American Psycho is one of the greatest novels of our time. Since its publication, its petulant, unerring and uncompromising face-off with this age has the effect of making most serious literary works seem obscured by an unedifying veil of sophistry. It is one of the two zeitgeist pieces of fiction that defined America at the end of the last century and the start of this one, the other being Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club. The latter novel looks at disaffection from the perspective of an excluded new underclass of youth, debt-shackled and devoid of opportunity. American Psycho, on the other hand, focuses on the ennui of morally bankrupt extreme privilege.
The seismic effect of both books was genuinely felt, yet in the case of American Psycho, there also followed a highly disingenuous outrage. Those reactions were mainly directed towards the passages of extreme violence contained in the book, the objectification of women, the use of pornography and the supposed “manipulation” of the reader. Yet, they were often acts of bad faith and were based on fatuous notions.
American Psycho holds a hyper-real, satirical mirror up to our faces, and the uncomfortable shock of recognition it produces is that twisted reflection of ourselves, and the world we live in. It is not the “life-affirming” (so often a coded term for “deeply conservative”) novel beloved of bourgeois critics. It offers no easy resolutions to suburbanites, serves up no comforting knowledge that the flawed but fundamentally decent super guy is on hand to rescue them from the bad folks. There is no suggestion that either love or faith can save the day. All that remains is the impression that we have created a world devoid of compassion and empathy, a fertile breeding ground for monsters to thrive while hiding in plain sight. But though the novel offers no such hiding place for the reader, it furnishes us with that most impenetrable of shields: dark humour and irony. More than anything else, American Psycho is a black comedy, a satire on our dislocating culture of excess.
The tone is set when the protagonist, Patrick Bateman, and his co-worker, Timothy Price, take a cab to Bateman’s fiancee’s home. Price narcissistically sounds off about what he believes to be his virtues: “I’m resourceful … I’m creative, I’m young, unscrupulous, highly motivated, highly skilled. In essence what I’m saying is that society cannot afford to lose me. I’m an asset.” This statement redefines the American dream, as distorted by individualistic consumer capitalism. But Price is unaware that he’s sharing a car with a monster. Bateman’s greater obsession with living the same dream fuels a paranoid, jealous, incandescent anger, and a demented desire for power and domination. This compels him to rape, torture, and murder a multitude of victims.
It’s almost impossible to separate American Psycho from the reaction to it, and examining those objections helps in discerning the subversive nature of the novel. The manipulation of the reader is one of the book’s most arresting features. By presenting us with a glamorous, murderous protagonist (inherited wealth, elite schooling, gym‑hewn body, expensive clothes, competence in the financial world), Bret Easton Ellis rejects the norm. It’s a profile light years removed from the stock reality of the serial killer as a sullen, inadequate loser. Bateman would probably be held up as an archetypal model of American success, were it not for the fact of him being a murdering psychopath. The book directly compares the power-longing, money-grubbing tendencies of the American WASPish elite to mental dysfunction.
Through mixing Bateman’s mundane daily activities with his brutal homicides, American Psycho uncomfortably closes the gap between the psychotic cultural aspects of the US – its wealth fixation, gun obsession, overseas militarism, increasing military fetishism at home – and that of the morbid, depressive preoccupations of the serial killer. The running metaphor is one of a culture succumbing to a materialist consumerism that destroys society by eradicating its human values in favour of an obsession with image.
I recall, around the time of its publication, having an argument with a female friend about the violence towards women in the novel. She said (and I’ve heard this argument several times): “If you are yourself subjected to the violence and misogyny of the patriarchy, then this text becomes not a criticism of, or satire on, late capitalism, with the abuse of women deployed as a metaphor, but a rendering of that abuse, a public display of it for entertainment.”
While it is hard not to be sympathetic to this view, and to accept that the book will resonate, in the context of a patriarchal society, in a very different way with women than men, I argued then, as I will now, that the novel opens up a broad discussion on the workings and limits of fiction.
The first important thing to remember about American Psycho is that everything within the novel is completely constructed, based on the culture surrounding the time during which the book was written. This truism is only worth restating as many people still childishly insist on confusing protagonists with their authors.
The second thing is that the novel is always as much about the reader as the writer. As readers, we filter novels through the lens of our own cultural background and respond to them accordingly. The best of them evoke something strong in both ourselves, and the world around us. Thus there can be no “objective” analysis of the novel.
The book’s detractors were generally polemicists or activists rather than artists. Those who came from a different place, such as the writer Fay Weldon, tended to rejoice in it, for the very same reason their sisters loathed it: “Feminists – that’s me too – see Ellis’s book as anti-women. So it is. So is the world, increasingly.” Had a woman written American Psycho, it probably would have been perceived as a great, visionary feminist work; the tendency to want to shoot the messenger, rather than read the message, comes from a place of politics, not art.
