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

Animation Shondaland Comedy The Witch movies Thanksgiving south america South by Southwest Film Festival war posters obituary saw comic book movie VH1 deadpool toronto IMDb TV stoner sopranos a nightmare on elm street composers Starz rotten 99% USA Network Election 007 sequel robots king arthur Classic Film monster movies BBC One Best Director popular Western fresh name the review asian-american diversity Holidays boxing APB high school Tumblr Cannes fast and furious Hallmark Disney Plus Spring TV slashers rt labs critics edition 1990s Comedy Central TV Fargo YA BET Martial Arts free movies Heroines BBC America blockbuster Film Festival dark TNT San Diego Comic-Con Sci-Fi Fox Searchlight sag awards Travel Channel 2016 halloween tv australia TCA Awards jamie lee curtis spider-verse E! Summer Mindy Kaling serial killer Holiday The Walt Disney Company BAFTA Best Actor 94th Oscars royal family Television Critics Association Masterpiece basketball Extras prank worst movies spain Avengers Universal Pictures zombie Interview politics supernatural TCM godzilla hist TCA christmas movies tv talk gangster Marathons Academy Awards toy story versus laika Apple TV Plus Comics on TV comic Pop TV stand-up comedy Pirates Disney MCU satire quibi canceled TV shows travel biopic heist movie adaptation reboot indie book anthology new star wars movies mockumentary Mary poppins History Trivia twilight debate VICE aapi live event Watching Series TCA 2017 Food Network kids 4/20 dragons golden globes TruTV scorecard remakes AMC historical drama archives Funimation Amazon Prime Crackle Photos DC streaming service Infographic BBC art house rt archives spy thriller casting Sundance TV japanese documentary romance Marvel Studios universal monsters 21st Century Fox Shudder Schedule The Arrangement Quiz Amazon Studios latino movie nbcuniversal Peacock Winter TV cancelled rotten movies we love adenture ABC Family Hallmark Christmas movies Star Wars Nat Geo cancelled TV series Binge Guide Superheroes Turner ID films 90s Musicals Film Fantasy kong Rocky Paramount Awards Tour Sony Pictures chucky true crime Women's History Month ABC animated RT21 93rd Oscars 79th Golden Globes Awards genre series blaxploitation LGBT Crunchyroll NBA Box Office Lucasfilm Nickelodeon 2021 streamig nature TV renewals USA MGM game show HBO miniseries Endgame japan RT History medical drama DC Universe kaiju WarnerMedia Black Mirror die hard The Purge HBO Max psychological thriller WGN children's TV BET Awards worst Stephen King MSNBC period drama doctor who Prime Video Best Actress blockbusters superhero Vudu international The Walking Dead TLC breaking bad natural history Hulu Family Broadway Logo pirates of the caribbean sitcom political drama TV Land cars richard e. Grant football Pride Month book adaptation best zero dark thirty hispanic Country Video Games vs. Valentine's Day halloween OWN witnail Rock Kids & Family cats anime Biopics HBO Go video hollywood all-time 24 frames dexter harry potter elevated horror Hear Us Out concert classics Toys discovery space SDCC Song of Ice and Fire obi wan E3 SXSW 2022 HFPA mutant social media Paramount Network Writers Guild of America Wes Anderson Marvel CW Seed Black History Month Red Carpet Arrowverse Mudbound Creative Arts Emmys Cartoon Network strong female leads cancelled TV shows Instagram Live justice league American Society of Cinematographers YouTube Red CNN Music theme song ghosts canceled black comedy science fiction Drama Hollywood Foreign Press Association SXSW 72 Emmy Awards Awards ESPN Fall TV Countdown FOX legend Alien First Reviews psycho 2020 X-Men Disney+ Disney Plus video on demand Warner Bros. cults Certified Fresh documentaries ratings critic resources DirecTV MTV Chilling Adventures of Sabrina El Rey 2018 Polls and Games directors criterion See It Skip It A24 Exclusive Video trophy Comic-Con@Home 2021 Ovation award winner Emmy Nominations PBS SundanceTV Trophy Talk Cosplay Pop aliens Tarantino Sundance Now new york Turner Classic Movies Tokyo Olympics 73rd Emmy Awards Best Picture Baby Yoda Ellie Kemper women Christmas 45 razzies Spike know your critic Emmys Netflix Christmas movies TBS Mary Tyler Moore Acorn TV Lionsgate PlayStation National Geographic boxoffice New York Comic Con Disney Channel spanish language Lifetime Universal Best and Worst streaming Apple TV+ crime thriller james bond Oscar Columbia Pictures batman dreamworks superman what to watch green book Horror Esquire dogs Image Comics game of thrones Tubi YouTube Premium Television Academy Comic Book dc independent thriller VOD Britbox facebook Grammys Tags: Comedy Neflix comic books zombies revenge nfl Elton John Nominations critics IFC DGA First Look IFC Films 71st Emmy Awards Trailer cinemax CBS cartoon rt labs venice AMC Plus Netflix GIFs franchise TCA Winter 2020 feel good lord of the rings technology Super Bowl 2017 docuseries Sundance telelvision Chernobyl 78th Annual Golden Globe Awards live action FXX binge olympics crossover marvel cinematic universe mcc Syfy police drama jurassic park CBS All Access king kong adventure festival Premiere Dates crime drama TV One french Character Guide Amazon Prime Video Pacific Islander GoT FX on Hulu Superheroe suspense Discovery Channel biography Calendar Winners ViacomCBS werewolf festivals stop motion LGBTQ based on movie CMT golden globe awards Disney streaming service emmy awards spinoff Epix black Freeform dramedy marvel comics comedies Oscars television hidden camera Walt Disney Pictures FX Action cancelled television cops GLAAD Opinion italian Paramount Plus Reality Competition news transformers Ghostbusters child's play Dark Horse Comics crime Apple NYCC scary movies Captain marvel 20th Century Fox Reality Mary Poppins Returns vampires spider-man foreign hispanic heritage month screen actors guild romantic comedy YouTube TV movies 2019 mission: impossible Star Trek talk show target Anna Paquin docudrama The CW sequels trailers The Academy TIFF Podcast streaming movies mob Marvel Television Amazon OneApp singing competition Musical Bravo Fox News President indiana jones Brie Larson Lifetime Christmas movies Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt spanish joker parents new zealand A&E ABC Signature 2015 action-comedy Pixar young adult Rom-Com Pet Sematary Rocketman renewed TV shows screenings disaster DC Comics comic book movies cooking finale reviews PaleyFest unscripted Adult Swim slasher Set visit NBC teaser Year in Review Mystery Showtime Teen dceu scene in color comiccon Spectrum Originals sports wonder woman Tomatazos rom-coms Legendary ITV Sneak Peek scary leaderboard comics