I’m re-reading some of the books I loved in the 90s to see what I make of them now.
What I remember
The main thing I remember about American Psycho was the tone. The same detached narration was used throughout, whether the topic was skin care routines, the music of Genesis, or shocking accounts of murder. I’ve never watched the film of American Psycho, since that could never have maintained the dull tone that I thought so important to the book. Filming the scenes would be unavoidably spectacular, losing that feeling of detachment.
As a younger man, I felt sorry for Patrick Bateman, who was unable to feel anything, even as he committed appalling acts. This is a problematic reading of the book – although one echoed by Manic Street Preachers’ song Patrick Bateman. I didn’t think too deeply about the murders, having been raised on splatterpunk and other ‘extreme’ art of the 90s. While I certainly didn’t like Bateman, I never loathed him, rather I felt sorry for him.
(In the afterword, Ellis talks about his identification with Bateman: “Nothing fulfills him. The more he acquires, the emptier he feels. On a certain level, I was that man, too... I was also writing about my life and how empty it was.” Bateman’s alienation was intended to be sympathetic. The 90s were a glib time, when irony went too far)
Ellis defended the book as a satire, but there is a question of whether this justified the extreme misogyny. The murders were brutal, and some incidental details of these have stuck in my head. While I re-read some of the book’s chapters of music criticism, I’ve avoided the murders, and I’m not looking forward to revisiting those. I would not be surprised if I skip bits or even give up on the book. Having said that, I am curious about my return to American Psycho, given that my original reading of it was fairly shallow, missing a lot of the subtlety and ambiguities.
What it was like
The edition I read, sold cheaply on Kindle, included a dreadful intro. At one point it claimed that “The feminists who hated American Psycho were generally polemicists or activists rather than artists,” and that “many of the criticisms of American Psycho stem from an immature view, or even a complete misunderstanding, of what a novel actually is”. Reading it, I wondered who was writing such an awful defence of the book and at the end I learned it was… Irvine Welsh.
My main response to American Psycho was disgust. For all its good qualities – including some excellent writing – the book’s unpleasantness is overwhelming – extreme racism, homophobia and misogyny. I’m not convinced that the book’s satire or characterisation quite justify its extremity. The book would be better without such vile descriptions of murders, but it would not have sold as many copies without the controversy. Misogyny pervades the book, and sometimes the gratuity of it blurs the line between Bateman’s character and Ellis’s writing.
American Psycho was also funnier than I remembered, with some fantastic comedy, such as the scene where a dinner is overwhelmed by free Bellinis. In the midst of a manic episode, Bateman decides to eat at McDonalds, but needs to sound like an insider when he orders milkshake: “(’Extra-thick,’ I warn the guy, who just shakes his head and flips on a machine)”. His diatribes about music are funny, with Bateman’s observations being pretentious and trite: The Genesis song Invisible Touch is “an epic meditation on intangibility”. He has no idea who Earth, Wind and Fire are, and Bateman’s favourite CD is The Return of Bruno, the 1987 album by Bruce Willis. Then there’s the discussion of Phil Colin’s cover of “You Can’t Hurry Love,” “which I’m not alone in thinking is better than the Supremes’ original”. Bateman is hilariously ridiculous.
The best comic scene is when Bateman and his friends get front row seats for a U2 concert at the Meadowlands arena in New Jersey. They talk through the gig and have no idea who the band are, trying to work out which one is “the Ledge”. Bateman suggests he is the drummer, only for his friend to ask “which one is the drummer?”
For a novel whose characters define each other through their jobs, there is very little discussion of work. It’s not obvious why Bateman is working, or if he needs to. It’s said that Bateman “practically owned” the company where he works, and comes from an incredibly rich and powerful family. There is one scene with his mother, which takes place in a room with barred windows.
Bateman is an exaggerated character. His skills at recognising brands seems supernatural. Reading it now, the text is obviously hyperbolic, intended to make no sense. He is an unreliable narrator, who at one point claims he is “drinking close to twenty liters of Evian water a day“. It’s hard to tell if Bateman is out of contact with reality, or if the world he lives in is out of kilter – for example with characters seeming unable to recognise other characters. There are also little odd moments of insanity, like when Bateman says “there is music playing somewhere but I can’t hear it”, or one over-the-top sequence where the narration drops into third person.
One of the strengths of American Psycho is that I have found so much to say about it. But we come back to the main point. This is a book of appalling violence and racism. If I was approaching it as a new reader I would not have finished it. I suspect the book will endure as a historical curiosity, but I cannot imagine it being published nowadays.