22 June 2010
To Business Meeting
This covers roughly the first quarter of the book. It’s horrible, and the degree of horror is the point. And, somehow, I don’t think we’ve seen anything yet: Ellis is getting us used to his first-person narrator’s psychopathic view of the world by having him feed it to us in small doses. For the first few chapters what we get sounds like fantasy. It isn’t pretty, but in the US in the last decade of the 20th Century this man’s way of talking is hardly different from anybody else’s. The novel starts off with a different character speaking, and what he says is so nasty and anti-social we could be forgiven for thinking that the psycho is this other man…. Ellis is letting us know from the start that we’re not in Kansas any more, so it isn’t any kind of shock when we hear what our man would like to do to the people who get on his nerves. Or simply happen to cross his path.
Is it all talk? Up to Business Meeting he only very rarely mentions his killing-sprees and we’ve been shown, as it were, no proof of them. Fairly early on we get to see a child’s bloodstained jacket, grotesquely out of place in his pristine, expensively accessorised apartment. But that’s all we get. The scene in the dry cleaners focuses on a bloodstained sheet from his own bed – but we know he suffers from spontaneous nosebleeds, so the evidence is circumstantial. Ok, when a chance acquaintance comes into the shop and sees the sheet our man feels he has to pretend it’s some kind of fruit juice or sauce but, if we want, we can explain this away as embarrassment. We’ve only got his word for it that the stains are anything beyond what a nosebleed might cause: Ellis is having these murders, if that’s what they are, take place so far offstage we can’t be sure yet.
Not that it matters. To be honest, I think he probably will turn out to be a psychopathic murderer, but whether he does or not, the world Ellis has created is the same hellish place. Whether the murders are real or fantasy, absolutely everything about this place is horrible, not just our man’s murderous imagination. That’s the real point of this first quarter of the novel. These characters are interchangeable – it’s one of Ellis’s running gags that in their Armani or Calvin Klein uniforms, they’re constantly mistaking one another for different people entirely – and no single one of them is any better or worse. This is made clear in another running gag: the way they all deal with beggars on the streets usually involves pretending to give something, then laughing as you take it away again.
Ellis’s New York is a satirical exaggeration of a self-centred, materialistic world we all recognise. So, what’s so hellish? Isn’t a reader like me in danger of confusing the morally vacuous – the endless lists of designer-label clothes, hi-fi equipment, grooming products – with the kind of moral pollution you used to get in religious tracts? Well…. Isn’t that what Ellis is doing, quite deliberately? We have a protagonist whose principal characteristics are an obsession with pointless but essentially harmless materialism – the phrase ‘so last month’ could have been invented by him – and an obsession with at least the idea of torture and horrific murder. If this is satire – and I don’t know what it is if it isn’t satire – Ellis can do what he wants. In this universe, moral vacuity morphs into what we used to call evil without us really noticing.
Ellis is careful about how he does this. 90-plus per cent of what his characters get up to, including our man, is tediously recognisable. I.e. it makes anybody reading this stuff recognise how tedious is the lifestyle being portrayed – and it also makes quite a lot of it simply tedious to read. We recognise Gordon Gecko from Wall Street, the self-styled Master of the Universe from Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities (a title that invites us to see the hell in these other people). All Ellis has done is extend the curve just a little further, so that status-anxiety in this world has mutated into a kind of status terror. And with it goes status terrorism every time they look at their colleagues’ new suit or haircut. Or tie, or cufflinks, or business card, for god’s sake.
Our man (I really ought to try and remember his name) fits into this world perfectly. The first time he lists the designer label of every item of clothing someone is wearing it’s quite funny, but soon it becomes almost pathologically obsessive. I think it was the scene in the bathroom, in which he describes the products he uses in his cleaning and pampering regime, when I seriously started to worry. That’s what Ellis wants us to do, obviously. However, it’s quite a step from narcissistic egoism and OCD – my, don’t we love our terminology? – to murderously psychopathic tendencies…
So Ellis throws a few other titbits into the mix. There’s moral anomie: early on, at a dinner-party with people he doesn’t like he comes out with a highly recognisable kind of left-of-centre liberalism you sometimes get in New York and then, without missing a beat, he segues into the kind of tub-thumping a right-wing Republican would be proud of. Later, there’s masturbation, pornography and sex, all of which are what our man makes use of instead of relationships. I can imagine Ellis’s original readers having been perturbed by the pornography he describes – and maybe it’s a sign of how accurate the satire is that the Internet has made the activities in the VHS videos he describes seems commonplace now. And we get an ambiguous insight into something – I’m not sure what – when he realises he’s forgotten to take one back to the store: his fury at himself is out of all proportion.
