“Is evil something you are? Or is it something you do?” : “American Psycho” by Bret Easton Ellis



Imagine: you are twenty-six years old, studied at Harvard before graduating to a financially rewarding job on Wall Street where you worked your way up the hierarchy to become the managing director as you are today. You are devilishly handsome and maintain a thorough workout regime that gives you a perfectly defined body, so that you are often mistaken for an actor or a model. You are, of course, disgustingly rich, and own a plush flat in Manhattan with all the mod cons, but you prefer to eat out most nights with your yuppie pals in New York’s finest restaurants before retiring to expensive bars providing a plentiful stream of J&B and drugs. Where do you go from here?


Here you have, more or less, Pat Bateman, the hero or antihero of Bret Easton Ellis’ third novel American Psycho. Bateman is the poster-boy for American capitalism, the man whose ambition and drive allowed him to prosper in the land of opportunities that is America, to become the resounding success that he is today. He appears to be living what many have called American Dream. But Ellis ensures that the reader feels something is awry from the off. Why is there all this tedious listing of people’s designer clothing by Bateman? He rarely passes judgement on people’s attire, but he never fails to note it. There is also the abounding presence of the ‘bums’ who line the city’s streets and are frowned upon, mocked and teased by Bateman and his cronies. Such juxtapositions begin to reveal an ugly side to Bateman, one which broods and grows increasingly darker and disturbing as the narrative proceeds.



Christian Bale in Mary Harron’s 2000 Film Adaptation of “American Psycho”

The pivotal moment which exposes Bateman’s true persona sees him tear away his debonair, stolid façade to unleash a brutal, savage monster as he carves out the eyes of a homeless man before strolling nonchalantly to a nearby McDonalds. He is capricious, a man whose insatiable desires, instilled undoubtedly by capitalist ideals of endless opportunity and growth, can no longer be satisfied by material and financial gain, but are now satisfied instead by perverse, sexual fantasies and an inexorable passion for blood and body parts. Bateman is arguably the darkest, most nauseating character in literature. A sick, twisted murderer who “inexplicably” empathises with Nazis, presumably as a racist and a homophobe. I, at least, have never read another novel which has churned my stomach quite like American Psycho.


This is no doubt because Bret Easton Ellis is almost as brutal as his protagonist in his detailing of Bateman’s appalling acts. It is a truly gut-wrenching, merciless prose that makes the novel an emotionally and physically draining experience. I have not yet (and do not intend to) indulged in E.L. James’ smash-hit Fifty Shades, but I can guarantee that Ellis’ bedroom scenes will knock James’ for six. It can be difficult to see past Ellis’ monstrous creation and his forthrightness in discussing controversial topics, but American Psycho is an artfully-written novel, undoubtedly a modern masterpiece which growls at the heart of American capitalism, showing it to be an inherently sick and fatally dangerous system, a point powerfully driven home by Ellis’ exceptional prose.


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