384 pages, Picador Fiction
Review by Marc Nash
I'd avoided reading this when it came out, but in a moment of weakness some 22 years later I picked up the free copy I'd scored at a reading I did last year. I was broke and waiting for my Amazon vouchers to arrive before buyring some new titles, so there was nothing left for it but this. I don't think time is the issue here, even though the Yuppie culture of the 90s that the book satirises lies in tatters as financial sectors in economies all over the world collapses around our ears. No, I think the book comes down to taste. Do you buy into the humour and satire and overlook the graphic excesses of torture and violence, or can you simply not get past that?
Patrick Bateman is a Yuppie, living off an unspecified inheritance so that he wants for nothing and seems to do no work whatsoever in his Wall Street firm of Pearce & Pearce where he works in Hostile Takeovers (get it?). Instead we get a litany of his Yuppie clothes, detailing every brand label; his workouts at the gym; his love of gadgets and accessories; his dining out in exclusive or new restaurants; his chasing after cocaine in fashionable clubs; taunting the homeless by flaunting his own wealth and of course his penchant for ultra-violence. First of all, it's worth saying that we have 127 pages of all the above except the violence and this is turgid heavy going. Bateman may well have forensic powers of recall and recognition of brand labels, including for women's clothes, which is bemusing (since when he is shown killing women, he's too febrile to pause to examine their clothes labels), yet neither he nor his yuppie cronies can ever recall the names of other yuppie acquaintances. They can't seem to remember who they're dating either, as in their power games they make sure to screw their confreres' girlfriends behind their backs, and Bateman is often leaving his dates waiting at wrong destinations. But 127 pages of this is as I say highly tedious. If you want a critique of capitalism, then you're better off reading Nicholson Baker's early books, "The Mezzanine" and "Room Temperature". I will give Ellis some credit here, in that his critique is less generalised about capitalism and specific to the Wall Street yuppie culture of the 1990s. But he makes the point quickly about both their inter-changeability for one another, as well as the emptiness of their consumer culture and we don't need it relentlessly rammed in our faces for quite so many pages.
So once the torture and murder kick in, then it becomes a different sort of novel. The graphic detail of the unpicking of his victims matches the forensic detail of listing people's clothes or a shopping spree in an accessories store. And I get that this is the point, the emptiness and vacuity is the same for all sorts of activity. Bateman literally dissects his victims as if trying to get beneath the surface of their material reality, only to find that there too lies nothing. No depth, no profundity, no meaning. While personally not particularly offended by the gross depictions of violence, I do feel there is a dissonance in tone here. While the satire on clothes and clubs and restaurants is clearly comic, such gratuitous detail of torture cannot carry the same comic touch. Hence the novel to me is schizoid and ultimately doesn't work. In the same way that Bolano's chapter in "2666" ultimately just alienates and keeps the reader outside the text.
I did feel that Ellis' descriptions of Bateman's swings between orderliness and disordered mental states to be unbelievable. I just couldn't credit that he could be quite so ordered to hold down a high-flying job, (even if he does no work, again probably the satirical point), when compared with the raging insanity he displays elsewhere. Part of the satire seemed to be how all the clues he left to his bloody activities were ignored by those around him as if they simply couldn't see it. The scene in a dry cleaner’s, when he is arguing about their ability to remove bloodstains from his clothing is amusing. But again I couldn't really buy this whole premise. Dead bodies always betray their existence through smell. Like Jeffrey Dahmer, Bateman likes to keep body parts around long after the event.
For me there remained an unresolved but important question emerging from all of this and one hinted at even within those first 127 pages when he occasionally says what he'd like to do to the person sat opposite him who was irritating him beyond belief; do these murders really take place, or do they only exist inside his head, in which case the book becomes something else and something frankly less problematic, because who among us hasn't imagined a grizzly end for some irritant or other in our minds? When he confronts a fellow yuppie on whose answer phone he had confessed to his vile deeds, the other man says Bateman couldn't have long ago killed a mutual colleague since he had dined with him in London only a week before. Is this again a case of the colleague dining with another interchangeable yuppie believing it to be the man Bateman claimed to have killed? Or had Bateman dreamed the whole thing up? At the apartment in which this grizzly murder and then a further double murder were supposed to have occurred, now is being shown around to prospective buyers by an estate agent with no mention of the blood soaked carpets and walls supposedly left by Bateman. Maybe no one ever dropped Bateman's name into the Police, because these crimes never happened beyond Bateman's fantasies? This just made the book even more unsatisfying for me.
I will say that when Ellis describes Bateman losing the plot, the modulations within his state of mind to include anxiety, impassivity, febrile rage, disorientation and a general unravelling, were handled extremely well. I was really invited inside the rollercoaster of Bateman's thought processes during these sections. But again this authentic writing only served to highlight the rather limp satire of the opposite states of mind of the yuppie at a restaurant or getting dressed. So there were enough bits of good writing to say that the book is not wholly without merit, but these I suspect will be dwarfed by that original dichotomy of whether the reader is likely to find the torture porn a turn off, or that it would not hinder them advancing through the relentless pages of the book. For me it wasn't a hindrance, but the unsatisfactory dissonances in tone, the dull expounding on brands and trendy behaviours, certain incredulity at sections of the plot and finally the ambiguity as to whether the murders were even happening, all conspired to leave me feeling this book doesn't work. But at no point did it make me want to pick up an icepick and drive it into the author's brainpan.