We get a different insight when he describes sex with a woman who isn’t his girlfriend. (Sex-partners seem as interchangeable as everybody else in Ellis-land.) Earlier, she’d seemed almost OD-ed on Lithium, and he’s interested in nothing about her except her body, bits of which he describes as graphically as you’d expect. The actual penetrative sex is another of Ellis’s jokes: first, our man has to get out quick: he’s forgotten the spermicidal jelly and he needs to find some in an unfamiliar bathroom cabinet. Then she needs to be sure that the condom is of the right design to hold the ‘ejaculate’ (her word), and makes him withdraw and show her… and so on. At one point she appears to suggest that she hates the thought of pregnancy only because her new designer bikini won’t fit. As so often, our man’s world-view is by no means out of the ordinary: a different possible sex-partner refuses to speak all night when he hasn’t got the booking at the restaurant he’d bribed her with.
Anything else? Clubs, restaurants, drink, drugs. Not work, certainly: the chapter called Business Meeting ends once he’s listed the labels of what everybody’s wearing, and elsewhere we only get a very occasional mention of an account or a bank. The one time we do follow our man into the office, all he’s interested in is booking that day’s restaurants and telling us how much his secretary loves him. (He thinks all women are in love with him, another running gag.) This non-job is simply there for Ellis to let his man have the money he needs, and we are supposed to hate every bit of it.
I’m sure there were complaints about this book when it first appeared – and maybe I’ll be complaining when I’ve read more of it – but it strikes me as highly moral in its way. Ellis makes it perfectly clear, almost from the start, that this won’t do. As in other satire of disgust – I’m thinking of Swift – there’s an implied judgment by the author who’s presenting us with all this nasty stuff. If we recognise some of the behaviour, well, maybe we need to get our house in order.
To Birthday Brothers
In fact, I only read the first sentence of Birthday Brothers, to check that the brother he mentions in the previous chapter is real – or as real as anything else in this circle of hell. He is – which means the cipher that is Patrick Bateman is from a family, for goodness’ sake. Gross.
Just over half-way through and, ok, it’s true: he really does murder people. And dogs. As if ‘true’ means anything: Ellis might or might not want us to believe the stuff this man is describing, but – and you’ll have to bear with me a minute here – if it isn’t the narrator’s fantasy it’s the author’s. Here I am, reading graphic descriptions of sadistic murders and… and what? What do I do? It’s only words on paper (or words in air – I’m listening to an audio-book) and I can stop doing this any time I like. But I’m interested. This novel is a cultural phenomenon I feel I ought to know about, and despite the fact that – like so many cultural phenomena of the last two decades – there’s a lot of graphic sex and violence in it, I want to engage with it.
Why bother, when some of it is so nasty? Maybe I’m carrying on because I want to know whether it’s any good or not. (I go to Coen brothers movies for the same reason, and am often just as bemused by, say, the psychopathic killer in No Country for Old Men.) At the moment I’m rather bored, and I want to know whether that’s how I’m supposed to feel or whether, to be honest, it just goes on a bit. Our man – Bateman rather than Ellis – is a geek, and geeks are boring: that description of why Genesis are the greatest rock band of the 80s is virtuoso stuff, because we can laugh at his geekiness. But usually he’s just boring.
And I still can’t really decide how reliable Bateman is as a narrator. He describes his exploits in hideous detail, and occasionally mentions the (rather low-key) precautions he takes to avoid mess and to avoid getting caught. But we don’t have to believe him – or, for that matter, the possibly unreliable author who wants us to believe this nonsense. It’s satire, stupid? Or stupid, heavy-handed hype?
