Columns > Published on March 7th, 2013

LURID: American Psycho - A Retrospective

LURID: vivid in shocking detail; sensational, horrible in savagery or violence, or, a guide to the merits of the kind of Bad Books you never want your co-workers to know you're reading.

Happy birthday, Patrick Bateman!  On March 6, 1991, American Psycho was published amidst howls of protest, calls for censorship, and vicious reviews dismissing it as superficial trash.  Twenty-two years later it’s considered a classic. It’s sold more than a million copies in the US, been reprinted more than fifty times, and its anti-hero is guaranteed to make an appearance as a costume at a Halloween party near you.  How did such a reviled book become such a vital cultural reference point?

The brouhaha surrounding American Psycho began months before the book hit stores. In August 1990, when female employees at Simon & Schuster learned about the subject matter of Bret Easton Ellis’s third novel, they objected in the strongest terms to scenes detailing the torture and murder of women. After Time and Spy magazines ran stories about the protests (Time called the book a “childish horror fantasy”) including leaked excerpts, Simon & Schuster (despite the $300,000 advance paid to Ellis) abruptly canceled publication.  48 hours later, Ellis’s agent resold the manuscript to Sonny Mehta at Vintage, sparking even more outrage.  

Tammy Bruce (from the Los Angeles chapter of the National Organization for Women) described it as “a how-to novel on the torture and dismemberment of women” and called for a boycott of all Vintage books if publication went ahead.  She also declared:

This is not art. Mr. Ellis is a confused, sick young man with a deep hatred of women who will do anything for a fast buck. And Mr. Mehta is worse. Ellis could have gone on writing until he choked on his own vomit if Vintage had not agreed to publish this misogynistic garbage.

The chorus of protest grew and grew.  The New York Times ran a scathing critique by Roger Rosenblatt, Snuff This Book! Will Bret Easton Ellis Get Away With Murder? exhorting his readers to refuse to purchase copies, and thus make it disappear.  Ellis and Mehta received death threats. Everyone from Entertainment Weekly to independent booksellers joined in the seemingly universal opprobrium, creating a perfect media shitstorm – the kind of publicity that money just can’t buy.  Naturally – and despite the overwhelmingly negative reviews - it was an instant bestseller (although the New York Times removed the title from its list citing “inappropriate content”).

Happy birthday, Patrick Bateman!  On this day in 1991, American Psycho was published amidst howls of protest, calls for censorship, and vicious reviews dismissing it as superficial trash.

The scandal seems quaint to us now. Why such a fuss over a novel, especially one that was exploring the familiar territory of psychopathy?  Hadn’t the irate publishers read The Wasp Factory (published in 1984), Child of God (1973), The Dice Man (1971), The Painted Bird (1965), Last Exit To Brooklyn (1964), A Clockwork Orange (1962), The Bad Seed (1954) or even, going back, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824) and 120 Days of Sodom (1785)?  All of these can be considered “how-to novels” on violence, rape, murder, necrophilia, and bestiality, and were available in bookstores and libraries for decades prior to March 6, 1991.  Why was American Psycho, which slots comfortably into a centuries-old tradition of transgressive fiction, singled out for such vilification?

The author shot to fame at the tender age of 21 and his youth, whiteness and privilege all played a part in the hate directed towards his work – it’s no surprise he’s such a supporter of Lena Dunham today.  Bret Easton Ellis was still at college in 1985 when Less Than Zero, his bildungsroman about growing up rich in Los Angeles, was published.  Less Than Zero distils the neon-bright spectrum of ‘80s teen angst (Drugs! Sex! Parties! STDs! More drugs! Snuff movies! Sex slaves! Boredom! Death!) into a single Christmas vacation.  The drifting, lyrical, first person narrative nailed the woes of Reagan-era affluence and Ellis was subsequently hailed as the coke-croaky voice of a corrupt generation, although he had his detractors.  One editor at Simon & Schuster described it as “a novel for coke-snorting zombies”[1].  In the follow-up, The Rules of Attraction (1987), Ellis wrote more of what he knew, first-person accounts of numbed debauchery at an elite East Coast school, and in the process became synonymous with his jaded, apathetic, dead-eyed characters, amoral and filthy rich, the epitome of Raybanned 80s cool. 

However, Ellis understood that this year’s cool is déclassé within months, and by 1989, when he was working on the first draft of American Psycho, he was only too aware that his familiar yuppie paradigms, like the decade, were getting old. All those shiny toys and designer duds bought on credit were beginning to hang heavy around the necks of their status-obsessed owners. After the 1987 stock market crash (Black Monday) Wall Street exposés like Michael Lewis’s Liar’s Poker and Thomas Wolfe’s Bonfire of The Vanities were highly critical of the deregulation of banking and the carte blanche given to financiers.  The gloss was off.  Enter, or rather re-enter, Patrick Bateman.

Patrick is briefly mentioned in The Rules of Attraction, as the older brother of dissolute college boy Sean. Ellis – who was by then living in New York -- picked him out as a character worth exploring further, perhaps because Patrick was at the same stage in life.