But I believe the main source of unease concerning the novel is that, despite its portrayal of Bateman as superficial, pompous, lying, misogynistic, racist and narcissistic, the narrative style of American Psycho forces the reader to adopt his point of view. As happens in present-tense, first-person narrative, the reader generally assumes the protagonist’s concerns: the “How to get rid of the body” syndrome. Thus, the reader is implicated in both the violence and the objectifying processes of consumer society. But this participation also crucially demands that the reader makes some kind of moral judgment on the nature of these acts. That could be on a spectrum ranging from total disgust to detached indifference, perhaps even to perverse fascination. The point is that the reader is forced to confront his or her emotions in the context of the values of a society that we are all part of.
The objective of pornography is to produce sexual arousal. While American Psycho includes pornographic scenes, they are carefully crafted and placed, and juxtaposed with horror and gore. They are not about a twisted writer’s deviant projections, engineered to fuel the misogynistic fantasies of a (hopefully small) contingent of dysfunctional male readers. In those scenes, I see only a technician at work, albeit one operating in tandem with a monstrous character he has forged as the (appropriate) tool to guide his story and address his themes. “Making a killing” on Wall Street might be a harmless turn of phrase, but it only enjoys traction because of the culture it takes place in. When Bateman answers “Murders and executions” to the question of what he does for a living, his reply is heard as “Mergers and acquisitions”. By reducing his victims to material, Bateman is the alienated, urbane Ivy League serial killer in the suit. Therefore, Easton Ellis was correct to be as graphic as possible in the dismemberment scenes. Without them the novel would have been a compromise and a failure.
But there is little to be gained in trying to analyse the violent scenes in the book. To do so is far more pathological than the scenes themselves, which function solely in order to show the barbaric legacy of the consumerist/imperialist world we live in, the true thematic concern of the novel, by illustrating their divergence from Bateman’s everyday life. Violent scenes will be upsetting to people who are sensitive or lack the ability to abstract themselves from them. Yet they are absolutely essential in American Psycho. In a more general sense, any attempt to prescribe what is and is not acceptable material in a novel must always be inherently censorious and ugly. The scenarios are always played out in the imaginative domain of the reader. Censorship of the novel is therefore a direct attack on thought and creativity.
Bateman, like Tyler Durden in Fight Club, heralded the epoch of the US cable-television antihero. Popular flawed heroes such as Dexter, in whom the psychopathic agent of destruction is recast in a cynical and reactionary way (as the good guy who aims to serve and protect the decent suburbanites), would not have emerged without Bateman. He is the purer version of the Gordon Gekkos, the wolves of Wall Street, and the plethora of movie pantomime dames of corporate capitalist villainy.
The negative reviews the novel received now sound a little like the stampeding of frightened children. That they came from intelligent people who couldn’t get past their own shock and discomfort to ascertain the true nature of it is utterly delicious. This spectacular wrong-footing is a testimony to the power of the book. But in a deeper sense, the moral panic around its publication represented a smokescreen, nothing less than a refusal to engage with the fact that American Psycho, like Fight Club, is essentially a “decline of empire” piece.
America, with its traditions of freedom, has generally, both on the left and right, been uncomfortable with seeing itself as an empire. There exists a huge disconnect between the nation’s self-image and how it is often perceived abroad. The violent contradictions of our post-democratic elitist epoch might have been displaced to an overseas “theatre of war”, but by resolutely associating them with Wall Street privilege and power, Easton Ellis’s novel makes a comment on the ugliness of modern capitalism and its relentless consuming-towards-extinction programme.
Given that the blandness of modern capitalism (depicted brilliantly in American Psycho) involves rendering art into mass entertainment and crass escapism, with the novel now dominated by formulaic genre fiction slotting into marketing holes and peddling easy resolution, Easton Ellis produced a groundbreaking work, with an increasing relevance to the world we live in. He forced us (and himself) to engage with intolerable material, and the anger and fear this generated only came from a place of being struck by the terrible truth of it. We are now a good way into the 21st century, and American Psycho remains literature’s most indispensable and savage exegesis of the society we have created.
•American Psycho is published as a Picador Classic.
Mary Harron’s American Psycho (2000) is a lot of things. A satire about the glittering rot of 1980s America. An excellent showcase for Christian Bale’s skills as an actor. An adaptation that bests the novel it’s based on. But more than anything else the film is a stunning example of the power of the female gaze when it turns its attention to male vanity and violence.
In recent years the term “female gaze” has been used to describe a variety of pop culture breakthroughs, including the romantic drama Outlander, the sci-fi thriller Orphan Black, the subversive fun of Magic Mike XXL, and the hedonistic buddy comedy Broad City. The female gaze centralizes the female perspective, especially during sex scenes, often turning men into sex objects. In American Psycho director Harron and co-screenwriter Guinevere Turner suggest that the female gaze can do much more than this. They turn it on violence and the ugly underbelly of the male ego. This disrupts our expectations, pivoting the storytelling away from obvious choices. The camera lingers on details of shared glances and gestures. It treats costuming as character and finds the aftermath of violence more interesting than the actual act.
