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American Psycho

American Psycho (1991) is a novel by Bret Easton Ellis about a young Manhattanite suffering from dissociative identity disorder. Patrick Bateman, 26 years old at the beginning of the plot, the first person narrator of the book, is a psychopath, serial killer and cannibal who, astonishingly, remains undetected throughout the novel and is never brought to justice. Coming from a rich WASP background, he has studied at Harvard (he is one of the class of 84), has turned into a typical yuppie and now works as a Wall Street banker. In his other, secret, life he is a monster who tortures, mutilates and cruelly murders his victims. American Psycho is set at the end of the 1980s mainly in Manhattan. The novel covers a period of roughly two years.

The people tortured and killed by Bateman fall into several categories:

  • beautiful young women ("hardbodies"), never older than Bateman himself, whom he "punishes" for being what they are: either friends or former friends of his (like Bethany, one of his ex-girlfriends who ended their affair back when they were students because he beat her and whose current boyfriend is the co-owner of a posh restaurant Bateman cannot get a reservation for), or prostitutes and escort girls (he mentions names such as Christie, Torri or Tiffany);

  • business rivals (in particular a man called Paul Owen, whom he kills in his own apartment);

  • the poor, homeless and unemployed he stumbles across in the streets of Manhattan, generally people to whom he refers as the "genetic underclass" (for example an African American beggar whom, on a whim, he blinds and whom he meets again at the end of the novel);

  • people from different ethnic backgrounds (apart from the beggar mentioned above, a Chinese delivery boy);

  • innocent people he comes across in the street (including a boy he stabs at the zoo in Central Park -- a killing that does not give him a kick though -- , a gay man with a dog, and a saxophonist); and finally

  • people he shoots at one point in the novel where he is being chased by the police (a taxi driver, a policeman, a night watchman, and a janitor).

On top of all that, Bateman tortures and kills animals such as dogs or rats.


Several aspects of the novel need further discussion. One question that has often been asked by readers is why Bateman is never caught, let alone convicted. As it turns out, he does not even become a suspect. Bateman never goes to great lengths when disposing of the bodies of the people he has killed. He also keeps the videos of the killings he has taped right in his apartment. What the author points his finger at here is the fact that, in accordance with the postmodern condition, contemporary society is characterized by "increasing randomness" ("Anything goes") and hedonism on a massive scale. In other words, people just do not care except for themselves and for appearances. Bateman is the epitome of all that. All the superficial people around him -- both his "friends" and his business associates -- neither know him nor do they know each other or even themselves for that matter. Throughout the novel, this is expressed by most of the characters addressing each other by wrong names: They do not even recognize each other; it is not important to them. Whenever they are talking to each other, mainly over lunch or dinner, they are incapable of really listening. On various occasions Bateman actually confesses all his crimes in front of the others, but either people are not listening, do not comprehend what he is saying or do not believe him. He even goes to a Halloween party at his place of work "disguised" as a mass murderer, with his suit covered with real blood and himself wearing a real finger bone, cooked, in his buttonhole. Bateman's maid regularly cleans up the mess in his apartment without asking any questions. His Chinese dry cleaners regularly clean his blood-stained clothes without suspecting anything. As far as the police are concerned, we do not learn why Bateman is not tracked down. They may be incompetent or just too busy due to the soaring crime rate in New York City. Once he is confronted by a private detective, who turns out to be too stupid for his investigations to lead anywhere. Even the women Bateman associates with most closely or for a longer period of time do not find anything suspicious about his personality. On the one hand, there is Evelyn, his girlfriend, who he eventually wants to get rid of. On the other hand, there is Jean, his secretary, whom he says he "will probably end up marrying", who seems totally naive and who tells him that she is in love with him.

Bateman is the most extreme example possible of Kant's dictum that the world is highly cultivated and civilized but not yet moralized ("Idee zu einer allgemeinen Geschichte in weltbürgerlicher Absicht", Siebenter Satz). Kant clearly sees that there is a dichotomy between culture and civilization on the one hand and morality on the other. In American Psycho, all the Wall Street people dress perfectly, eat only the best and most expensive food and keep their bodies in shape by working out in exclusive health clubs. In the course of the novel Bateman discusses things like which brand of bottled water is the best, how to wear a cummerbund, or which tie knot is less bulky than a Windsor. Bateman knows all the answers and could pass for a very refined and also intelligent and thoughtful young man. This, his "public persona", is sharply contrasted with his alter ego: Bateman not only drinks his own urine, he also bites off and swallows one of the nipples of a girl he is having sex with; he cuts out Bethany's tongue while she is still alive; he eats a "girl's brain" after he has slaughtered her; and he decapitates a woman, puts his erect penis into the mouth of her severed head and walks around the room with it, laughing.

Almost surprisingly, Bateman is not at all interested in homosexual activities. He abhors all advances by "faggots", in particular by a man called Luis Carruthers, who confesses his love for him but who ends up marrying a woman.

One of the strangest inconsistencies in the lives of the characters in the novel is that, on the one hand, Bateman and his colleagues, their girlfriends and their dates are all very health conscious (Bateman himself, for example, is a militant non-smoker) and work out endlessly to keep their bodies in shape. On the other hand, they are all drug users (mainly cocaine and all kinds of tablets), and they also get drunk on a regular basis.