Whenever I am asked to talk American Psycho, I have to remember why I was writing it at the time and what it meant to me. A lot of it had to do with my frustration with having to become an adult and what it meant to be an adult male in American society. I didn't want to be one, because all it was about was status. Consumerist success was really the embodiment of what it meant to be a cool guy—money, trophy girlfriends, nice clothes, and cool cars. It all seemed extremely shallow to me. Yet at the same time you have an urge to conform. You want to be part of the group. You don't want to be shunned. So when I was writing that book as a young man, I was having this battle with conforming to what was then yuppiedom—the yuppie lifestyle—going to restaurants and trying to fit in. I think American Psycho was ultimately my argument about this.[2]

Patrick Bateman, comic antihero, embodies this failure to fit in.  There’s never much room at the top. American Psycho is a study of that echelon of society where everyone is young, attractive, hard-bodied, wealthy, educated, tanned, buffed, highlighted and possesses a sophisticated understanding of etiquette.  They’ve achieved the dizzy heights of perfection set by ads in glossy mags. 

In any other social context, Bateman would be considered a Master of the Universe, a veritable Superman.  The problem is, all his friends are too.  They’re all pounding away on the same hedonic treadmill, pursuing the same rigidly defined happiness, wrapped in the possession of material goods and the meeting of physical appearance standards.  It’s no wonder they can’t tell each other apart.  But their need to conform to the norm of perfection conflicts with their need to feel superior to their peers.  They want what everyone else has got – but just a little bit better.  In a milieu where creativity, flair, and unpredictability are considered disruptive, how does one stand out from the crowd, without risking loss of membership of the elite?

Business Cards.  Perfect.  “And the lettering is something called Silian Rail…”

Bateman breaks out in a cold sweat because he thinks he has revealed his inferiority.  His inability to select the very best business card means, once again, a failure to fit in. Throughout American Psycho Ellis demonstrates clinical evisceration skills when it comes to exposing this kind of social differentiation, barely perceptible to the untrained eye.  This is what led Katherine Dunn to describe the book as “masterful satire and a ferocious, hilarious, ambitious, inspiring piece of writing, which has large elements of Jane Austen at her vitriolic best.”  In the tradition of Jonathan Swift, William Hogarth, Mark Twain, Dorothy Parker, Aldous Huxley, Evelyn Waugh, Joseph Heller et al, Ellis lays out the corpus delicti of late ‘80s society, and flays the perma-tanned skin from its flesh so we can get a closer look at the structures beneath.  In the infamous comparison between Bateman’s Silian Rail and Van Patten’s Romalian Type, and in the endless arguments about socks, ties and vests, he lays bare the dull, materialist spirit of the age. 

He challenges the reader to find meaning in the meaningless litany of designer brands, fashion tips, facial scrubs, workout specifics and discussion topics on The Patty Winters Show.  This immerses the reader in the same struggle as the protagonist: we too spin helplessly on the waves of minutiae that make up Bateman’s existence, searching for purpose, direction, succor and finding none.  Bateman hates his friends.  We do too. The critics who castigated the narrative for being shallow and aimless were missing the point.  There is genuinely nothing going on in these people’s lives.  Family wealth and freely available narcotics insulate them from reality – even the shockwaves caused by Black Monday - and the most difficult choice they have to make is where to eat of an evening. Wrangling over restaurant reservations is one of the few ways in which they can manifest free will.  If you were stuck in this world, day in day out, if you became the perfume-ad paragon you’ve always aspired to be, you’d go crazy too. 

Patrick Bateman is the logical conclusion of his context, the product of absolute permissiveness and the lack of any moral code. If substance use, “that whole Yale thing”, misogyny, racism, homophobia, duplicity, adultery, and corrupt business practices are all acceptable to your peers, how’s a guy meant to act out his frustration at being unable to get a table at Dorsia?  How’s he meant to sound his barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world? 

Homicidal rage. Perfect.  In all its lurid detail.

The ax hits him midsentence, straight in the face, its thick blade chopping sideways into his open mouth, shutting him up…  blood sprays out in twin brownish geysers, staining my raincoat. This is accompanied by a horrible momentary hissing noise actually coming from the wounds in Paul's skull, places where bone and flesh no longer connect, and this is followed by a rude farting noise caused by a section of his brain, which due to pressure forces itself out, pink and glistening, through the wounds in his face.

This grisly scene – and the others that caused so much ire at Simon & Schuster – was added after the first draft.  Ultimately, the notorious descriptions of violence take up less than 10% of the book.  Their shock value comes from jarring tonal contrast, the sudden shift from banality to threat as Bateman oscillates between sneering commentary and homicidal mania. 

Ellis was being prescient rather than anomalous in picking a financial services professional as the arch-villain of our age.

