for titles such as She-Male Reformatory – have been supplanted by internet video clips, DVDs available on order from nice, faceless Amazon, and a whole world of accessible, clickable porn and sickening violence that he might have dreamed up and carried out himself. We need Bateman involved in reality TV, even if he only has it on in the background while he is torturing some nuns at his apartment. We definitely need him to encounter Gordon Ramsay.
We need Bateman to hold a mirror up to everything that is vacuous and empty in our culture. And I need Bateman to make me smile at the fact that the lining on my overcoat is worn thin, that my shoes have been on life support for months now, and most importantly to remind me of those guys at the gym. That although none of them are chainsawing prostitutes on a nightly basis, there are lots of people out there with some very basic stuff missing upstairs, for all their money and Porsches, and we do need to be aware of them.
Do the right thing, Mr Easton Ellis. Give Generation Z its hero.