A caricature is not the same thing as a character. The ability to satirize an entire culture requires the creation of a caricature, the embodiment of all that is wrong with that culture. The more depraved the targeted society, the more depraved the embodiment must be. American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis targets the vapid, shallow, and disposable 1980s in a way only transgressive fiction can. It is far from a perfect novel but it is a significant addition to its genre.
Transgressive fiction is focused on pushing buttons, on breaking thru taboos with extreme behavior. Graphic violence and graphic sexuality are the norm of this genre. I would be remiss if I did not discuss the negatives of this novel out front. Praising a novel like American Psycho is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, I thoroughly enjoyed Ellis’ sharp critique of the 1980s overwhelming void of humanity. On the other hand, the actions of the lead character Patrick Bateman, particularly toward women, is utterly reprehensible.
The misogyny found in American Psycho is rampant and pervasive. Bateman’s attitude toward women (which is shared by all but one of his colleagues) is the same as his attitude toward every facet of his life: completely disposable. It doesn’t help matters that the majority of women depicted in the novel are flat and vacuous. I think Ellis captured a certain train of thought that men of the 1980s still carried regarding women. A decade removed from the pro-feminist movement of the 1970s saw women becoming a larger part of the corporate environment. The disregard and blatant hatred Bateman and his fellow corporate executives show women is emblematic of a deeply-seeded patriarchy that still rears its head from time to time even today.
The novel starts rather slow, establishing how Bateman’s mind works under normal circumstances. The cursory descriptions on fashion as a means of identification are sharp precisely because identity in this novel’s world is so nebulous. What you wear, what restaurants you go to, the albums you purchase, the sound systems used to play those albums, etc. are markers of status and wealth but ultimately have no real value. Even something as innocuous and mundane as showing off a new business card becomes an opportunity for a pissing contest. The lack of physical description of the characters would normally be a major negative for me but it works for this novel. Characters are routinely mistaken for each other. Conformity rather than individuality is the norm here, making these characters interchangeable. Bateman’s extreme behavior is a direct assault on this blanket uniformity. He becomes a form of consumer culture: a ravenous beast of a man rather than fully-formed man. He becomes an empty albeit fashionable suit.
Extreme violence and mental instability often go hand-in-hand. As the novel progresses Bateman’s mental capacities fracture, making him an unreliable narrator. During an extended scene of mayhem the narration style changes from first-person to the third-person to show the separation from reality that Bateman is experiencing. His murders become increasingly diabolical, more sadistic, and less satisfying. The reader is left to wonder how much of Bateman’s activities are real or just deranged fantasies. There’s no comeuppance for his actions, no punishment meted out. This novel is less interested in punishing the lead character and more interested in condemning the culture that created such a beast.
American Psycho is a provocative novel in so much as it’s meant to provoke a response. Ellis wrote a story that shows the lack of humanity that seemed to be celebrated in the 1980s. Selfishness, lust for money, and the trappings of consumerism were the targets of the novel, not female degradation as some critics have suggested. Ellis metaphorically gutted the decade, pulling back the skin and showing the visceral, all-consuming emptiness at the core of excess.