The 25 Greatest Characters of the Last 20 Years*
2. Patrick Bateman- American Psycho
Most serious readers can cite a novel that not only affected or inspired them, but altered their perception of what a novel was capable of doing. I remember a lot of conversations with my mentor about how Nabokov’s Pale Fire was that book for him in his twenties. The story is part hard-boiled satire and part literary analysis, but it revolves around a poem (called “Pale Fire”) that contains, in an obtuse, condensed form, the keys to the rest of the narrative, which you can’t really unlock without the help of the two different narrators’ explanations.* And even then, even with a knowledge of Nabokov’s own life and Russian history and Pushkin influence, the novel is bottomless. But more important than any of that, at least to my mentor, was that more elemental reaction to a special piece of writing, a “Wait, he can do that?” It’s a child-like reaction that gets us worried about what the rules are.
I had that relationship with Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, and some of you are now rolling your eyes. I get it. Ellis is a provocateur who certainly has his detractors, (His own publisher rejected the novel.) but he wrote what is probably still the most transgressive novel I’ve ever read, and I read it at a time when I needed to know that the rules could be broken. Imagine reading American Psycho when you’re still being assigned Pat Conroy. Imagine reading about a guy slathering a woman’s vagina with cheese, and then trapping a rat he has starved for weeks inside of that vagina—in a Catholic school library. You can’t recreate the subversive quality of that experience, though I certainly tried to imitate Ellis when I was eighteen.
The shocking bits are the first thing people bring up in any discussion of the novel or its 2000 film adaptation—“feed me a stray cat” and Bono morphing into Satan and serving your fiancee a urinal cake covered in chocolate. (That’s what I just did—lead with the shocking bits.) But the novel wouldn’t have lasted or mattered if that’s all it was. What I learned through imitating the oblique, stream-of-consciousness style with which Patrick Bateman narrates is that it’s difficult to do. In part, it’s difficult to communicate that voice because the entire tradition of fiction is based on personalizing a character until the audience can recognize itself in him. That’s how fiction has worked for centuries. American Psycho, on the other hand, is about a character who is depersonalized until he is no longer human.
Most protagonists of contemporary fiction are literate and articulate because most authors are. It’s a bigger challenge for your protagonist to be dumb, especially for the author to respect that simple nature instead of ridiculing it. But Patrick Bateman, who went to Harvard Business School, isn’t dumb. Part of what makes him so dangerous is that he always knows the right thing to say, and he usually says it. No, the more impressive challenge Ellis gave himself was filtering everything through a voice that is not reflective, that actively avoids analyzing the reasons for his actions to the degree that we’re not sure whether or not they’re actually even happening. Ellis writes, in Bateman’s voice:
“There is an idea of a Patrick Bateman, some kind of abstraction, but there is no real me, only an entity, something illusory, and though I can hide my cold gaze and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping yours and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are probably comparable: I simply am not there. It is hard for me to make sense on any given level. Myself is fabricated, an aberration. I am a noncontingent human being. My personality is sketchy and unformed, my heartlessness goes deep and is persistent…”
Bateman only considers the surface-level of his environment, so his narration is equally limited and objective. The form matches the execution. If you didn’t like the book because you couldn’t respond to such an opaque narrator, because you don’t see yourself in him and would never want to, then I’ll accept that. But most other criticisms are off-base to me. For example, some readers object to the violent, misogynistic content. I would tell them that the book needs to exaggerate to create the heightened space that is the engine of any satire, not to mention the exaggeration necessary tor any comedy. If that person still thinks topics like murder and rape can never be funny, then we probably can’t be friends.
The other haters think American Psycho is boring—especially the more postmodern passages, such as the ten-page biography of Whitney Houston or the consumer report of a marble counter-top. To them, I would say that most of the satire comes from how oblivious the world around Bateman is to his evil. Without fleshing those surroundings out, he would be too much to take (if he isn’t already).
Because those surroundings, 1980s Manhattan, are crucial: Bateman is a man of his time. In a society highlighted by class, he is able to seal himself off from anyone who is not of his race, education, and status. (The book does a better job than the movie of conveying his physical disgust toward poor people.) And in a world that is already like that, he has pursued a lifestyle that makes him indistinguishable from anyone else.
Bateman chases the GQ life at the expense of all the other goals normal people strive for. By only valuing the superficial, he isolates himself from all of these people who, by the trappings of his own superficial success, he doesn’t really need to depend on. And he finds out just how hollow an existence that is, which is why he can be as devastated by business cards as a normal person would be by getting dumped by his girlfriend. Once that shift happens, Bateman realizes that no one would care if he were dead and gone, and this epiphany makes him savage and numb, not depressed. It’s the wrong kind of catharsis.
This aspect of the novel, the impersonal lifestyle Bateman cultivates, is, ironically, the most personal point for Ellis. He explains his ’80s period thusly: “I was slipping into a consumerist kind of void that was supposed to give me confidence and make me feel good about myself but just made me feel worse and worse and worse about myself.”
In the controversial aftermath of the novel’s publication, Ellis had to do his best to underline the author/character distinction. He wasn’t bigoted, barbarous, and disturbed: the character was. Send the death threats to Patrick Bateman. But we can see that the germ of the idea, a young, rich, empty, well-dressed White guy in ’80s New York, was basically Ellis. I’m sure he didn’t nail girls’ limbs to the floor; but who knows the dangerous extent to which Bateman’s headspace corresponds with his own, and that’s a fearless thing to even imply in print. What separates Bret Easton Ellis from lesser imitators is not that he can portray such a monster; it’s that he can identify with one.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to return some videotapes.
*- American Psycho was published in 1991, so Bateman is technically more than twenty years old now. I started writing this column in 2010 though. Nanny-nanny-boo-boo.
*- If this device sounds familiar, Pat Conroy ripped it off in The Prince of Tides. I don’t know if that helps.