This Is Not an Exit: Exploring the Shifting Reality of American Psycho
The novel American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis from 1991 is a first-person narrative set in elite Manhattan society at the end of the 1980s. The narrator, Patrick Bateman, is a young Wall St. investment banker, already at the upper echelon of the privileged gentry, born rich and getting richer. He is obsessed with status: compulsively listing his belongings, exhaustively explaining his process of using the items and often listing their prices while commenting on the features and belongings of others as relating to their particular status. He has all the outward signs and material possessions of any one of his peers and would also be indistinguishable from any of them in most respects if not for his predilection for savage violence and gruesome murder, often after engaging in utterly horrific sex acts. His bloodlust is mostly sated upon prostitutes and women (which is why this novel caused fury among Feminist advocates and critics), yet in many cases he uses murder to eliminate those he perceives as socially or materially superior to him. In some instances his murders are spree-killings, motivated simply by his opportunistic cruelty.
The narration of Bateman over the course of the novel changes greatly. In the book’s first scene he describes a night on the town with his Wall St. cohorts, engaging in the quintessential 80’s activities: drinks, cocaine and women. He speaks of their activities and conversation in rational, even at times quite humorous tones. However, by the end of the book, Bateman has broken down completely, claiming to have been followed for six blocks by a park bench which also spoke to him, as well as having been told by an ATM to ‘Feed me a stray cat’ and ‘Cause a terrible scene at Sotheby’s’ (396). This radical degradation of Batemans perception of reality is a major aspect of the story. Another example of Bateman’s instability is highlighted by a repeated narrative pattern in which Bateman describes his most vicious and sexually perverse acts of violence, then follows with a chapter detailing the career of various popular musical acts of the 1980’s, specifically Whitney Houston, Genesis and Huey Lewis & the News. The significance of this disconnective shift possibly denotes an underlying definition for Batemans’ psychosis in terms of how his violence could be interpreted as an un-avoidable by-product of the fractured, yet insular world which Bateman inhabits.
In my paper, I will attempt to quantify Patrick Bateman’s role in the world he describes. I will use close reading of the text to examine the ways in which he interacts with other characters, and compare that with his ‘behavior’ as narrator. Additionally, I will pay close attention to how other characters interact with one another. In many scenes they mistake names and faces, a testament to the loose social structure and the ubiquitous need to have the same haircut and wear the same suit. I will link that confusion to Bateman’s disconnection from the story he narrates and will use textual evidence to prove this social confusion as a likely answer to why he is never apprehended for his crimes. Also, I will examine the possibility that he (as he describes himself) does not exist within the framework of his world, that he (as a character and narrator) is lying about his exploits, or perhaps his character is not connected to the world he describes, and is merely the construct of an outsider observing the socialite yuppies of Manhattan and his description of his violence is delusional imagination. I plan on using theories put forth by C. Namwali Serpell concerning Ellis’ use of repetition in the trope of the narrative, specifically in Bateman’s repeated description of the daytime talk show which he watches daily and his compulsive and ever-present need to return videotapes. I hope to bring into conversation the seminal essay by Elizabeth Young: The Beast in the Jungle, the Figure in the Carpet from 1992, in which she describes American Psycho in terms of postmodernism and delves heavily into the nature of Patrick Bateman both as a character and a narrator of this story.