American Psycho (1991) Review & Analysis

Psy-chaotic: Psychopathic elements only serve as Affectations to Socio-Economic Climates

A Summary and Analysis by Derek Hobson

American Psycho (1991)

By: Bret Easton Ellis

Published by: Vintage Books

This book features graphic depictions of sex, animal abuse, and obscene violence towards women

Personal Background & Experience:
To date, Ellis is one of my favorite authors despite having (now) only read two of his books.

I read Rules of Attraction in high school and could not put it down. Literally, at 7:00AM, in my zero period class, I continued reading throughout the class, despite there being only 7 other people. During which time, I had to excuse myself to the restroom to gag during Victor’s chapter.

Often, I equate Ellis with Chuck Palahniuck, in that, I believe both of them found their inspiration from the Beat Generation, taking the style of Jack Kerouac and removing all the boring sections. Given our finite attention spans, what they deliver is fast-paced, freeway fiction. It does not always feel good, but the end is gratifying. It’s one of those experiences where you’re not sure what the point was until the author rewards you at the end for finishing the novel.

American Psycho Summary:
Initially, the novel appears to be a slice-of-life, taking you through the eyes of Patrick Bateman, “the boy next door,” and his life as an Wall Street, Upper East side Yuppie. He–and all those associated with him–are wealthy and have all the freedom characteristic of MadMen (coming and going from the office as they please, enjoying a J&B or business paid dinner with friends, and of course, coke and halcion drug-binging).

The story appears “loosely” comedic in our social interactions, judging people based on their designer clothing and residence. To give an example, Bateman finds himself more attractive than Tim Price, so even after Tim and Bateman’s girlfriend start “canoodling” in the kitchen (in front of Bateman, no less), only then does he plainly suggest to himself that “They’re having an affair.”

Progressively however, Bateman starts making comments to us (the readers) that go by unnoticed because they’re strange, but not ridiculous. Comments like, “I think about stabbing McDermott in the face,” seem fine because McDermott is a cheapskate and a complainer.

Then the violence occurs and we realize that we’ve simply been lulled into his world–same as every victim he seduces.

The horror and graphic depictions of violence were taken from real murders in New York city and were written after his initial draft of the novel. They are grisly, disturbing, and above all, true.

The comedy in the novel comes not from these chapters of gore, but from the social interactions thereafter. Bateman openly confesses to murdering women, but people don’t listen or will simply assume he’s speaking metaphorically.
Bateman: “Guys, I’m not opposed to ramming a led pipe through a ****** ***.”
Van Patten: “Oh, Bateman, enough about your led pipe.”
McDermott: “Is he talking about his ****?”
Bateman: “Um… not really.”

An ongoing gag is no one recognizes anyone. Bateman is referred to as Marcus, Paul, Davis, etc. They’re all interchangeable, and this is imperative to the analysis.

American Psycho Analysis:
Ironically enough, American Psycho is not about a psychopath–not even a sociopath. The distinctions between these two is manifold, and while Bateman has characteristics of both, he lacks a fundamental symptom to classify him as either one. Regardless of which of the two disorders a person falls under, both types do not feel guilt or remorse for their actions. Bateman does.

Initially, it doesn’t appear that Bateman feels remorse or guilt, but that’s because he disassociates himself from the grisly murders.

The first half or so of the book reads as though Bateman is not a serial killer. There’s no mention of his escort outings and “Jack the Ripper” style murders. In fact, his and everyone else’s identity is purely associated with labels and designers. Not only because Bateman always describes his colleagues in their attire (ad nauseum), but 3 other instances depict this fully.

1. Bateman aggressively barks at the dry-cleaning woman for not getting small blood flecks out of his suit. This is an example of how his disassociated personality is bleeding into his affectatious life.

2. The iconic–and admittedly comedic–business card scene. During which, Bateman identifies himself with his card, the only real indicator of his name and worth. A simple, business card is what determines their identity, moreso than any license or birth certificate. It’s their name and occupation.

This is especially expressive since no one working Wall Street can recognize anyone, since they all look the same. This is their identity and when Bateman’s “bone” white card pales in comparison to Van Patten’s “eggshell” or Price’s “pale nimbus,” Bateman understands that he is not as well-endowed as other men and this makes him feel rotten.

He has a mental breakdown because his cards are not as tasteful, nor as expensive as others. And taste and expense are the only two identifiers of who they are as people. Outside of the gore, the only recurring scenes take place at dinner or at clubs.

Dinner obviously equates to a literal taste in what is ordered and reservations are equatable to reputation. Similarly, clubs only allow people with the proper attire to attend.

Therefore, Bateman’s card is Bateman and its inferiority to others drives him mad.

This also furthers the notion that Bateman is not a psycho- or socio- path as either would feel an entitlement to the world. Even if Bateman once did feel entitled, his recognition of his inferiority shows a level of humility absent in psychopaths.