American Psycho takes place during the late 1980s and centers on Patrick Bateman (Bale), a 27-year-old Wall Street hotshot driven by greed and an insatiable bloodlust. Harron and Turner surgically alter Bret Easton Ellis’s nearly 400-page novel to make their own leaner, more entrancing creation. That they were able to do this is a triumph in itself. In Ellis’s book, satire gets confused with gross exploitation. Much has been made about how in writing from Bateman’s perspective Ellis focuses intently on the ways women are mutilated, raped, disfigured, and killed. After a point his mayhem doesn’t shock — it bores. Ellis’s sexism is actually most apparent in scenes in which Bateman isn’t killing anyone at all. As the journalist Sady Doyle puts it, Ellis’s American Psycho “can’t be a satire of misogyny, because the author takes his own misogyny perfectly seriously, and has embedded it into the structure of the book itself.”
The film adaptation passed through many iterations before going forward with Harron directing and Bale as the star. Directors like David Cronenberg, Danny Boyle, and even Martin Scorsese were suggested. Stars like Ewan McGregor were courted. Oliver Stone was even set to direct with Leonardo DiCaprio to star, fresh off the mammoth success of Titanic. Can you imagine how different it might have been with that pairing? Could they have resisted portraying Bateman as a sort of cool, deranged version of the worst kind of wish fulfillment? Film and television history is riddled with antiheroes and even outright villains framed in this way — Walter White, Rust Cohle, and Tyler Durden, just to name a few. The filmmakers behind these men sometimes fall for the monsters they purport to be critiquing. Audiences in turn sometimes can’t help but root for them, as a Walter White can get away with things real people can only dream of.
American Psycho resits its antihero’s allure. Harron, Turner, and Bale rightfully see Bateman as pathetic. Just look at the sheen of sweat on his face in the film’s most iconic scene, when he rages, internally, at other men for having better business cards than him. Or how he treats women, from his fiancée, Evelyn (Reese Witherspoon), all the way down to the older Asian woman at the cleaners. He’s the worst aspects of the male id overfed on a steady diet of money, entitlement, and the lie of the American Dream.
Harron eschews the novel’s obsession with outlining Bateman’s most heinous actions, pushing most violence offscreen. We see the blood splatter across Bateman’s face, which can shift from lustful to coolly detached at a clip. Harron smartly lets our imaginations fill in the blank. But the camera does minutely detail the banal decadence of this world through the fine clothing, the sparkling jewelry, the copious drugs. The violence that we are privy to is as emotional as it is visceral. The female gaze is notably concerned with the sort of details that often exist outside of the frame in other films. It’s interested in behavior: You can see it in Bale’s improvised moonwalk before Bateman plants an ax in the skull of Paul Allen (Jared Leto). Or Bateman washing his gloved hands after a co-worker confuses a failed act of violence for a sexual come-on.
American Psycho finds humor in the emotional nihilism of these characters. Harron and Turner understand this milieu so well because knowing how to maneuver around the entitlement of men — whether it be on the street or when pitching a film — is the key to women’s survival. What did Margaret Atwood once say? Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.
In a 2015 interview with Dazed, Turner said, “I very much think [American Psycho is] a feminist film. It’s a satire about how men compete with each other and how in this hyper-real universe we created, women are even less important than your tan or your suit or where you summer. And to me, even though the women are all sort of tragic and killed, it’s about how men perceive and treat them.” For all the trappings of upper-crust 1980s Manhattan, the story is as old as time itself: the evil that men do and how they can get away with it.
There’s something oddly timeless about the drives at Bateman’s core: vanity, greed, misogyny. For all his good looks, money, and Reagan-era traits, Bateman represents a lot of men throughout history. News stories like that of the young Italian woman recently chased down by her ex-boyfriend before being burned alive on the outskirts of Rome suggest a frightening truth. Maybe Bateman’s violence isn’t as outlandish as it first seems.
Of course, none of this would work without Bale being smart enough to understand the gaze he’s operating within. Harron recounted in an interview with Black Book that Bale “had been watching Tom Cruise on David Letterman, and [saw that Cruise] had this very intense friendliness with nothing behind the eyes, and he was really taken with this energy.” Bale plays the character without exhibiting any need to be liked or understood, something it’s hard to imagine a star like DiCaprio daring. DiCaprio takes a swing at this sort of toxic masculinity wrapped in a false power fantasy in Wolf of Wall Street, but he failed to go far enough in embracing the character’s inherent unlikability. Bale’s Bateman is alternatively a mad dog, a shallow con man, and a charismatic mask hiding existential unease whenever the film calls for it. American Psycho recognizes Bateman’s physical beauty and how it can operate as a shield for him. The camera travels over his impressive body, emphasizing how this visage obscures the darkness underneath.
Ellis told Movieline in 2010, “There’s something about the medium of film that requires the male gaze.” What’s hilarious about his line of thinking is that it’s thanks to the subversive female gaze that the adaptation of his novel is such a success. Harron’s film gets under our skin delving into the effects of violence, male vanity, and the horrors of the patriarchy let loose. There is a ripe satire about Reagan’s America and the evil that powerful men get away with buried underneath the (purposeful but wrongheaded) monotony of Ellis’s writing. It just took two women to find it.
American Psycho screens Thursday, June 9 and Sunday, June 12, as part of Film Forum’s “Genre Is a Woman” series.