"Life remained a blank canvas, a cliche, a soap opera. I felt lethal, on the verge of frenzy. My nightly bloodlust overflowed into my days and I had to leave the city. My mask of sanity was a victim of impending slippage..." (p. 268)
Penned by Bret Easton Elis in 1991, American Psycho is notorious for being highly confrontational in matters regarding, amongst other things, sex, sexism, sadism, materialism, necrophilia and mutilation. As alluring as the R18+ classification and shrink-wrapped packaging are, the reader must be warned that due to the obsessive-compulsive nature of its protagonist, combined with a first-person perspective, the book is riddled with arduous detail. Though this accentuates the "action" scenes and definitely has its purpose in the story, it can be tiring to work through. Again, the ambiguity of the story can prove frustrating, at times leaving the reader in the lurch regarding certain plot details (note, however, that this is very likely an intentional feature).
Regardless of these potential barriers, I think the novel pays off and touches on some important social, sexual and even political issues. The potential for interpretation is, I think, an admirable feature of the novel. In reading it, an open attitude towards the conventionally "perverse" behaviour depicted is necessary to grasp the underlying themes and rich subtext of American Psycho.
Briefly: the novel follows the life of Patrick Bateman, a Wall Street "yuppie" of the nineteen-nineties whose relatively-latent sadistic impulses and megalomaniacal tendencies grow more and more pervasive over a number of years, eventually reaching a crescendo of outrageous proportions. Amidst Bateman's failing attempts to suppress this aspect of his being, we are introduced to a world of immense superficiality and materialism, with the protagonist's extensive social group portrayed as, among other things, utterly misogynistic, ignorant, promiscuous, apathetic, sadistic, materialistic and, to use a contemporary derogatory term, "precious".
Though we are constantly questioning whether what is happening is real or whether it is part of Bateman's acute insanity, the superficiality of his immediate social group is accentuated in such a way that suggests satire, rather than delusion; the characters are, at times, comedic in how emphatically involved they are with themselves and their own egotistical and trivial matters. Bateman himself seems to be inextricably bound to this world, while at the same time cognizant and even abhorrent of its countless malignant features (which may be seen as a powerful contributor to his complex inner conflict).
The sheer immensity of Bateman's feelings of isolation, alongside his attitude toward seemingly impenetrable others, cannot, however, be overlooked: "This is true: the world is better off with some people gone. Our lives are not all interconnected. That theory is a crock. Some people truly do not need to be here" (p. 217). We see no sympathy in his dealings with those he murders; they exist in order to alleviate Patrick Bateman's bloodlust, to soothe something deeply psychological within him that proves, time and time again, to be utterly overpowering. Yet as clear as all this may seem, the question of whether Bateman is merely fantasising the entire time lingers throughout the book; there is unequivocal evidence, in fact, suggesting that none of the murders Bateman attributes to himself have actually occurred. This begs the question: if he is merely fantasising, what does this tell us about his condition, about the world he lives in and its effect on the individuals that dwell within it? It seems that a world in which Bateman's wealthy business associates have no qualms about teasingly holding bills over homeless people's heads, just out of their reach, is simply not enough for our protagonist, irrespective of whether his actions are fantastical or real. There is a further longing, a further expression of hate that bleeds out exponentially as the novel progresses.
Recalling that Bateman is an active agent in the world around him (exemplified, for example, by the intense jealousy he feels at having his new business card upstaged by associates, or his immense protectiveness of the music he enjoys), which he seems to despise, the question of whether he is indeed hating on himself, or more specifically his lack of self or identity, seems relatively plausible: "It's as if her mind is having a hard time communicating with her mouth, as if she is searching for a rational analysis of who I am, which is, of course, an impossibility: there is...no...key" (p. 253).
A notable leitmotif in the novel is the idea of mis-identification, or perhaps more specifically, interchange-ability of identity. Characters (most often, Bateman himself) are perpetually mis-identified; it is as though the likeness of the demographic, or class portrayed causes personalities to literally slide into one another. Bateman seems to feel utterly transparent to those around him, even at times evoking a strange, counterintuitive sympathy from the reader. He repeatedly tries to confide in those "closest" to him about his vicious alter-ego, even at times explicitly stating his murderous deeds; but due to their self-involvement, or lack of attention, they fail to "hear" him.
I think this is a pivotal aspect of Bateman: he cries out to the world around him, figuratively screams into the faces of those who are supposed to care, but no one hears; they are too involved in either themselves, their plans, concerns, etc. Whatever it is that stirs inside this man, be it the Id or simply raw sadism: the world does not hear his call; and in this sense, there is no Patrick Bateman - he is as generic as the next person.
At a point in the novel, he describes his reality as though it were "happening the way it occurs in movies"; he finds himself "visualising things falling somehow into the shape of events on a screen" (p. 254). Here, one cannot help but think of the omnipotence of the camera in film; the absolute freedom the director has to create a reality which is almost euphoric in its selectivity, choosing what is to be seen and creating an impossible consciousness, a god-like method of viewing the world, flashing from one thing to another, selecting what is wanted and excluding what is not. Bateman, as a figure seemingly with no identity, is constantly creating his reality, picking and choosing what is to happen, yet inevitably hindered by agents external to his sphere of control. By literally or figuratively bringing people under his inescapable hegemony, that is, through deforming, murdering, and sexually assaulting his victims (both living and dead, in all cases), he seems to be finding an outlet for what is essentially a lack of entire control, the latter being practically impossible, but notably possible through fantasy. This gives new meaning to Bateman's allusion to screen: the reality a film creates is never representative of what is realistically possible, but rather is dictated by the director's will - it is a fantastical perspective. What Bateman sees is similarly cut and pasted into existence, raising the question of Bateman's reality to the point of utter ambiguity.
To conclude, I will quickly compare my thoughts on the contrast between the novel and the film adaptation. For those who, like myself, saw the film version of Elis' novel first, I think it is necessary to note the contrast between the two formats. The novel is necessarily far denser than the film, causing the film to be (retrospectively) lacking in my opinion. Whereas in the novel we have endless chaos, leaving endless potential for speculation regarding the nature of the narrator's reality, the film attempts to enforce some sort of order (though admittedly not much) onto the sea of psychotic episodes, social situations, personal insights, etc., that make up Patrick Bateman's life.
In reading the book, I saw his reality as almost undoubtedly questionable and ambiguous; there was less urge to actually know whether what was happening was real or not, and more intrigue into the powerful ideas being expressed about human nature, materialism and so forth.
Necessarily, the film adaptation was forced to compress these ideas by selecting certain passages, particularly salient scenes, which would suit the screen and create an audience accessibility beyond that which the density of the novel provides in its raw form. Despite the setbacks this brings about, I think the film was extremely well directed and cast (Christian Bale depicts Pat Bateman's psychotic behaviour brilliantly). Overall, however, I do not think the film does justice to the complexity of the novel. Whether this is a necessary feature in any film adaptation of a novel is, however, completely up for debate, though I'm sure the nature of the story being told is a vital factor in determining how a given book is adapted.
Overall (generalisation): a book which the reader will have to work through, but which will also pay off. The themes are relevant to the modern age, which appears to be slipping further and further into materialism, and arguably individual isolation, egoism, etc. The notion of suppressed urges was prominent throughout the 20th century, and I do not think the 21st is any exception; the abusive, sado-masochistic aspects of modern pornography and sexuality in general seem to provide evidence for this, alongside the ever-increasing forms and incidences of violence emerging on both a local and global scale. The questions Elis raises, I think, will be relevant as long as civilisation it is generally defined remains the dominant realm of human life.
Easton Elis, B, American Psycho, Picador, 1991