American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
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Cannonball Read V: American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis

By bonnie | Book Reviews | January 22, 2013 | Comments ()


You may have asked yourself, "How far is too far?" in literature. Having finished American Psycho last night, I will never need to ask myself that question again. O_O

Picture this: the Marquis de Sade, Hannibal Lecter, and Bellatrix Lestrange have a threeway and produce a child. That child grows up to be Patrick Bateman, the protagonist of American Psycho. Put another way, Patrick Bateman is the American Martin Vanger from Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, except Patrick actually eats a few of his victims. I may have thrown up in my mouth a little just typing that.

The novel's plot, in brief, is this: Patrick Bateman is a yuppie with a vaguely finance-oriented career on Wall Street, working for a firm in the mid-to-late 1980s. He has a lovely (if vacuous) girlfriend/fiancée named Evelyn, high-end gadgets (including the cutting-edge CD player!), a platinum AmEx card, a circle of yuppie friends, a Zagat guide to fine dining, and a cocaine addiction. Oh, and he's also a serial killer who enjoys raping and torturing women, especially sexual partners (and he murders a few homeless guys and a work colleague, too). But Patrick is a profoundly unreliable narrator: he is so often confused with other men, and he occasionally confuses himself with someone else, so that everything we are told is thrown into doubt.

To say anything more would be to give it all away, and if you ever want to read it, I won't deny you the experience. Personally, I cannot decide whether Bret Easton Ellis is a demented genius or a total hack (and I vacillate between the two stances and somewhere in between constantly). If you read American Psycho as a commentary on the vacuousness that materialism and economic greed in the 1980s produces in people (as I am choosing to do, since it dovetails with my doctoral research), then it is a blistering criticism of our society, a sort of cannibalistic, macabre companion to White Noise. When Patrick declares that he specializes in "Murders and Executions," his peers hilariously misinterpret it as "Mergers and Acquisitions." Several times, he gives indicators as to who he is, and no one pays attention. It's an indictment of how deliberately obtuse and willfully ignorant we can choose to be.

Overall, I thought that certain parts of American Psycho showed peculiar insight into human condition, while other parts filled me with profound disgust and loathing. I won't elaborate. But there are dismemberments and nail guns and all sorts of things I can't unread that I never want to think about again.

Let's just say that No Country for Old Men doesn't scare me anymore. The Cement Garden is a child's bedtime story compared to American Psycho. And if you've ever read Ian McEwan's early works, that's saying something.

You can also read this review on my personal blog, The Universe Disturbed (which is now seriously disturbed).

This review is part of the volunteer Cannonball Read V. Read all about it.

(Note: Any revenue generated from purchases made through the affiliate links in this review will be donated in entirety to the American Cancer Society.)

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • Alpimp

    The scene with the rat (if you read the book you KNOW what I mean) is the first thing I ever read that gave me a strong negative physical reaction. I think that anything that can produce a reaction like that (positive or negative) is worth reading.

  • duckandcover

    There's something about Bret Easton Ellis and Chuck Palahniuk that scream "hack" to me, despite remembering that I enjoyed their works before.

  • The Heretic

    Solid review. American Psycho is one of my favorite novels of all time.

    I wrote a review on it a few years ago, and I concluded with the following:

    Perhaps, if Albert Camus were alive today, he’d call Patrick Bateman a post-modern Sisyphus, a character who began the novel as clueless and ambiguous as he ended it. The phrase “ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE,” an allusion to Dante’s Divina Commedia, is the first line of the book, graffiti on a wall. That prepares the reader for a mesmeric experience into a world where nothing is ever solved. Ellis closes the book with the words of a sign: “THIS IS NOT AN EXIT.”

    From here:

  • Danar the Barbarian

    I had never heard of the book when the ads for the movie came out. I always read the book before I see the movie, if possible, so I mentioned to my then-boyfriend (now husband) that I wanted to read it and then see the film. He gave me a sheepish look and went to his bookshelf, where he had his copy of American Psycho stashed behind other, taller books. He explained that he hid it because he was afraid I'd be freaked out if I knew he had read and enjoyed it.

    Well, that sold it, I had to read it myself! And I loved it. It's hilarious at times, it's shocking and barbaric and horrifying, and yes, it's satire if you want to read it that way. I was mesmerized by Bateman's robotic, obsessively-detailed descriptions of his daily routine, spending 3 pages describing his breakfast and workout routine before going to work. His slavish devotion to brand names and trends early on demonstrate the void inside him, which he fills with ever-increasingly disturbing and violent acts ... or does he?

