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New essay: American Psycho Reinterpreted

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By Paul Newall (2005)

Bret Easton Ellis’s masterpiece American Psycho is typically described as a satire ("a black-hearted satire on the terrible power of money" said Jenny Turner in the Scotsman) and, in particular, a savage indictment of a (Western) society caught in the iron grip of commercialism, greed and superficiality.

Ellis' decision to quote Talking Heads ("And as things fell apart / nobody paid much attention") on the inlay before the story begins would seem, on the face of it, to set us up for just such a reading. At the same point, Ellis also excerpts Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground:


Both the author of these Notes and the Notes themselves are, of course, fictional. Nevertheless, such persons as the composer of these Notes not only exist in our society, but indeed must exist, given the circumstances under which our society has generally been formed.

We are thus led, as it were, to viewing the work from its outset as a commentary on a society gone wrong, in which the protagonist is perhaps incidental to the purpose at hand.

American Psycho is also, as is well known, a brutal read, as hard on the stomach as it is on the mind. The numbing detail of chapters cataloguing the recording exploits of Genesis, Whitney Houston and Huey Lewis and The News, combined with incessant information as to which combination of designer labels the characters are dressed in, are upstaged only by the detached and almost itemised descriptions of the many episodes of violence, murder and sexual abuse throughout the text. Ellis spent a considerable amount of time researching these, trying to understand exactly how much punishment a human could take without expiring. This has lent weight to the assumption that his purpose was bloodshed for the sake of it, or to hammer home the lesson of what will surely come of a culture built upon corruption and apathy. In this essay I shall offer an interpretation that goes beyond these basic observations to find a deeper, more philosophical and more romantic story hidden behind the easy option of mere satire.

All that happens in American Psycho is sandwiched between two related remarks, one scrawled in graffiti and the other a neon sign in a cinema. They are, respectively, "ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE" and "THIS IS NOT AN EXIT", both capitalised. Having noticed the former, the novel begins in the third person as the central character, Patrick Bateman, describes a colleague, Timothy Price, before shifting into the first person where, with a few (and significant) exceptions, he will stay. Price is one of three crucial people who will shock Bateman out of the reasoning he has constructed around himself, trapping him and thus leaving him without an exit.

The thesis ostensibly explored in American Psycho is that examined at great length by Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamazov. Although stated in various (contentious) ways, for our purposes it may be given as "if life is pointless then anything is permitted". Godless or otherwise, a society that has lost its moral rudder makes the existence of psychopaths like Bateman almost an inevitability, or so it is implied. What I want to suggest is that this proposition is precisely backwards: it is not that life is pointless and therefore Bateman does evil, but instead that he does evil to prove (to himself) that life is pointless.

This counterintuitive reading is difficult to appreciate at first but becomes more readily apparent as we compare Bateman's differing reactions to the situations and characters he meets. With his friends, workmates, acquaintances, girls or those people he comes across from day to day at the gym or serving his drinks at restaurants, he is on a kind of autopilot: detached, uninvolved and noting what goes on largely as a spectator. Witness the laconic way in which he tells a girl, Daisy, that he has hurt people before and may do so again with her; or the mechanical discourse on world and US politics at Evelyn's. This is the empty life he has fashioned, comfortable because it is predictable. Nevertheless, the story we read is on one level an extended test as he attempts, with increasing risk, to show that “nobody pa[ys] much attention” to his inhumane behaviour. This, he feels, demonstrates that people just do not care. Perhaps the most memorable occasions are Killing Child at Zoo ("I feel empty, hardly here at all […] and I walked away, my hands soaked with blood, uncaught") and Chase Manhattan. The latter, in particular, involves a change in the narrative as Bateman moves from his usual first-person telling to "Patrick shoots him in the face" and then back again, when "calm is eventually restored". What hope can there be for anyone in such a world?