Anyway, what happens? Pretty much the same as in the first quarter or so. The running gags I’ve already mentioned carry on, as do a couple I forgot to mention before. There’s Les Miserables, a poster for which appears in the very first chapter and which is incessantly playing, or being advertised, or talked about, or having different versions compared. How we laughed. There’s our man’s obsession with Donald Trump: he gets a genuine adrenalin rush if he thinks Trump might be in the same restaurant. There’s the tabloid-style tv show he watches every morning, designed, he says, to make housewives shocked.
There’s the constant mismatch between his violent or pornographic trains of thought and the recognisably mundane everyday quality of his usual concerns, which are just like everybody else’s. His fantasies of murder are becoming more frequent now, I think, alongside the ones he actually commits – although these aren’t so much gags as things to make us gag. (Sorry.) And we’re seeing more of his habit of telling people what a psychopath he is: they either don’t hear him or assume it’s just his off-the-wall sense of humour. And there are leitmotifs, like the constant objectifying references to hardbodies, the strange irritation he displays if he has to pay fines on his video rentals, his unbelievable routine hatred of ethnic minorities and ‘faggots’. (Unbelievable? No more than all the rest of it, I suppose.)
He isn’t alone in displaying an obsession with product. At one level – or in some chapters – this novel is a satire on consumerism, and twice in this section we hear other characters spouting the language of advertising copy. One man describes a holiday in the Bahamas, and every sentence he says could have come out of a brochure. Later, Bateman is bored by the way two women talk about clothes, such as which furs are stylish. From the language they use they’ve swallowed in their entirety magazine articles by style experts who hold the secret to being in the know. It’s a holy grail for these people – our man and everybody else: to be able to pronounce with authority on whatever anybody else is insecure about. It’s imperative that you know about the must-have style items, the must-see movies, the must-buy CDs and the must-read books. Because, oh yes, cultural products are never anything more than products in this universe.
There are other new things. The murders and mutilations, not usually in that order. The pornographic sex – as in, sex exactly as portrayed in porn movies. And the elements of farce, in which he gets knotted up into the kind of excruciating faux pas you might get in a less cosy version of Frasier. When, implausibly, he puts his hands round the neck of an acquaintance to strangle him in the toilets – it’s Lewis, whose girlfriend he shagged earlier in the novel – the man is amazed and thrilled, because he thinks Bateman is hitting on him. How we laughed – especially when Lewis is still referring to the incident months later.
Another thing we notice is how, beneath his apparent assurance and confidence – about, say, what items of clothing are appropriate to wear together – it seems to be crucial to him to impress. Often the desire doesn’t match the execution, like the time he wants to leave the Christmas party hosted by Evelyn, the one who made such a fuss when he hadn’t got a reservation at the right restaurant. (That was another time he wanted the status-enhancing thrill of impressing her, but simply didn’t have what it takes.) This time he tries to commandeer other people’s limos to make a stylish exit with her. All it does is cause embarrassment: in the first one she’s touched by the champagne he’s laid on, before they have to make a hasty exit, and in the second she’s thrilled into speechlessness and tears by the Tiffany’s necklace she finds. If there’s one thing that’s undeniably true about our man, it’s that he’s inept.
We don’t know how, or whether, he explains his way out of this scrape, any more than we know how he’s supposed to get away with any of his crimes and misdemeanours. There doesn’t have to be any logic in a universe in which, basically, a character presents us with all the deadly sins in turn (although vanity and pride usually go together). It’s not a rational world, it’s an exhibition with episodic chapters like separate displays. It all goes to bring off Ellis’s trick of somehow equating – as in giving moral equivalence to – Bateman’s nerdy, lovingly catalogued materialism and his nerdy, lovingly catalogued psychopathic adventures.
To Huey Lewis and the News
This chapter – it’s the third of the music interludes, and by far the most crass – ends about nine-tenths of the way through the book. It comes, just like the other two, after a chapter in which Bateman/Ellis has cranked up the horror another notch – and the tenuous hold on things that our man has managed for most of the novel has been slipping for some time now. And in this half of the novel we realise that, probably, none of what he’s been telling us is true. I can’t tell you how disappointing that is. Sure, there have been plenty of clues in the first half – he always describes things in horror clichés, he always gets away with his crimes, however flimsy his precautions to avoid detection – but, well, plenty of action movies are just as implausible and we buy into them because they’re entertaining.
