American Psycho

A note: since I read this book on my phone, I’m not going to list page numbers.

American Psycho is the dullest book I’ve read in years. This novel is long and it is boring and it repeats itself. We get the same jokes, ad nauseum (the characters all look and dress alike and mistake each other for other people) and we are subjected to an endless cycle of lunches, dinner parties, workouts, grooming tips and murder fantasies. Bateman’s pretend killings are brutal, but since they’re usually people we’ve met five pages ago it’s hard to care. Yes, the scenes are tough to read, but what’s the point?

Wait a minute…did I just say ‘Bateman’s pretend killings?’ Yes, the murders are all in Bateman’s head. No, I won’t argue the point, since what little plot American Psycho possesses occurs in the last third of the book and is all about whether Bateman is an actual killer. My read is that it’s not real, so that’s what I’m going with. At one point Bateman even says – ‘a pang of nausea I’m unable to stifle washes warmly over me, but since I’m really dreaming all this I’m able to ask…’ (during the lunch with Bethany chapter).

The fact that the characters have trouble telling each other apart can be viewed as satire, but it can also mean that Bateman has trouble telling them apart because it’s hard to keep track of that many people in your head. Bateman’s murder fantasies all highlight how strong he is and how weak and pathetic his quarry is – I was struck by how his Homeless Victim character is always hungry and crying.

Bateman even repeats a few of his fantasies, adding vicious flourishes – the first time he does The Man and His Dog Fantasy he mutilates Al and breaks his dog’s legs. The next time we see this fantasy he’s added a bunch of details – the dog is a Shar Pei and the dog’s owner wants to know if Bateman is a model before Bateman kills them. We have the scene where Bateman is taken aback by meeting the woman he’s acquainted with at the Chinese laundromat where he brings his bloody sheets. He fleshes out this scene later in the book when he’s taken aback by meeting Bethany, an ex-girlfriend, at a club. This segues into a new fantasy, Killing the Ex-Girlfriend. Ellis is a writer, so he’s familiar with the process of recycling material and fleshing out a scene.

The Bethany scene is when I realized I was reading about the fantasies of a sad man. Bateman has lunch with her in a public place, he makes a scene (‘do you have a non-smoking section?’), they get drunk, she reads his offensive poem loud enough for others to hear and then they go back to his apartment where he kills her. If we are talking about real life, Bateman would then be indicted by a grand jury. The tabloids would have a field day. Since this is a sex/murder fantasy nothing happens.

The timeline of American Psycho– or lack thereof – drove me nuts. I did have a frame of reference because I went to that U2 concert at Brendan Byrne arena. It was in May or early June 1987, and the fact that all the characters are stressed out about being in New Jersey is awesome. Anyway: the timeline skips all over the place. I thought about finding an episode guide to The Patty Winters Show online to try to nail down the dates, but apparently The Patty Winters Show doesn’t exist. My mistake; I was thinking about The Morton Downey Jr. Show, which I’m sure had an episode about dwarf-tossing.

Here are my positives: the dialogue is good. There are a few funny parts in this book, with the standout being the scene with the business cards. American Psycho portrays the sexism, racism, homophobia and misogyny that existed in the tri-state area in the late 1980’s very well. I know, because I lived there. Not everyone at that time was like Bateman and his friends, but the attitudes and conversations depicted in this book were more common than you might think.

And then there’s the plot. American Psycho doesn’t have a plot and at 400-plus pages is way too long for its subject matter, the definitive portrait of a man who has graphic sexual fantasies about killing his ex-girlfriend with a nail gun. Bateman describes himself as a void, and that’s pretty accurate. Everything he knows he’s read in a magazine. His eloquence about the band Genesis reads like something you’d find in a Rolling Stone article. Post Peter Gabriel Genesis is a joke of a band – even in the 80’s they were viewed as something of a punchline. Bateman also mentions Mike and the Mechanics. Anyone remember them? By the way, Phil Collins appeared in a Miami Vice episode that had no plot, just like American Psycho!

I figured out that this book was supposed to be satire when Bateman makes his speech about American interests and priorities at the sushi dinner party, so I suppose you could view American Psycho as a satire of the mores and attitudes of this country’s ruling class. You say you don’t think this country has a ruling class? Hahahaha. But again, what’s the point? The most horrifying thing about American Psycho is the characters’ attitudes towards anyone who isn’t a straight rich white male, and the book gets so caught up in porn and cannibalism and necrophilia that this point – which I’m not sure was intentional on the author’s part – gets buried in a sea of trash. And you want to have a point, don’t you? I mean, is this the hill you want to make your stand and possibly die on?

To quote Jack Skellington: What does it mean? What does it mean?


4 Replies to “American Psycho”

  1. I agree that this story is probably way too long for its intent. I did enjoy reading it again. I still love the way it ties in Dante’s Inferno into the beginning of the story and how it ends with this is not an exit. The whole story is a repetitive cycle of the own hells we create for ourselves. I also agree with you that if this had been real, Bateman would have been indicated and the press would have a field day. The way it’s written almost makes me wonder if that is how things were viewed in the 1980s and this was a reflection of the times. The business card scene is still the best scene in the book to me. If you haven’t watched the movie you should take a look. They did a great job taking what was in the book and translating it to film.

  2. This! So much this! And yes, the dialogue is good. But beyond that, this book makes me want to pull my hair out. I suppose the point is to be nihilistic and show that capitalism and consumerism create all this destruction. Perhaps Bateman is just the poster child of all that. Or maybe it takes a psychopath to live that deeply in such a noxious shallow culture.
    But as a reader, I just don’t want to tag along for this fun ride.

  3. I agree that the novel was long and dull. It was so hard to get through the first 130 pages because nothing happened but his daily life. I kept waiting for something to happen and it didn’t. I wish Ellis had started the story later on when Bateman actually hurts someone. I too believe it was all in his head which is probably why all of the scenes were so descriptive and weird. I didn’t think that until the very end though. The first suspicion I had was when he went to Paul’s apartment and the realtor chased him away. This book was mostly just boring and disturbing in its descriptions. Not my favorite read.

  4. George, I couldn’t agree more. I, too, agree that it is all in his head, but by the end of the novel, I truly didn’t care what he did or didn’t do as long as the book ended. If there is any horror in this novel, I also think it is in the way that these people view the world and treat others. Still, having no emotional attachment to any characters makes for an apathetic, frustrating read. I never thought about making this a shorter work, but I think that would totally make this more endurable. Perhaps a novella or a short story could get the point across in a more effective manner.

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