3. On a far more symbolic level, Bateman’s closest colleague–and arguably friend–Timothy Price leaves after the first part/act of the novel. The association with value and Tim’s last name “Price” is obvious, but its effect on Bateman is extraordinary.

Price is the only colleague who talks about the “real” world, everyone else only talks to Bateman about when it’s okay to wear a sweater vest or the proper width of suspenders.

Price actually talks about war, poverty, and the shortcomings of society.

As mentioned previously, Bateman does not kill anyone so long as Price is present, but Price leaves one night and thereafter we move into Act 2–so to speak–and Bateman begins his ritualistic slaughters. This transition reflects how, with Price’s departure, Bateman loses sight of himself. This happens in more ways than one.

To begin with, Price, in a literal and metaphorical sense, is Bateman’s sense of value. This is further shown in the characters who, when Price starts talking about the “real” world, refer to Price as “Priceless.” Bateman joins in referring to Tim by this nickname as its characteristic of his invaluable relationship with him. Price is priceless, meaning that money is can’t buy him.

Add to this the fact that Price is the only person who discusses anything of gravity and we see that Price is value.

So Price’s departure is what sparks Bateman to pursue murder, because he loses value in the real world.

Bateman then becomes “Price-less.”

This operates in two ways.

If money has no value, then Bateman’s 27yo world is utterly meaningless, hence the murders and seemingly amoralistic behavior. However, this departure is what results in the murders and as stated previously, Bateman is not a psychopath, but in fact, disassociates himself. This is indicated in the fact that, by becoming “Price-less,” Bateman becomes Price.

Bateman treats homeless people with the same chauvinistic smugness that Price did in the first section of the book; often waving bills before them and taking them back. Bateman moves forward with his affair with Courtney–which Price already mentioned having done. And both had a relationship with Evelyn.

In that relationship in particular, Bateman’s substitution into Price is further evidenced by Evelyn rearranging Bateman’s initials for Price’s in the opening scene.

Therefore, all of Bateman’s murders are his attempt at being Price. He has personally disassociated himself from “Bateman” and this isn’t the only time this happens either.

A recurring character, Paul Owens is handling the Fisher account. There’s value to this, so Bateman vengefully kills Owens and steals the keys to his apartment. Bateman returns to Owens apartment and embraces the furniture and status as his own in the presence of prostitutes and call-girls.

The disassociation continues with his victims. Whereas the death of Owens was as much a tactical move as it was due to envy, his death was noticeably less gruesome than with others. The reason for this is continued disassociation. Again, in a similar fashion to “Jack the Ripper,” Bateman’s victims are largely prostitutes. This is clearly done to distance himself from anything real, they are blank slates.

Ellis’ masterfully shows this when Bateman kills–one of the last girls–and delves into a monologue where Bateman professes that “[he] hopes that this girl knows that… this fate… would’ve happened anyway. Regardless of where she was that night… he would have found her.”

Bateman of course would not “literally” have found her, but he would’ve found “her,” a girl to suit his needs. If he did mean literally, it would be an absurd improbability. Therefore, we can infer from this level of ambiguity that he fabricates who the girls are–and he does since he often gives the girls’ names or doesn’t believe they are who they say they are.

Any arguments then that claim that Bateman has always been murderous are nullified due to the fact that, only after Bateman assumes the role of Price, does he talk about his history of killing people. These are delusions with enough evidence to support it.

1. Bateman frequently remarks that he “doesn’t remember doing that,” when looking over corpses. This echoes his disassociation, but also his ability to fabricate what happened.

2. When Bateman is confronted by Bethany, an old girlfriend from his past, he blocks out any actual memories. This part is particularly interesting because we never learn about Bateman’s past outside of “[he] went to Harvard,” and has a brother (from Rules of Attraction) and sick mother.

Bethany however sees Bateman and this puts him into a state of paralysis. At lunch, he feels more interrogated by Bethany than by Donald Kimball (a detective). His nerves are shot and he purposefully acts more pompous than he is as though to emerge as a new identity before Bethany. But Bethany questions his entire profession, implying that Bateman is working at a rival firm from his parents. Bateman shuts all talk of his past life out however, because he wants to maintain his pseudo identity.

As a result, he ends up killing Bethany in a particularly brutal way, but that’s because he views her as evidence of who he was and he doesn’t want to be reminded that he is “Price-less” because that would imply that his world has no value and therefore no meaning.

This is further reflected in the poem he writes to Bethany which has no meaning, although once, in a past life, his poems did have substance.

Finally, the disassociation continues with Bateman’s frequent reference to “and everything is like a movie” and the comically repetitious excuse, “I need to return some video tapes.”

Throughout scenes of gore and murder, Bateman’s graphic detail takes hold, but before getting too deep into it, he’ll state, “and everything is like a movie.” This is a representation of how he disassociates himself from the actual acts. He views it as a work of fiction, watching himself–as he does in mirrors–and not actually being present. It’s the same reason why he’ll find body parts misshapen and he’ll claim “I don’t remember doing that.” Bateman removes himself from these acts of violence.