The problem for Bateman is that he is trapped in this thinking, with each instance of not being called to account convincing him still further that no act can have any meaning. That is the point. At dinner with Jean, he attempts to set this out in detail in a monologue:


... where there was nature and earth, life and water, I saw a desert landscape that was unending, resembling some sort of crater, so devoid of reason and light and spirit that the mind could not grasp it on any sort of conscious level and if you came close the mind would reel backward, unable to take it in. It was a vision so clear and real and vital to me that in its purity it was almost abstract. This was what I could understand, this was how I lived my life, what I constructed my movement around, how I dealt with the tangible. This was the geography around which my reality revolved: it did not occur to me, ever, that people were good or that a man was capable of change, or that the world could be a better place through one’s taking pleasure in a look or a feeling or a gesture, or receiving another person’s love or kindness. Nothing was affirmative, the term 'generosity of spirit' applied to nothing, was a clich , was some kind of bad joke. Sex is mathematics. Individuality no longer an issue. What does intelligence signify? Define reason. Desire – meaningless. Intellect is not a cure. Justice is dead. Fear, recrimination, innocence, sympathy, guilt, waste, failue, grief, were things, emotions, that no one really felt anymore. Reflection is useless, the world is senseless. Evil is its only permanence. God is not alive. Love cannot be trusted. Surface, surface, surface was all that anyone found meaning in ... this was civilization as I saw it, colossal and jagged…

While it is an easy matter to point to passages like this as indicative of an emptiness in Bateman, he himself contradicts all of it moments later, only to fight against it:


I get an odd feeling that this is a crucial moment in my life and I'm startled by the suddenness of what I guess passes for an epiphany. There is nothing of value I can offer her. ... and in my own stubborn, wilful way I can admit to feeling a pang, something tightening inside, and before I can stop it I find myself almost dazzled and moved that I might have the capacity to accept, though not return, her love. I wonder if even now, right here in Nowheres, she can see the darkening clouds behind my eyes lifting. And though the coldness I have always felt leaves me, the numbness doesn't and probably never will. This relationship will probably lead to nothing...(emphasis added)

In spite of the effort he makes to turn this feeling away and reject it, the chapter ends rather differently:


Someone with a baby stroller stops at the corner and purchases a Dove Bar. The baby stares at Jean and me. We stare back. Its really weird and I’m experiencing a spontaneous kind of internal sensation, I feel I’m moving toward as well as away from something, and anything is possible.

Earlier, at the previous dinner, Bateman had imagined "running around Central Park on a cool spring afternoon with Jean, laughing, holding hands." This is followed immediately by the most important line in the entire book: "We buy balloons, we let them go." This is the "taking pleasure in a look or a feeling or a gesture" that has supposedly never occurred to him, and which is said to achieve nothing. As quickly as he experiences these isolated moments, however, Bateman talks himself out of his optimism and back into the solace of the meaningless, where his failure becomes the norm again.

His position is thus one of knowing there is a way out but being too afraid to take it. If everything is meaningless, of course, then there is no shame in not letting the balloon go simply for the sake of it. The suspicion that there is something more is what Bateman attempts, over and over, to kill – to remove the doubt that nags at him and asks why Bethany left him, a circumstance that bothers him so much that, typically, he has to murder her to make it go away. It is when things go differently that his confidence and detachment evapourate, whether trying to strangle Luis Carruthers and finding himself immobilised by not having predicted the outcome or genuinely worried that he does not know how much Tim Price makes or where he went when he disappeared down the tunnel. It is easier for Bateman to believe that nothing is of any consequence and to prove it by acting with seeming impunity than it is to face up to his emptiness on the inside and admit that Jean makes him lose control, not knowing what will happen next.

American Psycho, then, is a story about a man so afraid of the uncertainty in the world around him that he finds solace in an idea; namely, that there is no meaning and no one really cares. This at once renders him no different than anyone else and excuses his failure to take any kind of risk. Never having to worry about making his way in life, he seeks out and destroys meaning wherever he finds or suspects it to be hiding to soothe his worry that he has somehow fallen short. Faced with a friend who takes (non-violent) directions he dare not, a colleague whose sexual orientation he was unable to judge and a secretary who will love him unconditionally, he backs away, unable to cope. This fundamental inadequacy, the certainty – buried far beneath the violence – that he is scared of not knowing what will happen next, is why Bateman is trapped in the sure knowledge that there is no exit external to him to take and why he ends the book by sighing again, crushed under the realisation that he will have to find the answers within himself.

The book is a tragedy, not a satire.

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