    Now if you'll excuse me, I have some video tapes to return.

  • Frank Booth

    I take it no one has read Blood Meridian here then

  • The only book that made me feel similarly to American Psycho is McCarthy's Child of God. I had to step away for a while...

  • Max

    I have and it's an excellent read. The Judge is one of the most fascinating characters I've read in any book. His opinions on men and war had my head spinning.

  • Frank Booth

    I was beginning to lose hope....yes and yes it is quite a revealing and fascinating book. It is really too bad that people stop at the violence of the images and forget that it is a brilliant reflection on human nature

  • ,

    It's a satire, folks.

  • mats19

    This is one of the first and only maybe 3 books I had to stop reading... and refuse to finish. The thought that a writer could mentally get to the head space of the central character and then ALSO put the reader at that place has scared me more then anything in the entire world. I just couldn't shake the feeling the whole time that MAYBE Ellis kind of is a bit psychotic himself and everything just felt WAY to personal to just be a writer creating this fictional character. Every page made me feel like I was reading someone's testimonial on how to torture and kill ladies and animals. To write something so disturbing and make it believable was just too much. So I feel you it's not a something I would ever recommend to anyone but kudos to you for finishing it with out having a psychotic break.

  • Devin E.

    American Psycho is not a book for everyone - it is chilling in how the writing engulfs you with engaging prose and the violence is only slowly brought out (no one dies for the first 100 pages); but when the violence begins it comes in ever-increasing waves of overwhelming cathartic rage that will leave you chilled to the bone.

    I think the violence that the main character displays is supposed to be paramount to the perspective he has on reality and the values he has in it - if the only emotions you feel are greed and hate, then it seems a logical extension that violence is going to be the only cathartic experience you can have that encapsulate those emotions. And the violence is directed at those that should be sources of positive reinforcement in ones lives; lovers, business associates, the weak/poor/innocent.

    I personally found this to be one of the most challenging books to ever read - at times it is hilarious, at times overwhelmingly disturbing (the only book I've ever had to put down and take a break from because it was so emotionally unnerving at times), at times it is fascinatingly banal, as the main character Bateman is only able to display real positive emotion in chapters he writes about contemporary pop artists of the time (Whitney Houston, Huey Lewis and the News, Vesuvio). This is Bret Easton Ellis' veiled criticism at the values of the shallow and narcissist, who can't find love and authentic emotion except in figments of pop imagination, which are false representations for authenticity (designed to be sold first and foremost, appreciated as art secondary).

    For those willing to push their boundaries of perception and challenge their good taste it is a must read - I'm interested to read "Blood Meridan" now that someone commented that it makes American Psycho look like a bed-time story. If it's anything like American Pyscho it will be a disturbing journey that gives perspective by engaging the reader in a disturbing way that people have a fear of confronting.

  • Frank Booth

    Thank you for stating you also found it hilarious. I was pretty self conscious about admitting it but it actually made me laugh quite a few times. But its batshit crazy yucks. Again the whole urinal cake scene made me laugh until I hurt.

  • Devin E.

    There are numerous parts I found myself laughing out loud, though not the rape/murder scenes obviously.

    The way he talks down to people that he feels socially above and they just take it is great absurd farce i.e. one couple he is dining with he basically asks the man him which stage production of "Le Miz" he enjoyed better as if it were the most important question in the world.

    The scene at the nightclub where him and his friends marvel that some models they are hanging out with are capable of having an actual conversation, though only about the values and differences of different types of fur.

    Also, his fallback when questioned about what he was doing last night (usually committing a murder) of "I had to return some videotapes" is both disturbing and ridiculously amusing.

    Twisted, wicked, crazy stuff, but I truly believe the book was written as a first-person indictment of the worst parts of high-culture from the 80's manifested through a psychopath.

  • Fredo

    Part of the Ellis' point is that Bateman is disconnected from society. Hence no one believes him when he says the horrible things he's done or think he's joking. But that disconnection also applies to everyone else around him. All his friends are stereotypical 80s yuppies: they're into making money, they're into cocaine and fine dining and they're into labels. They can't tell one another apart, so they'll end up talking shit about someone to their face without realizing it. The only way to stand out is to have a better ensemble or have access to reservations at the finest restaurants or to have a bigger client.

    When you live a life as empty as Bateman lives, well, it's not surprising he loses his mind. (And I read it as none of the things he says happens, but are all fantasies in his head).

