The Simpsons Decade

The Bloody Banality of American Psycho

Bret Easton Ellis' novel anticipated the bleak-humored, pop culture-obsessed sensibilities of the 1990s. But is it any good?

by | June 7, 2016 | Comments

American-Psycho-Book-Cover

 


When it was released to thundering controversy and massive hype in 1991, Bret Easton Ellis’ satirical novel American Psycho was a scandal, a pop-culture phenomenon, and a flashpoint for heated arguments about censorship, free expression, misogyny, violence, corporate responsibility, and pornography more than it was a book people might actually read and, even more improbably, enjoy.

That’s because American Psycho is an exceedingly difficult book to read. The novel’s endless parade of explicit, stomach-churning, pornographic, boundary-pushing violence against animals, homeless people, and young women makes it a struggle to finish, especially for delicate souls like myself. But it’s also hard to read because so much of it is boring, tedious, monotonous, and repetitive to the point of perversity.

What makes Bret Easton Ellis’ lurid controversy magnet such a strange, tricky proposition is that its dreariness feels largely intentional. It’s supposed to be shallow, vacuous, and deadeningly repetitive. It’s devoid of insight into the human condition, and it’s filled with deplorable characters who are similar to the point of being interchangeable — one of the novel’s running jokes is that its murderous, woman-and-humanity-hating protagonist and narrator, Patrick Bateman, is constantly mistaken for peers who look, act, dress, and talk the same way because they are all products of the same colleges, prep schools, and social circles.

After suffering through nearly 400 pages of lovingly rendered ultra-violence against women and even more lovingly rendered descriptions of what everyone is wearing, I couldn’t help but feel like we’re not supposed to enjoy the book. Instead, we’re supposed to feel implicated by it, to see our own emptiness reflected in the pulpy story of an inhuman ghoul who comes off as the worst person in the world even before he begins doing unspeakably cruel and deranged things to women — sometimes while they’re dead, and sometimes while they’re still alive — so he can derive an extra level of sadistic pleasure from their agonized screams and soul-consuming terror.

But just because something is part of an intentional satirical strategy — and to give Ellis credit, the book certainly has a consistent authorial vision and voice, in the sense that it makes the same goddamn points over and over again — does not mean it is good.

American-Psycho-Book-Cover2

American Psycho feels like the kind of book people buy without any real intention of reading.

American Psycho feels like the kind of book people buy without any real intention of reading. In that respect, it’s like Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History Of Time (which, alas, wasn’t quite brief enough to actually be read), except that a copy of Hawking’s best-seller strategically placed on a coffee table implicitly conveys that the owner of said copy is intellectually curious enough to want to read a famous book by a smart guy who knows all about science and stuff, while a copy of American Psycho hints that its owner is hip, edgy, unintimidated by the kind of violence not generally seen outside of snuff films, and eager to have an informed opinion in the debate about the novel’s cultural value.

When, after countless false starts, the film was finally adapted by I Shot Andy Warhol director Marry Harron with Christian Bale in the lead in 2000, it officially removed the final reason anyone would possibly subject themselves to reading Ellis’ exploration of the moral corruption of 1980s Manhattan. Harron’s movie is the rare film adaptation of a culturally significant novel that’s widely, if not universally, held to be superior to the text that inspired it. Harron and co-screenwriter Guinevere Turner took what little value there is in Ellis’ book and tightened, sharpened, and amplified it while wisely excluding the enormous amount in the book that’s dull and repugnant.

A literal, exhaustively faithful adaptation of American Psycho would run six hours, be banned in every country, and be unwatchable, but these filmmakers did a spectacular job alchemizing literary dross into cinematic gold. It helped that they were able to show what Ellis could only describe, and when a work is all about superficial appearances, that’s an enormous advantage.

One iconic scene in particular is an especially good example. During a lunch meeting, Patrick Bateman is filled with existential dread when his professional colleagues pull out business cards whose intricate, exquisite details (“bone coloring, Silian Rail lettering” or “eggshell with Romalian type”) both dazzle and enrage him because his card pales in comparison. On the page, the scene falls relatively flat because the details that make the film scene so wonderfully specific in its satire are crowded out by an avalanche of similar details about clothes, electronics, and consumer goods.