His victims themselves are perfect examples of this since he murders prostitutes–people with no connection to him. Ironically, the people that incite and enrage him most remain untouched. This is because they are connections to his persona.

Additionally, Bateman often video tapes the gory episodes, further showing how he’ll view them later like any other television show he watches (David Letterman, The Patty Winters Show, etc.). He watches movies and video tapes in excess as an escape. And every time he’s about to make a kill or makes an excuse not to kill, he responds with the excuse, “I have to return some video tapes.”

Often this means that he’s going home to create his own videos or, as in the case with Jean (his secretary), he’s going to return video tapes metaphorically; as in, he’s NOT going to kill her like it’s a movie.

The movie-like disassociation continues towards the end of the novel. Bateman goes on a killing spree and actually has a shoot-out with the police to which he actually references that “[he’s] having a shoot-out with the police just like in the movies.” Shortly thereafter, the narration moves from 1st person to 3rd person and Bateman narrates his life as though he’s watching himself. This is the climax of the story and perfectly embodies how Bateman views his life as a movie and disassociates himself from murder since he kills more people in this scene than in any other episode.

Furthermore, Bateman flatly admits that “this confession”–narration–is a series of “scenes,” and this is evidenced by the fact that each chapter acts as a title to a scene in a movie (e.g. April Fool’s, Morning, Harry’s or Bringing an UZI to the Gym).

Fittingly disconcerting, American Psycho is not about a psychopath. It’s about consumerism and designers. It’s about how  our shopping centers, our television programming, our world is all designed to sell something. If money and price however have no value, then the question posed is what is the point of society, especially when mankind in mass is interchangeable and unnecessary duplicates?

In this way, Ellis doesn’t fail, but succeeds in that the story is not Psycho, but American Psycho. The fact is, in the work of fiction, the murders are real. Ellis didn’t come up with these on his own and Bateman never gets caught. The potential for the murders themselves to be fabrications is easy since Bateman reads about serial killers (ex. Ted Bundy). With the exception of Paul Owens, Bateman doesn’t kill anybody that anyone would know or is directly in his social circle.

Even then, Paul Owens is spotted in London, England–is this another case of mistaken identity or is Owens actually in London?

The challenge in reading this book comes from the gruesome scenes, but in truth, that’s reality and our material possessions are just a way of keeping it hidden beneath layers of expensive Armani. In this work of fiction, the murders are real and we don’t like hearing about them.

In the same way that every store and restaurant is designed, so is the collective mentality. Society applies meaning to possessions as much as they supply meaning to paper currency.

Bateman always struggles to describe what he’s feeling or what it is inside him that’s acting out. His inability to describe what he feels is only further evidence of disassociation. He’s been taught to understand possessions as meaning, but if there is none, he and the rest of society are lost.

Although countless critics discuss American Psycho as a satire on the yuppies of the 80s, Ellis has gone on record to say that that was never his intention. Furthermore, that argument lacks validation since their occupation (on Wall Street) only serves as a means to the story. Ellis never mentions their jobs outside of whose handling whose account. This book was written without research to Wall Street. Ruling that argument out then, Ellis confirmed that the story is about consumers and materialism (Interview, Baker).

Interestingly, this is the first novel that mentions designers so frequently that it does feel like a movie with overt product placement or a television show with commercials. I mentioned in my article/thoughts on Hemingway, that I appreciate the succinctness of story-telling and how it is a form of art completely devoid of ads, but Ellis counters that idea with American Psycho.

Additionally, this read sent me back to Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Ingrid Lausund’s play Slipped Disc: A Study of the Upright Walk.

The latter is a farce on office workers who and, at one point, they actually struggle to form an opinion on a chair. The chair in comparison to other chairs, viewing each one as an option (one side deters sunlight, another side puts them closest to the coffee machine, etc.) But how do they feel about a chair? They don’t feel anything.

Likewise, Alice in Wonderland begins with Alice studying and then she slips into a “mad” world. However is she really sleeping or has the monotony of life grown so dull that she needs to imagine to keep herself engaged and motivated?

American Psycho is a modern novel that tackles the pangs of worth. If in reading this book, Bateman describes what people are wearing and you don’t care, then he has succeeded because you shouldn’t, but it matters all the same.

For more reviews, check out Derek Hobson’s Article Archive

4 Comments on American Psycho (1991) Review & Analysis

  1. When I read the book I noted the departure and return of Timothy Price and thought it was significant but couldn’t figure out how. I think you have an interesting theory.

    Also, fun fact: Ellis purposefully made his descriptions of people’s clothing mismatch. Apparently, for the regular joe we’re just reading that Bateman is describing people in different brands but for the tailor-savvy everyone is wearing ludicrous combinations.

  2. I’m relieved/disappointed to find out the murders were based on actual killings. The obscenity of the violence was the hook of the book, and it horrified me, more that Ellis could think those thoughts and transcribe them to the written page. But I highly recommend Less Than Zero, it has all of these elements in their beginning stages, you see the seeds of his other books in his first novel.

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