Now, the implausibility has been racked up to a level at which we have a decision to make. Either Bateman is living in a real world, in which none of what he tells us can be true because a) it reads like fantasy and b) he simply wouldn’t get away with any of it, or he’s living in a fictional hell in which not only he, but the people around him, are as damned as he is. ‘Abandon hope all ye who enter here’ is the helpful warning at the start of the novel, and I’d hoped that Ellis was giving us a bigger clue than the throwaway joke implies.
However. The way he describes his gun-toting night on the rampage puts it beyond doubt. Now, in his narrative, he becomes ‘Bateman’, and the third person description could be of one of the violent movies he’s so fond of. (Modern readers might be spooked by the similarity of his little adventure to video games like Hitman and Grand Theft Auto, which didn’t appear until over a decade after this novel. Except, of course, they owe almost everything to the movies of the 80s.) The police-car chases, the helicopters, the picturesque injuries and flowerings of blood are as much a feature of this genre as his sexual exploits are of the pornography our man rents obsessively. (That’s another clue, now I think of it: if he’s so busy, how come he has so much time to watch them?) But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Ellis is a careful writer. Take the degrees of horror: from the start I wrote about the small doses he feeds us to get us used to Bateman’s mind-set and, basically, he adds a bit every few chapters until the doses aren’t small any more. If we’re shocked by the sadism in the first half of the novel, well, in the second half Ellis seems to be playing a game of dare. For some reason I thought of those people, invariably men, who like to rack up the hotness of the curries they eat. Do you give up yet? I don’t play that game, and I didn’t really want to play this one either. It’s particularly hard to listen to this stuff, because you can’t skid your eyes over the page to get a general impression. Atrocity follows atrocity, and you have a choice of either eating the whole meal or giving up. I gave up on two of the episodes, during which Bateman turns his apartment (or that of one of his earlier victims) into a charnel-house. I’m sure I’ll come back to the violence later.
Ellis is orchestrating a lot of other threads as well. Interspersed with hardcore scenes are occasional bits of plot when this book nearly (i.e. not quite) imitates something that’s recognisably a novel. There’s rom-com, like one scene that is a reminder of the farce with the Christmas limos: Bateman uses a trick – at the same time mischievous and desperate – to get him and his secretary into New York’s most exclusive restaurant. They both get thrown out. She thinks it’s hilarious, and later tries to get him into her apartment – but, in an uncharacteristic move, he demurs. Of course, in a different dimension of reality, it might be that he’s just shy – and if we stay in that dimension in the Lewis thread, we’re in a whole new ball-game. There’s a farcical moment as the closet gay falls to his knees before Bateman in an up-market store, and our man (if we’re to believe him) threatens to kill him if he keeps doing it. But, come on: from the start, Lewis has got it right about Bateman’s motives for putting his hands round his neck. As a murder attempt it never did seem plausible: Lewis isn’t the only closet gay in the village. What larks.
We can stay here a bit longer for the Harvard old flame thread. Bateman is uncharacteristically flustered when she first appears (i.e., in reality, not uncharacteristically at all), but he gets a date with her. He is so full of trepidation before their date he’s having panic attacks, but he manages to get himself to the restaurant. None of his anxiety makes sense in Bateman’s own reality so, predictably, he gets back on to more comfortable ground before long. The evening mutates into something weird as, first, he offers her an obscenely racist poem; then she tells him she’s seeing the chef/owner of his favourite restaurant, the same one he took his secretary to; then he goes into one of his horrorshow riffs about how he murders her. (This was the first time I decided to fast-forward to avoid the details.)
Later there’s the brief firing-up of a detective fiction thread, characteristically signalled for us by the chapter title Detective. In fact, it’s only a private eye, trying to find out about a man Bateman allegedly killed half-way through the novel. A private eye? For something as serious as this? (And guess what? The missing man has been seen in London.) There’s also a family thread, which begins in Birthday Brothers, when we find out for the first time that Bateman has a private income – and later, someone mentions that he doesn’t have to work. His brother, younger than Bateman, is more successful – as signalled by the way he gets instant reservations at the exclusive restaurant Bateman can never get into. We realise why Bateman can watch tv and do two hours in the gym before work: the ‘job’ he’s been given doesn’t give him anything to do.