American Psycho the novel feels like a bizarre, bloody shotgun marriage between a Brooks Brothers catalogue and sadistic literary porn. Bateman is compelled to identify the designer, style, and features of the clothes of everyone he encounters. A typical early passage, where Bateman checks out three “hardbodies” (his default description for every woman with a nice body, i.e. most of the women in the book) while clubbing with friends reads, “One is wearing a black side-buttoned notched-collar wool jacket, wool-crepe trousers and a fitted cashmere turtleneck, all by Oscar De La Renta; another is wearing a double-breasted coat of wool, mohair and nylon tweed, matching jeans-style pants and a man’s cotton dress shirt, all by Stephen Spouse; the best-looking one is wearing a checked wool jacket and high-waisted wool skirt, both from Barney’s, and a silk blouse by Andra Gabrielle.” Honestly, I found the idea that a man who does not work in fashion would instantly be able to identify so much information about every garment he comes across far more unrealistic than Bateman murdering dozens of people in brutal, perverse, and fairly public ways and never getting caught.

Like Patrick Bateman, Ellis is a big believer in overkill. If he only needs to repeat something five times to really get his point across, Ellis will repeat it a thousand times. If you enjoyed the description of the women’s clothes in the paragraph above, you’re in luck, because there are literally hundreds more passages pretty much exactly like it.

There are telling, novelistic details that succinctly and indelibly capture the world and people they’re describing. Then there are numbingly excessive details, like the ones here, that add little to our understanding of Patrick Bateman’s mind and only serve to pad out the word count to a punishing length. American Psycho doesn’t need an editor: it needs a butcher to lop off its first third.

American-Psycho-Christian-Bale

Christian Bale modeled his brilliant performance on Tom Cruise after watching the famed Scientologist on TV with David Letterman.

And the crazy thing is that the mind-numbing first hundred pages of the book has little actual violence. Bateman’s worst crimes are clearly the ones where he tortures, murders, mutilates and abuses the bodies of young women, sometimes with the assistance of small rodents. Those are genuinely sickening. But his secondary — and still very substantial — crime is that he’s terribly dull, a man without a soul, with a festering sickness where his conscience should be.

Bateman is less a man than a malevolent spirit defined by the labels on his designer clothes, his perfect body and face, the impossibly expensive, exclusive restaurants he frequents, and the soulless, glistening mainstream pop he not only champions but critiques, or rather extols, in three separate manifestos on three of his favorite artists: Whitney Houston, Genesis, and Huey Lewis and The News.

As with everything else in the book, the use of music is heavy-handed and obvious. Because Patrick Bateman lacks a soul, he adores music that reflects his soullessness. In his world, “professional” is the highest possible praise. He says his favorite compact disc is Bruce Willis’ The Return Of Bruno. He’s so unapologetic in his racism (the N word is doled out liberally, along with slurs and epithets of all stripes; to be anything other than rich, white, straight, and male is to be subhuman in his world) that he not only prefers black music to be made by soulless white men; he prefers black music to be made by soulless white men who aren’t even musicians.

Like so much of what we’ll be covering here, American Psycho revels and delights in its own artifice, in its plastic disposability, in the sense that not only does it not chronicle the world as we know it, but it describes a world that could not exist, that does not exist, that functions only as a commentary on pop culture and evil and spiritual emptiness and the dispiriting decadence of a ghoulish ruling class.

Part of this is accomplished by making Bateman the most unreliable of unreliable narrators, a madman who regularly describes things that could only exist in the fevered imagination of a confessed lunatic. Ellis doesn’t delineate between what is real and what is fantasy, and blurs the line further by having people repeatedly profess to have recently dined with people Bateman has described murdering in extensive detail. Bateman also repeatedly talks about his life as if it were a movie; he seems weirdly cognizant that he is a fictional character, a villain in a story instead of an actual human being. The lines blur so extensively that it’s possible to assume — and some have — that none of it is real, that it’s all a pornographic, violent power fantasy from a man who may not be a mass murderer or may not exist at all as anything other than a yuppie boogeyman, the worst of the worst.

American Psycho is seemingly all details, and some of the details are inspired, like the constant references to Les Miserables, a grim yet toe-tapping exploration of the bleak lives of the wretched of the earth enjoyed by people rich enough to afford tickets to its endless Broadway run. Les Miserables is poverty porn. Fittingly, while Bateman’s peers may love Les Miserables , they treat the contemporary descendants of the musical’s subjects with abuse and disdain, and Bateman, of course, treats them much worse, with murderous barbarity.

