Ellis, Bret Easton. American Psycho.

NY: Random House, 1991.

Patrick Bateman, age twenty-six, is the ultimate Wall Street consumerist yuppie. He comes from wealth, he has a place in the Hamptons, his family keeps a suite at the Carlyle, he works for a big-name investments firm (doing exactly what is never said), he went to Exeter and Harvard (and Harvard B-School, of course), and he has an obscene amount of money. Of course, he has various obsessions: Getting into the hardest-to-get-into clubs and restaurants (with $30 espressos and $90 pizzas; his Zagat is very well-thumbed), owning the very latest in top-of-the-line appliances and electronics, having the very latest pop tunes on his Walkman, making it with the most gorgeous “hardbodies” he can find, watching a particular talk show every morning, his platinum American Express card, regular facials, Diet Pepsi, the state of his pecs, his tan, and Donald Trump.

And, of course, he obsesses over his wardrobe and personal accessories. (He owns an ostrich condom case.) He knows the designer of every men’s and women’s outfit at a glance — but so do nearly all his associates and acquaintances. (To call them “friends” would be stretching it a bit.)

But Patrick, whom people keep mistaking for someone else (actually, everyone in his set seems constantly to be mistaking people for other people, including their closest coworkers), has a much darker side, having been a successful rapist, sex-torturer, and serial killer since he was fourteen — usually of young women, though business rivals and small children at the zoo had better watch out, too. He recognizes that he’s becoming progressively more violent and uncontrolled and every so often his sanity mask slips and the bloodlust demon within him takes over completely, sending him literally screaming down the street, arms windmilling and Armani silk-cloth trench coat flapping. But, most oddly, no one seems to pick up on any of the clues he’s forever casually dropping, or even notices the severed heads or dead pets he leaves in people’s freezers. He takes piles of blood-soaked clothing and bed linens to a Chinese cleaner, and no questions are ever raised. I mean, he lives in an un-soundproofed apartment, and no one hears the screams? I wondered several times if some of these events might exist only in Patrick’s imagination, that he’s an unreliable narrator, . . . but then there was that private detective who came through his office, making inquiries about a disappeared colleague. Throughout the book, Patrick swings between arrogant superiority and deep inferiority, taunting street people and showing off his knowledge of bottled water — and then dreading doormen, worrying about his unreturned videotape rentals, and cringing when an old girlfriend points out laughingly that he has hung his cherished David Onica painting upside-down. (She doesn’t last the night.)

I remember, when this book was first published, horrified condemnations appeared everywhere. There were indignant complaints from conservative Christian patrons when our library stocked it. The book was “filthy” and “evil” and, therefore, so was the author. It still amazes and appalls me (though I suppose it shouldn’t) how many people are incapable of distinguishing the personality of a novelist from the personalities of the characters he creates. On the other hand, some of the torture-murder scenes are extremely vivid and detailed, and they wouldn’t work at all if they were written in third-person. It’s also true that there isn’t a truly likeable character in the entire book, so one can’t say (or probably shouldn’t say) that one has enjoyed the experience of reading it. It’s unforgettable, though. And sometimes ferociously funny. (I especially like “Another Night,” about restaurant reservations and call-waiting.) But one question: What is the presumably hidden significance of the references to Les Misérables, which appear every couple of pages?


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