Bateman’s relationship with Evelyn, which seemed almost non-existent in the first half, develops along lines that almost (i.e. not quite) seem conventional. They have a summer in the Hamptons, and it’s nearly romantic – until Bateman gives us his version of how he drowns the puppy he’s bought for her, and decides to bring the holiday to an end when he finds himself, several mornings running, waiting with a pick-axe to see if Evelyn will wake up and see him standing over her. He blames her for his sense of almost terminal ennui – he is keen to tell us how he finds her company crashingly dull – and tells us how he ends it with a nasty schoolboy trick with a chocolate-covered (used) disinfectant urinal tablet.
Ennui. One fairly long chapter is taken up with the endlessly tedious arrangements for a restaurant booking. Bateman, who seems to be losing interest in keeping a meaningful grip on the details of everyday life, forgets who he’s invited to join him and his colleagues (Evelyn and another woman), where they’re meeting, at what time…. At the same time, Ellis quite neatly ratchets up the ennui Bateman is feeling about the killings. Inevitably, he seeks novelty. Inevitably, we have to hear about it, and the way a carefully a planned spree involving a nail-gun and acid or a live rat and a chainsaw – you know the kind of thing – might be followed by an opportunistic throat-slitting at the zoo which is no more plausible than the planned ones.
Of course, Bateman’s pursuit of novelty in his search for something to satisfy what he now routinely calls his blood-lust exactly parallels everybody’s search for novelty in everything else. It’s one of this novel’s principal tricks to suggest that they’re somehow equivalent – but I made that point a long time ago. It’s the boredom that’s new: none of these people seems bothered about anything any more, and Ellis is suggesting that everything has become as pointless for them as for Bateman. I didn’t mention, for instance, that when Bateman drowns Evelyn’s dog she doesn’t even notice. We might not believe this, but we tend to believe that he is by no means the only one to snort coke and pop a cocktail of Valium and other pills just to survive each day.
The life-as-film thread becomes stronger in this half of the novel. Bateman’s desire to control, typified by his obsessive visits to the gym, his need to know everything about what people are wearing – to say nothing of his killing-sprees – is now supplemented by his wish to turn film director. I haven’t really mentioned yet how he sees a lot of his life as though in the movies (although this starts in the first chapter), and now he tells us how he films what he does to women. The blurring between his reality and the reality of the video nasties he rents has become complete. It reaches its apogee in the rampage chapter: he narrates his night-time killing spree in the third person, and it’s a cliché-ridden movie.
Then there are his confessions, always one of the running gags, which become increasingly outspoken. At the end of his movie-style rampage he leaves a long confessional message on somebody’s answer-phone, as though trying out the idea that being caught might revive something inside him. He’s even leaving rotting bits of bodies and dead rats around his apartment. Yeh, sure.
His answer-phone confession is followed by his review of Huey Lewis’s career, which suggests that – surprise, surprise – the confession hasn’t led to anything bad happening. Ellis seems to want to remind us that nothing ever does in this world, so plotlines never develop beyond stubs. All we have are threads, as separate as the different pigeon-holes in Bateman’s life (Wall Street Trader, clothes connoisseur, serial killer). I began to wonder what the serial-killer thread adds, if anything. Is it any more than a McGuffin to make us sit up and take notice of a rather heavy-handed (and serially repetitive) satire? Would we bother reading about another angst-ridden date, or whatever, without the frisson of not quite knowing what terrible things it might allegedly lead to?
The shooting spree made me check on some dates. This novel was published a couple of years before Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs was made. Ellis was born within a year of Tarantino, and they both create art-house versions of the choreographed violence of John Woo-style gangster movies. In Bateman’s case, by now we’re not supposed to actually believe it, obviously, but it made me think about the 1980s American aesthetic that continued into Tarantino and the Coen brothers: violent cool, in which consequence-free brutality is simply an ingredient in the mix. (I haven’t seen any of the Saw movies, but plenty of people have.) In the week in which I’m writing this, there’s a debate in the former broadsheet newspapers about the violent misogyny of The Killer Inside Me, a recent art-house release. ‘The visuals are no more explicit than in many mainstream thrillers,’ writes Mark Kermode. Of course they aren’t. What’s the problem? No animals, or human beings, were harmed in the manufacture of this product.