In the first third of the narrative, we’re not sure whether to pay much attention to Bateman when he talks about picking up bloodstained clothing from the Chinese dry cleaners, or when he admits to murderous impulses during dinner with friends (“tonight I would have broken into Scott and Anne's studio at around two this morning – after Late Night with David Letterman – and with an ax chopped them to pieces, first making Anne watch Scott bleed to death from gaping chest wounds”) or wonders whether his fiancée, Evelyn, would have sex with another woman if he forced her at gunpoint.  After all, this is a guy who watches a lot of video nasties.  When he counters Evelyn’s gushing monologue about weddings with his own plans for their special day (“I'd want to bring a Harrison AK-47 assault rifle to the ceremony… with a thirty-round magazine so after thoroughly blowing your fat mother's head off with it I could use it on that fag brother of yours”) he’s wickedly funny. This is social satire.  Bateman is a dashing, if occasionally vicious, rake; a lord of misrule offering dark carnival release.

Yet, as the narrative progresses, Ellis cranks up the violent impulses.  His protagonist becomes a more obvious heir to the Hellfire Clubs of the eighteenth century, with their doctrine of ‘Do What Thou Wilt’, the libertine cousins of the Marquis de Sade.  Apathy becomes action.  Bateman’s brief blips of bloodlust, his one-liner gags, evolve into extended amoral episodes.  The line between amusing asides and protracted deviance becomes blurred.  Bateman attends “a black-tie party at the Puck Building… for a new brand of computerized professional rowing machine”. Moments later, he’s gouging out a bum’s eyeballs – or so he claims – and subjecting us, his accomplices, to the details. 

Ellis’s account of the ensuing murder (the bum’s punctured eyeball reminds Bateman of  “red, veiny egg yolk”) goes nowhere pulp fiction hasn’t been before.  The horror comes from the context.  The perpetrator of this foul deed isn’t a backwoods child of god, an extra-dimensional Cenobite, or a Kamp Kommandant. He’s a well-heeled, handsome Manhattanite, a Vice President, future CEO, even Senator, on an unstoppable upward trajectory through the corridors of power.  He’s invincible.  He owns us.  Yet instead of adhering to the principles of noblesse oblige, that the great and powerful should also attempt to be good, he stomps a dog to death.  Then he goes to McDonald’s for a milkshake; before he’s finished drinking, his ennui has returned.  And he has absolutely no regrets for what he’s just done.

Suddenly, the reader understands how it felt to be a Roman citizen in 37 A.D., watching Caligula embark on his four-year reign of depravity, torture, murder and incest.  We can only read on, and follow Bateman into the rat-infested depths of his unraveling mind (“Surface, surface, surface was all that anyone found meaning in . . . this was civilization as I saw it, colossal and jagged”). Despite the killings, American Psycho is not a procedural – it’s a literary novel, not a tidy-ended airport thriller – and the end brings neither resolution nor redemption.  While the reader is able to exit the narrative, Bateman continues on his psycho path, borne back ceaselessly against the blood tides.

American Psycho was a brutal shock in 1991.  The presence of a remorseless serial killer in the pages of a social satire was perceived as something off-kilter, a one-off aberration that would disappear, unrepeated.  But the book didn’t, as many predicted, fade out of the public eye along with the controversy surrounding its publication.  History has proven the arbiters of taste at Simon & Schuster wrong.  Ellis was being prescient rather than anomalous in picking a financial services professional as the arch-villain of our age.  His instincts about our increasing desensitization to violence, our acceptance of force, even homicide, as a problem-solving tool, and our fondness for torture porn were also spot on.  Twenty-two years since his debut, Patrick Bateman is Legion.  His influence is felt in fictional characters as diverse as Dexter Morgan and Christian Grey.  He stalks the glossy teen soap, Gossip Girl, lurking behind the eyes of Chuck Bass.  He can be glimpsed when the beaming mask of a movie star slips, and, for a moment, he is unable to conceal his homicidal rage towards the little people.  He’s what we like to think of when we envisage the 1%: venal, amoral and utterly lacking in human feeling.  Mary Harron, director of the 2000 movie adaptation starring Christian Bale, says:

He seems a much more important reference now than when the book or the film came out and I’m kind of stunned by it.  I think it shows the novel was prophetic.  That vision of a rapacious Wall St., and a consumer culture gone mad, seems even more relevant now.  It was never just about the eighties.  There’s another side to it though, which is this weird wish fulfillment, where a lot of guys kind of identify with Patrick Bateman.  That’s the strangest part of it for me.

While there’s definitely a weird side to the hero-worship expressed by fist-pumping frat boys, it’s not so hard to understand why more sensitive readers still relate to Bateman.  His isolation, his perpetual bafflement at the behavior of others, his constant search for meaning even though he knows there’s nothing beneath the surrounding surfaces – he could be an adult Holden Caulfield, with a shiny, shiny ax.  And it’s comforting to think that he probably hates the Rich Kids Of Instagram even more than you do.

What do you think of American Psycho? Classic or trash? And have you ever met a Patrick Bateman?

[1] Psycho Drama - New York Magazine Dec 17, 1990


About the author

Karina Wilson is a British writer based in Los Angeles. As a screenwriter and story consultant she tends to specialize in horror movies and romcoms (it's all genre, right?) but has also made her mark on countless, diverse feature films over the past decade, from indies to the A-list. She is currently polishing off her first novel, Exeme, and you can read more about that endeavor here .

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