We've all seen the creative writing challenge. Take a well known classic and re-write it for the modern day. On re-reading American Psycho, I couldn't help wondering whether that was what had happened here. Did Bret Easton Ellis set out to update Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde for late nineteen eighties Wall Street? In the end, it is probably irrelevant. But it's a thought, nonetheless.
It's probably irrelevant because, however Easton Ellis approached the project more than two decades ago, he produced a character who, in his own right, is as notorious as any in English spoken fiction. Patrick Bateman is a psychopath. He goes round murdering people. That fact is well known. His place in contemporary fictional folklore is assured, for a few decades to come, at least. He is almost as famous as Norman Bates - but on a more repugnant scale.
It is almost impossible to read American Psycho without being shocked at the murders and the graphic descriptions of them - and some episodes are shocking in their own right in view of the location and nature of the victims (as a result, they are the ones where gratuitous description of detail is least necessary). But, if physical violence was all that the novel is about, it would probably have disappeared without trace. The most macabre scenes shock - heavily - but do nothing else and, in that sense, provide little more insight than a third rate horror film. You need rather more in terms of environment, character development and internal thought processes to create a work of fiction that lasts.
Of course, graphic violence is not what is at the heart of American Psycho. What sets the novel apart is its context. We are here looking at a world which was (in theory at least) at the height of western sophistication. There is wealth, privilege, glamour. All the men (apart from the "bums" begging for money on the street, who are seen as barely human, rather like the proles in Orwells 1984) are handsome and the women are beautiful. Bateman comes from a wealthy family, went to Harvard lives in the same apartments as Tom Cruise and is, on the surface, charming and witty. He has a girlfriend, Evelyn and a secretary, Jean, "who is in love with me". It is the contrast between this world, and the depravity the exists alongside it, that is truly shocking (and gives the Jekyll and Hyde connotations).
It hardly needs stating that American Psycho is a satire. What Easton Ellis is really saying is that it is this sophisticated yuppie world itself that is depraved at heart. The striking element on reading the opening of the book is the repetition. Businessmen sit in an endlesss stream of fashionable restaurants, in designer clothing, the labels of which are repeated on every page by Bateman, who can instantly tell whether a colleague is wearing a suit by Armani or a tie by Brooks Brothers. And none of the characters, who will wave a dollar bill at a beggar for fun, pay a second thought to their impact on society. There is more than a hint that, as an expert in mergers and acquistions, it is Bateman's actions that have made the bums he sees on the streets, and so despises, homeless.
There are themes that occur constantly throughout the book. He becomes obsessed by a fictional talk show, The Patty Winters Show, which discusses sensationalist topics such as "dwarf tossing" and "UFOs that kill". He is always taking (gruesome) video tapes back to the shop where he looks with disdain at the sales staff because they are not wearing designer clothing. None of the characters remember who each other are - the habit for mistaking names becomes a recurring joke. His musical taste, which is revealed through chapters dedicated to reviews of his favourite music, is bland to say the least, concentrating on the "brilliance" of bands such as Genesis and Huey Lewis And The News.
At heart, American Psycho is all about consumerism and the victory of blandness over substance and the vacuity of the individual in the face of that blandness Clothes are not seen here as beautiful things. They are possessions, given value by the name on the label and nothing else. And it is no coincidence that so many of the victims are as vacuous as Bateman himself. You get the sense, although it is never fully spelt out, that this is the reason they have been selected.
This all leads to one thing. Alienation. You know that not all is rosy when Batemen cannot obtain a table in a particularly fashionable restaurant, where Sylvestor Stallone eats, in contrast to his brother Sean (who, incidentally, also appears in Easton Ellis' earlier novel The Rules Of Attraction). In the face of the meaningless farce that his life has become, he starts to decline and becomes increasingly out of touch with his world. It is possible to read American Psycho as a graphic description of one man's descent into madness.
It would also be a major fault to dismiss the humour. Much of American Psycho is tongue in cheek and deliberately banal, from the subjects of the discussions on the Patty Winters Show to the mistaken song names in Bateman's reviews of music. In one episode, Bateman and his friends go to a U2 gig in (which they hate) and someone shouts "the drummer might be The Ledge". And the severity of the violence is such as to be ridiculous, itself a humorous point.
All this leads to the inevitable question. Is it all in his mind? At times, reading the book, I was certain that he was imagining it all. At others, I was sure it was all real. Batemans's lawyer tells him towards the end that he has had dinner in London with one of his victims. But is that a reliable story, in view of the fact that the characters always get names wrong? And what do we make of the scene where the said victim's flat is being re-let, adorned with bouquets of roses? In the end, it boils down to the view of the individual. The biggest clue to this analysis is the scene early on when Bateman kicks over a beggar's polystyrene cup of loose change. Did he do it deliberately? He asks the reader directly to decide for himself.
In a sense, it doesn't matter whether the violence is imagined or not. There is corporate violence being done to individuals as a result of Bateman's legitimate day job. The taunting of beggars is not against the law. The graphic murders can be seen simply as an extension of this legal activity.
And what about the world as it is now? It may be no coincidence that recently, on Twitter, Easton Ellis has talked about reviving Batemen and writing a sequel to American Psycho. In a world of bankers bonuses, endless electronic gadgets appearing every few months, and growing numbers of unemployed and homeless, it seems timely to do so. It would seem that one thing is exactly as it was twenty five years ago. For western consumerism, "THIS IS NOT AN EXIT".