I should shut up about it. Maybe Bateman will wake up soon and realise it was all a dream.
To the end
I was joking about the dream – although the self-consciousness of the rampage chapter made me wonder whether Ellis might be preparing us for some kind of metafictional fireworks. But no. Something happens, but not that – and, thankfully, if Ellis has spent most of the book turning up the volume now he’s turning it back down a bit. It’s no coincidence that the final scene, in many ways, is a re-run of the first. But if everything in the first chapter seemed to be a shocking blast of narcissism and privilege, now it just seems dreary. They spit out all their running jokes in a quick-fire stream (not Ellis’s, which are different ones), like Bateman’s favourite put-down that he can’t go out because he has to return his videos. We’ve heard them all before, which is the point. And ominously, for the novel’s final words, Ellis pans round to a door in the restaurant (or club, or bar or whatever) with its sign that this is not an exit.
There are key set pieces before this. Bateman sees more of his secretary Jean, and somehow, against all the odds, she gets through to him. Eventually, hedged round with caveats and something approaching self-mockery (from this guy?), he reaches a kind of epiphany. He, or Ellis, or somebody is giving us an idea of the appalling isolation, of the ‘desert’ (his word) that the world is for him. Obviously, by this time, I’m not bothered any more. But I’m interested that Ellis should make the attempt to engage with something akin to our sympathy on this point.
Is our man coming to realise that he can’t go on as he has been? Shortly after the tearful conversation in which he’s tried to explain to Jean what it’s like to be a psycho (not his word), he accidentally meets the man whose answer-phone he filled up with his confession. The man gets his name wrong, congratulates him on the superb way he sent up Bateman, that ass-licking little shit, in the joke message he left. Bateman assures him, with witnesses all around, that it’s all true – but we’ve heard this joke before, and so has the man he’s speaking to. Nobody listens. The motif of the dead-end plotline stubs goes for the confession plot: it leads to nothing, just as his fancy-dress mass murderer costume led to nothing – because, reader, everybody knows it isn’t true.
In the same scene we get further confirmations of the reality that Bateman has been hiding from us. He didn’t dump Evelyn, she dumped him because she found him so useless. His confessions can’t be true because everybody knows Bateman can’t even pick up an escort girl. And the man he murdered hasn’t only been seen in London, the answer-phone man has had dinner with him there. Bateman, we realise, is even more of a pathetic little shit than we realised, and we feel – well, how do we feel?
The keyed-up, tuned-up, honed-up Bateman of the early chapters is no more. He’s a burnt-out case, a shadow just going through the motions. He seems half-hearted about his supposed recent murders: the wired sensationalism of his descriptions in the central sections of the novel has gone. And… I’m left with the feeling that, really, I’ve been wasting my time. Ellis’s main satirical point is that these people are empty, that there’s no humanity in them, that life for them is a walking shadow. And the final joke is that only Bateman has been able to wrench it out of himself, that he’s the only one who understands the existential black hole within not only himself, but in all of them. (Is it really as crass as I’m making out, because I’m so fed up with this bloody book? Or can it really be reduced to the point that in a world gone mad, only the psycho understands?)
The problem is, it isn’t the culmination of a harrowing inner journey. Bateman’s ‘epiphany’ is sudden, and based (apparently) on the love of a good woman. Otherwise, none of it is revelatory at any level at all – because the emptiness of all their lives has been signalled in foot-high letters from page 1. It appears that our man has had to take himself through all that nasty psycho stuff to find out this truth, but we’ve always known it. And I’m back, inevitably, to the violence. As far as I’m concerned Ellis’s insistence on having him describe it all so graphically is just a trick, the icing on the cake – or the chocolate sauce on a urinal-tablet.