One of the things that remains a mystery is what happens to the mutilated bodies of two escort girls which Bateman leaves in Paul Owen's apartment. When he wants to let himself into the dead man's apartment again he encounters a real estate agent and a young couple, her clients, with Owen's furniture still there but everything completely intact and clean. On asking the real estate agent what is going on, he is just told not to make any trouble and to leave again. It must be assumed therefore that -- as there have been no reports in the media about any gruesome discovery -- the apartment has been cleaned and put up for sale (or rent) without the police being informed about it. It seems this is capitalism at work: Just to maximise profits, the agency has obviously kept quiet about it, removed the bodies and dumped them somewhere.

Bateman is a music fan. He does not like rap music because for his taste it is too "niggerish", but otherwise he closely follows the pop and rock scene of his time. Some chapters are exclusively dedicated to analyses of the careers of pop groups and singers (Genesis, Whitney Houston, Huey Lewis and the News).

Time and again the reader is confronted with quite humorous and nauseatingly harmless passages. For example, immediately before he tortures and kills 20-year-old Elizabeth ("who comes from an old Virginia banking family") and Christie, a prostitute, they have some small talk during which Bateman does not want Elizabeth to find out that Christie is a hooker. What follows is quite a long chapter which is solely about Bateman and his friends conferring via phone about where to have dinner that night. There are several other examples scattered all over the novel which put the reader to a hard test: How can we possibly laugh or even just briefly smile if we know we are dealing with a most cruel and insane mass murderer? Can we get our priorities right? What about our own morals?

We might be either amused at or shocked by some of Bateman's practical jokes although they are completely harmless compared to his homicidal behaviour. At one point he has his unsuspecting girlfriend Evelyn eat a urinal cake which he has covered in chocolate syrup. Later, he forces a girl called Jeanette to have an abortion and then, while she is operated on, buys some children's toys for her. If we think these practical jokes are funny, can we really react in a way as if Bateman were just a cheerful yuppie? Again there is the question the author implicitly asks: What about our own morals?

As far as symbolism is concerned, several leitmotifs can be distinguished. Firstly, there is the recurring reference to a Broadway production of Les Misérables. The title of this musical lends itself to a comparison with the Wall Street yuppies depicted in the novel who, it might be argued, are the real miserable ones. Secondly, there is Bateman's urge to "return some videos" -- an excuse he frequently uses when asked by jealous young women what he was doing last night or what he is going to do tonight. In the novel this phrase is used as a euphemism for what he really does mostly at night: torturing and killing people.

Finally, Bateman's view of himself exemplifies Jean Baudrillard's notion (L'échange symbolique et la mort[?], 1976) that our whole lives are fake rather than real. Whatever we do or feel, Baudrillard argues, we experience a simulation rather than the real thing. In the same vein, Bateman experiences his life (or at least major parts of it) as if it were a movie, actually as if he were watching a movie. Also, he uses a camcorder to film most of his deeds.

In some way, American Psycho also continues the tradition of the social novel. There is an ever-widening gap between rich and poor, between the haves and the have-nots. Bateman's "solution" to the problem of course cannot be taken seriously: He either kills beggars or tells them to get a job. McDermott, one of his colleagues, lights his cigar with a $1 bill in front of a beggar rather than give the money to him. (This is slightly reminiscent of Baudelaire's short story on which Jacques Derrida's book La fausse monnaie is based.) All the Wall Street yuppies in the novel firmly believe that "economic success equals happiness".

At one point on the novel Bateman says that "there are no more barriers to cross". This does not only apply to the kind of life he leads and to all the unspeakable offenses he commits. It also applies to the novel as an art form: There are no more barriers to cross. What could the innovative novel of the 21st century possibly be about? Even more cruelty and savagery are unimaginable (apart from, maybe, doing all those things to your own parents or children). The sexual act has been described in graphic detail over and over again, and if it is to be sex untainted by transgression of the law, it cannot in future be depicted more explicitely than it already has been. Around the turn of the century, Theodore Dreiser was severely criticized for presenting an unconventional woman in Sister Carrie although it is only hinted at that Carrie has extra-marital sex with at least two men. In his 1941 novel Mildred Pierce, James M. Cain presented a career woman who also has sexual needs, and The Postman Always Rings Twice[?] revolves around adultery, but in both cases the sexual encounters are never described. (As far as Great Britain is concerned, the obscenity trial following the publication of D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover has to be mentioned in this context.) Now, in American Psycho, nothing whatsoever is left to the reader's imagination. Today, after books like Ellis's, the old formula of sex and crime has been utterly exploited. There are no more barriers to cross.

See also:

  • the list of banned books (More information is needed here on the banning of this particular book.)

American Psycho was turned into a movie in 2000 by Mary Harron[?]. The screenplay, based upon Ellis's book, was written by Harron and Guinevere Turner[?] and can be accessed here (http://www2.hemsida.net/screensource/americanpsycho). The film starred Christian Bale[?] as Patrick Bateman, Justin Theroux[?], Josh Lucas[?], Bill Sage[?], Chloë Sevigny, Reese Witherspoon, and Samantha Mathis[?].

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