Time has given some of the novel’s clumsy pop-culture references a new resonance. Christian Bale famously modeled his brilliant, hilarious, star-making performance on Tom Cruise after watching the famed Scientologist on television with David Letterman. In American Psycho (where Bateman’s favorite show is Late Night With David Letterman) the protagonist only really looks up to two non-musicians (Huey Lewis is sacred, the rest of humanity is scum). One is Tom Cruise, who lives in the penthouse of his building and who he fumblingly compliments for his performance in Bartender (which Bateman mistakes as the title for Cocktail). The other rich, famous alpha-male who inspires a Wayne-and-Garth-style “We’re not worthy!” deference in this otherwise supremely arrogant and evil man is a Gordon Gekko-like exemplar of cheesy 1980s greed, the crazy-haired TV clown who is currently the most talked about man in the country: Donald J. Trump.

American-Psycho-Donald-Trump

Donald Trump and (now ex-) wife Ivana are referenced regularly by Bateman, always with an uncharacteristic reverence.

Trump is as much a fixture in the book as Les Miserables. He and (now ex-) wife Ivana are referenced regularly by Bateman, always with an uncharacteristic reverence. They are god and goddess in his world, or at least king and queen. Late in the book, Bateman, deep into a downward spiral of madness, gazes adoringly at a Trump building glistening in the sunlight and contemplates pulling out his gun and blowing away a pair of African-American hustlers running a three-card monte game. The scene eerily mirrors the fears of contemporary Trump detractors.

American Psycho doesn’t really break through the tedium until Bateman’s mask of sanity begins to slip. At this point, interchangeable conversations about fashion give way to interchangeable murders and freak-outs that are at least animated by a sleazy, lurid energy, and the book begins to develop a dark, shadowy momentum.

American Psycho gets more interesting as it goes along, but it remains shapeless, clumsy, and for the most part, desperately unfunny, especially compared to the film adaptation. Ellis’ stylistic gimmickry and game-playing — like having the narration switch briefly from first to third person late in the book, as Bateman’s desperation mounts and the walls seem to close in — is far more compelling than his prose.

Ellis’ American Psycho is far more interesting to joke about and think about and talk about and analyze than it is to read. The book is noteworthy and important more than it’s good, and the manic, non-stop pop-culture references, blurring between reality and fantasy, and postmodern elements found in it would be realized far more artfully and entertainingly by other books, television shows, movies, and music in the years to follow, including the film version of American Psycho, which took the book’s ugly clay and transformed it into a gorgeous sculpture of smart-ass cinematic pop art.

A quarter century after its release, American Psycho remains a scandal, controversy, pop-culture phenomenon, and a flashpoint for heated argument arguments about censorship, free expression, misogyny, violence and pornography more than a book people might actually read, and even more improbably, enjoy.

Yet, all these years later, the book retains its power to shock and offend. That may be a bit of a dubious distinction, but I suspect it’s one a provocateur like Ellis would embrace. Then again, I was repulsed by the gory, visceral ugliness of its violence and misogyny and offended in large part by the poor quality of its writing and construction, which I suspect Ellis would find considerably less flattering.


Nathan Rabin if a freelance writer, columnist, the first head writer of The A.V. Club and the author of four books, most recently Weird Al: The Book (with “Weird Al” Yankovic) and You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me.