I’m annoyed because I guessed from the start that we should take Bateman with a pinch of salt – and to endure the misery of his fantasies for a whole novel simply to have our suspicions confirmed in a twist that is no twist at all is – what? – galling. If Bateman is no more than a fantasist, Ellis’s satirical point doesn’t work. What I wanted wasn’t an essentially realistic (if satirised) yuppie world with a fantasist buying into its excesses. I wanted what I thought we were getting in the early chapters: a surrealist hell. But I’m doing what I often do: wishing it was a different novel. If Bunuel could do it in The Exterminating Angel – and yes, I know that’s not a novel – why can’t Ellis?
I’ve just read John Mullan’s Guardian articles about the book and – guess what? – the second is about the unreliable narrator. I didn’t disagree with a word in either article – except in Mullan’s version, it seems palpable throughout that we can’t believe a word Bateman ever says. One of the points I’ve been making is that as you read the book, whatever your suspicions might be, it isn’t like that. Ellis segues from truth to fantasy so seamlessly – take the Harvard old flame chapter, or the Hamptons summer chapter – that you find yourself forgetting to be sceptical. I did, anyway, so that even when things began to become truly grotesque in the second half of the novel, a big part of me still wanted to believe.
The problem with unreliable narrators is the way you always get more degrees of separation from the author’s intentions than you’re comfortable with. I recently re-read Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier and Charlotte Bronte’s Villette. Neither of the narrators lies to us, but… but, for their own narrative purposes, both authors often need them to withhold information beyond what is reasonable. In The Good Soldier it becomes so preposterous I decided the narrator must have murdered his two-timing wife. (The truth is far more bizarre, so I don’t feel bad about getting it wrong.) In Villette, Lucy Snowe has to explain to us why she delays letting us know for so many chapters that she recognises the English doctor, why she delays letting us know about why Monsieur Paul seems to be turning his back on her… and the explanations somehow aren’t enough. Bronte needed the delay, so live with it.
American Psycho is much more straightforward: if we go back to the start of the novel with the knowledge we have at the end, we can see Bateman as a pitiful, status-anxious geek with abysmally low self-esteem. End of story. But I go back to what I wrote when I was half-way through: ‘Ellis might or might not want us to believe the stuff this man is describing, but – and you’ll have to bear with me a minute here – if it isn’t the narrator’s fantasy it’s the author’s.’ In any novel in which an unreliable narrator appears, the author has to renege to some extent on the standard author/reader contract. Despite the clues, despite the preposterous juxtapositions of geekiness with cool sadistic killings, despite our man’s deep-seated crises of confidence it was really only during the John Woo scene not far from the end that I realised that I should never have believed a single word of it.
I found the best quotation about the unease of the reader (i.e. my unease) concerning what I called the unreliable author in the London Review of Books online archive. Mary Hawthorne calls the novel ‘a profoundly sadistic book, in impulse and execution. Through Bateman, Ellis assumes the role of stalker – in pursuit of the reader, who lives in terror of the next assault.’ (LRB, 1994.) At one level, to quote myself again, if it isn’t the narrator’s fantasy it’s the author’s. By omitting a simple formula such as ‘I imagined what it would be like to…’ – a formula which would have disabled the McGuffin and guaranteed the complete failure of the novel – Ellis, not Bateman, forces this shit down our throats as truth.
That’s what I meant about it not mattering whether we’re supposed to believe Bateman or not – and why I was disappointed with the almost bathetic explanations at the end. It’s as though, like Bateman, Ellis is full of nasty impulses but he can’t go the whole hog and give us a genuine psychopath. Either way, he falls between two stools. As Hawthorne writes elsewhere in the same article: ‘Ellis might have chosen to enhance our understanding either of the perils of consumerism, or of the pathos of the psycho killer, or to delineate a convincing trajectory between the two. What he presents instead is an exploitative schizophrenic hybrid that brings us no closer to an understanding of either.’ For me, the satire of consumerism works. The psycho killer running gag, basically, doesn’t, because it doesn’t make Bateman any more of a loser, in terms of the consumerism satire, than he already is.
I’ve just re-read my comments when I was a quarter of the way through. The only thing added in the rest of the novel is the violence, because absolutely everything else had been covered in the first 100 pages. It’s why I found this book so unsatisfying – so, not an Indian meal at all.