  • tmoney

    I always thought there was something wrong with me because I read this book in High School and I loved it. I think it was because I knew it was wrong. However, I can't seem to watch the movie. I think seeing the things that were written about would turn my stomach more than reading it did. To this day, I love the music analysis and the fascination with the business card, but I've never enjoyed any other Bret Easton Ellis book or film.

  • TheMudshark

    The violence in the movie is very mild compared to the book. None of the truly horrifying scenes are included. It´s more like a black comedy.

  • annoyingmouse

    I read this in college and it fucking ruined me. At the time I thought it was brilliant, but I don't think I could ever bring myself to read certain parts again. Thanks to Bale's performance, I really do prefer to watch the film.

  • Lee

    Bale's performance is probably my favourite performance of any movie. He knocked it so hard out of the ball park, I can go back and watch that movie again and again and never get bored.

  • ZombieNurse

    I agree about the narrator being unreliable. It made me wonder if we were supposed to believe the things he described were, maybe, all in his head. He seemed like kind of a dull, normal guy except for the homicidal mania. I kind of got the impression that maybe it was some kind of inner fantasy world where he could be more than some boring finance guy. Where he controlled life and death in an ultimate display of power that he couldn't achieve through his regular life. There seemed to be such a separation between his regular life and his "other activities" and he never got caught. Its been such a long time since I read it, so I may be forgetting some pivotal point, but to me the whole violent thing seemed to be a fantasy world to me. Of course, maybe that's just my own kind of wishful thinking because it was such a disturbing book!

  • Max

    The seemingly endless descriptions of each characters material possessions made reading a chore to say the least.

  • I found it amusing. Imagine Bale's tone & delivery.

  • Feralhousecat

    I read this book years ago while on a controversial authors
    kick and it's the only time I have ever thought to myself "If I were
    married to the man who wrote this, I would file for divorce."

    It wasn't just WHAT was written but HOW it was written. I couldn't shake the idea that the gross parts involving women were the
    parts he enjoyed writing and the rest of the book was just there to
    justify the fantasies.

    I've always felt that the movie was infinitely better and the key reason was the director was a woman. She managed to not drown the satire of the story in a sea of rage-filled misogyny.

  • TheMudshark

    I agree, but I also think that the misogyny is an integral part of the character and the violence is what elevated (if you can call it that) the book from just being a piece of satire to something truly disturbing and a masterful commentary on capitalism. As a male, I admit that I also found the sex scenes to be titillating up to some point, only to be disgusted when the extreme violence set in. In that way it also works as a criticism of commercialized sexuality.

  • jcoa2

    Definitely a rare case where the movie is better than the book. I got about a third of the way through the book before I finally threw it across the room.

  • Frank Booth

    If you think you have reached an apex as far as disturbing reads are concerned then may I suggest that you give Blood Meridian a try. American Psycho is a bedtime story next to that.

    Going back to the book though, it is particularly enjoyable if read with Christian Bale's characteristic delivery in mind. Favorite part : Its so...minty !

    Actually made me LOL in the bus. People were looking at me with very worried eyes

  • Danar the Barbarian

    Yeah, I was really looking forward to the minty Godiva-covered "dessert" scene in the movie, and was disappointed they excluded it. I guess it didn't add much to Bateman's character development, but come on, I was laughing so hard reading that! My husband and I often say, "It's so ... minty!" when eating anything peppermint.

  • I read it with Bale's mannerisms and delivery too however there was a lot of stomach churning violence.

  • Frank Booth

    There is a lot of violence for sure. I just found that a lot of it was kinda toned down by the minutiae of his descriptions. I feel as well that the movie has a much tighter pacing as opposed to the book. At certain points it almost feels like rambling.

  • TheMudshark

    The parts that could be construed as rambling are i.m.o. necessary to convey the utter shallowness and boredom of the protagonist´s luxury life.

  • Lee

    Agreed. This was one of those rare instances where the movie was superior to the book, due to the pacing, the humour and the toned down violence. The zoo scene made me sick to my stomach.

  • the dude

    I love American Psycho, but it's not that horrible to read. There is one horrible scene in a zoo. I won't give it away but it broke my heart

  • Sassy Rouge

    The zoo scene is where I have stopped reading, three times. I can't finish the book because of it.

  • Less Lee Moore

    Oh god. I had to stop after the caged rat scene. I really couldn't go any further. I don't know about the zoo scene. THAT SAID, I think this book is brilliant if also utterly repugnant.

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