Follow Nathan on Twitter: @NathanRabin

Tag Cloud

SDCC Acorn TV HBO Pride Month Mary Poppins Returns screen actors guild Tarantino LGBT thriller WarnerMedia Mary Tyler Moore strong female leads Musical IFC Films Toys Star Trek Lucasfilm cancelled television based on movie cops disaster Oscars rotten movies we love BBC America PaleyFest YouTube Red Pirates Rock Anna Paquin Comic Book DC Comics Action Nominations witnail Spectrum Originals GLAAD FX on Hulu E! robots TV Land Photos Character Guide Bravo Fall TV Spike slashers Reality Comedy Central First Reviews Pop Pop TV A&E sequel Captain marvel series discovery Awards YA X-Men Baby Yoda Apple aliens Superheroes breaking bad YouTube halloween cults canceled TV shows sports elevated horror Video Games romance revenge 2020 Thanksgiving Rom-Com Drama politics parents Turner Mudbound political drama psycho comedies cancelled TV shows Travel Channel Reality Competition crime Fantasy Crunchyroll Song of Ice and Fire Set visit hispanic 2015 dc Horror Britbox History spanish language science fiction cartoon 24 frames latino APB RT History Emmy Nominations Box Office CBS cats independent Hallmark Emmys talk show Apple TV Plus romantic comedy Holidays foreign children's TV Trailer Lifetime Christmas movies 21st Century Fox Marvel Television chucky zombie quibi DGA harry potter USA Network DC streaming service ghosts 2019 technology Family Paramount Network movies christmas movies Winners Country TNT Red Carpet Certified Fresh adaptation movie cars Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Animation book Peacock award winner indie Lifetime Women's History Month OWN TBS Sundance TV Polls and Games Warner Bros. TIFF mission: impossible mutant MSNBC 2017 documentary travel Disney Plus crossover biography Tumblr crime drama all-time PBS TCM TCA Winter 2020 justice league Superheroe period drama ratings The Arrangement video franchise See It Skip It Calendar police drama joker werewolf Apple TV+ screenings Interview crime thriller 2018 Sony Pictures Black Mirror President CBS All Access free movies Cartoon Network Heroines TCA 2017 Grammys kids Hulu Summer Year in Review Rocketman Stephen King spain sag awards finale Chernobyl versus war CMT stand-up comedy LGBTQ Amazon Prime Video child's play New York Comic Con Fox News MTV WGN Countdown sitcom what to watch Film Festival ABC Paramount Hear Us Out Black History Month American Society of Cinematographers Sci-Fi Vudu National Geographic spider-man Premiere Dates festivals comiccon zero dark thirty The CW GIFs Sneak Peek Food Network critics Turner Classic Movies The Witch FOX CW Seed Cannes Starz Musicals A24 reboot Avengers Disney Channel Adult Swim TruTV cancelled doctor who jamie lee curtis Mystery Christmas canceled game show Schedule Freeform Columbia Pictures casting Tubi SXSW Universal blaxploitation comics zombies ITV TV facebook Infographic Ellie Kemper USA animated Discovery Channel Syfy Spring TV name the review YouTube Premium VH1 Ghostbusters golden globes Netflix Christmas movies OneApp Dark Horse Comics composers Star Wars psychological thriller diversity Logo adventure 20th Century Fox anime Awards Tour Walt Disney Pictures Amazon Prime Lionsgate cinemax comic Tomatazos Netflix Kids & Family Pixar NBC Trivia natural history true crime AMC CNN Showtime Comics on TV unscripted supernatural Ovation Epix Hallmark Christmas movies GoT Amazon Studios Western DC Universe Brie Larson Music cooking south america Disney streaming service Marvel FX Shondaland IFC BBC Shudder 4/20 medical drama mockumentary Classic Film ESPN cancelled TV series Esquire concert Mindy Kaling BET Film 71st Emmy Awards space Nickelodeon dceu directors social media Teen docudrama miniseries Mary poppins Election asian-american singing competition NYCC Quiz green book 2016 Sundance E3 RT21 Cosplay stoner hist The Purge dark VICE renewed TV shows dragons Valentine's Day Writers Guild of America theme song Holiday television Winter TV Creative Arts Emmys Pet Sematary serial killer transformers TLC Amazon DirecTV dogs dramedy Elton John blockbuster Arrowverse anthology El Rey TV renewals Rocky die hard San Diego Comic-Con spinoff Trophy Talk tv talk Masterpiece scary movies Funimation criterion Comedy 45 Super Bowl Marvel Studios Endgame Biopics SundanceTV First Look universal monsters FXX Sundance Now Binge Guide spy thriller reviews Crackle Academy Awards Podcast The Walking Dead Television Academy Extras binge Disney richard e. Grant vampires Disney+ Disney Plus Opinion historical drama nature boxoffice game of thrones MCU Marathons streaming HBO Max 007 batman toy story Watching Series teaser Martial Arts Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt a nightmare on elm street Best and Worst TCA Nat Geo ABC Family best