A controversial novel which was made into a very popular horror/ slasher movie.
Late 1980s (the novel was published in 1991). Patrick Bateman, narrator and protagonist, is a 26 year old man with a private fortune who 'works' at an investment form on Wall Street; his life mainly revolves around eating at expensive restaurants in Manhattan while debating the finer points of food, etiquette, fashion and music. It is an utterly hedonistic lifestyle. He is angered and horrified by the beggars on the streets, often insulting them, sometimes teasing them by offering them money only to snatch it away. To compensate for the meaninglessness of his lifestyle, Bateman fantasises about extreme violence: another part of his life is his obsession with renting videotapes of hardcore pornography and slasher movies. These fantasies initially only intrude slightly into his long monologues: "For an appetizer I ordered radicchio with some kind of free-range squid. Anne and Scott both had the monkfish raguot with violets. ... Scott and Anne insisted that we all order some kind of black and medium-rare redfish, a Deck Chairs specialty which was, luckily for them, an entree on one of the mock menus that Jean made up for me. if it hadn't, and if they nevertheless insisted on my ordering it, the odds were pretty good that I would have broken into Scott and Anne's studio at around two this morning - after Late Night with David Letterman - and with an ax chopped them to pieces, first making Anne watch Scott bleed to death and gaping chest wounds, and then I would have found a way to get to Exeter where I would pour a bottle of acid over their son’s slanty-eyed zipperhead face. Our waitress is a little hardbody who is wearing gold faux-pearl tasseled lizard sling-back pumps. I forgot to return my videotapes to the store tonight and I curse myself silently while Scott orders two large bottles of San Pellegrino.” (Deck Chairs) These fantasies become more obtrusive and eventually degenerate into episodes of sex and violence getting progressively worse: a threesome with two prostitutes that ends in Bateman hurting, perhaps maiming them, the murder of a fellow worker with an ax, the attempted strangulation of another (Bateman is put off when this man assumes that this is an attempted homosexual pickup), the blinding of a beggar, the torture and murder of a girlfriend, the torture and murder and cannibalism of another girlfriend, and a multiple shoot-out involving a street busker, policemen and bystanders.
These scenes are graphically described and horrific and I understand why some publishers and booksellers have refused to deal with this book. The question always has to be: is the sex and violence gratuitous or does it serve an essential part of the artwork? The film toned down some of the most gruesome aspects. I suspect that there could have been considerably less detail without having a negative impact on the quality of the book.
But the graphic details are how the author achieves verisimilitude. This is also achieved by the inclusion of real people (Tom Cruise lives in Bateman's apartment block; they meet in the lift; Bateman is in the front row of a U2 concert and his women guests are propositioned by bouncers on behalf of the band; bizarrely Donald Trump, who never actually appears, is Bateman's idol) and real contexts. It is further developed by the minutiae of cultural references: Bateman describes the clothing worn by everyone he meets (see the description of the waitress above) in obsessive detail, especially when describing brand names. There are also a number of music artists whose life work is reviewed by Bateman, again in minute and obsessive detail.
And, paradoxically, this was the point at which I began to suspect a rat. No one could know quite so much about what someone was wearing. Its attempt at hyper-realism itself seemed unrealistic.
Other details began to niggle. Bateman complains to a laundry that they haven't properly cleaned his blood-stained clothes. As his crimes begin to mount up, there seems to be no hue and cry. He lugs bodies down elevators, unnoticed. He slashes the throat of a boy in the zoo and then pretends to be a doctor caring for the dying boy, unsuspected. His flat is covered with blood and body parts and his cleaner just scrubs away stoically. One of his victims appears to have been seen alive. Although the film treated Bateman's episodes of violence as fact, I began to suspect that they were psychotic episodes in which fantasy replaced reality and that Bateman was a highly unreliable narrator.
At which point the book begins to look a lot more like an extended metaphor for American society. Bateman represents yuppies, or perhaps Americans in general. His lifestyle is the ultimate in hedonism and he is obsessed with the minutiae of etiquette, and fashion, and food. But Bateman isn't happy. There is a deep emptiness when it comes to the meaning of life: this book is fundamentally nihilist. His pursuit of pleasure becomes more and more frenetic and he experiences huge anxieties when, for example, he can't book a table at one of the poshest restaurants, or when someone else has a higher credit rating than he has. His descent into psychotic violence could be seen as a metaphor for capitalist America exploiting, raping and destroying the environment. And, there is a fundamental lack of consequence. Bateman repeatedly gets away with one crime after another; even a confession is ignored and joked about.
Which makes it scary that Donald Trump is seen by the author in 1991 as the ultimate idol for psychopathic hedonists. Prophecy?
The book doesn't really work in terms of individual moments because it achieves its effects by long paragraphs. But:
- "Outside Texarkana a cheerful black bum motions for me, explaining that he's Bob Hope's younger brother, No Nope." (Paul Owen)
- "It's not the seals I hate - it's the audience's enjoyment of them that bothers me." (Killing Child at Zoo)
- "lately I can't help noticing them everywhere - in business meetings, nightclubs, restaurants, in passing taxis and in elevators, on line at automated tellers and on porno tapes ... they are prey." (Chase, Manhattan)
If this is an allegory, this is a hugely important novel about the state of America in the late 1980s (and now?). But I don't think the sex and violence needed to be so horrid or so lovingly described.
December 2020; 384 pages
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