AMERICAN PSYCHO: This Is Not a Cop-Out
Every time I talk about American Psycho with someone, the same question comes up:
"Do you think he really did it?"
My answer is invariably, emphatically, "Yes!"
It's been a couple of years since I've delved into Bret Easton Ellis's sublimely surreal American Psycho, (abandoning all hope, as the first paragraph states--quoting Dante), but it's one of my all-time favorites. I love every bloody, messy, dense, ugly page of it. I love how deeply Ellis realized the character of serial murder/yuppie scum Patrick Bateman, who obsessively lists the things people wear down to brand names and breaks in periodically to expound on his favorite albums, some of which are also mine. I love how it draws me into the Affluent '80s while simultaneously repelling me with its excesses and total disregard for anything but the Self, the id, thrusting nostalgia for the era in my face before rearing back to show me its nasty underbelly.
Love this cover.
American Psycho is Ellis’s third book, his most controversial, and in my mind, his best. His first, Less Than Zero, deals with the narcissism, nihilism and ennui of rich kids in Los Angeles, their parties, sexual escapades and various addictions. I didn’t much care for Zero, the movie or the book, but it established Ellis’s almost stream-of-consciousness style of writing, and seems disturbingly prescient today.
Ellis perfects this first person stream-of-consciousness style in American Psycho. You know a book resonates when the writer receives death threats and hate mail. American Psycho riled feminists like Gloria Steinem before its release, and Canadian rapist/murderer Paul Bernardo said that he treated it as his Bible. And while Patrick Bateman is gleefully, disturbingly misogynist, he is also anti-anything not Straight White Affluent Male. He loathes the homeless, prostitutes, homosexuals, blacks, Muslims--but readers are not meant to sympathize, and the writer should not be held responsible when they do: for every Bernardo, there are a hundred-thousand readers who saw the book for the decidedly repugnant treatise against Yuppie-era consumerist capitalism it’s meant to be.
"That's bone. And the lettering is something called Silian Grail."
At its core, the real villain is not Patrick Bateman but Reagan’s vision of America: a nation of preened, slick-haired psychopaths dressed in Brooks Brothers and Cole-Haan shoes in lieu of Waffenrocks and jackboots. Bateman is merely trying to fit in, as he mentions many times throughout the book; he sees his peers as predators, as wolves in chic clothing. As I see it, Patrick Bateman becomes a mass murderer not to escape from the mold, but to fully embrace it. In his perception of ‘80s America, everything is a commodity, including people, to be used once and then thrown away.
So when someone asks me “Did he really do it?” I have to think they’ve entirely missed the point.
Patrick Bateman, returning some video tapes.
Here be spoilers: There's really only one scene which might make the casual reader (or viewer) believe the whole book (or film) is a product of Patrick Bateman's imagination, and it's when Bateman, after a murderous, dreamlike rampage through New York City, calls his lawyer. He’s had a complete mental breakdown, and confesses everything--less because he’s experiencing regret than the idea he won’t get away with it this time. He did call his lawyer, after all.
Near the end of the book, Bateman approaches his lawyer at a party. It’s important to note the lawyer doesn't recognize his own client: he thinks Bateman is a man named Davis. Believing the confession was a joke, the lawyer says Bateman couldn't have killed Paul Owen (Allen in the film), because Bateman is a “brown-nosing goody-goody.” But more importantly, the lawyer just met with Owen in London a week prior.
So is Bateman delusional? Or is his lawyer mistaken?
A major clue is that Bateman’s associates constantly mistake one another for someone else. These men are all clothes and haircuts. They’re clones, they’re indistinguishable. That’s a major point in the book and the film. Conformity is what the '80s was all about.
Of all the cities Owen might have actually had business, it’s telling that Bateman’s lawyer alleges to have seen Paul Owen in London. After killing Paul Owen, Bateman leaves a message on Owen’s machine saying the murdered man was called away on business to London. Coincidence? What’s more likely is that he’d met with another Yuppie clone he mistook for Paul Owen, that he’d heard Owen’s message (left by Bateman), and had mixed the the two men up, like Bateman and "Davis."
Another big clue is Detective Donald Kimball’s presence in the story, a private detective hired to look into the disappearance of Paul Owen. If Bateman never murdered Owen, where did Owen go? Was he “just making the rounds,” like Price? If Bateman never murdered Owen, why was Kimball so suspicious of him?
This confession has meant nothing.
I believe Ellis wrote this scene to give the reader an out. The first line of the book, “Abandon all hope ye who enter here,” tells us we’ll be taking a journey into Hell. Choosing to believe you’ve just read the twisted fantasies of a delusional man rather than borne witness to the homicidal escapades of a maniac is an easy escape. And like the book’s coda says “THIS IS NOT AN EXIT.”