AMERICAN PSYCHO and Bret Easton Ellis on the AMERICAN DREAM
Forceful and raw, Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho certainly left its mark upon society. Now a modern classic, to call this work of literature violent would be an understatement. Yet to some extent, it seemed very familiar at times, as if this was not a fictional story but a mirror held up to the societies in which we live.
Bateman is the epitome of the ‘American Dream.’ He has it all: degrees from Harvard, lunches at the Yale Club, a sumptuous apartment on Manhattan’s upper-West Side. He dates the best women and wears the best clothes money can buy. Yet if there’s one takeaway from this book, it’s that all this means very little.
At its core, American Psycho is a warning, a tale about alienation and over-consumerism in 1980s America, a time when the very idea of the American dream was being re-written by corporate interests and big business through the use of PR and advertising. The American Dream with which we are dealing in American Psycho is no longer the embodiment of hope and the opportunity to pursue happiness. Instead, it is a rebranded version of ‘happiness,’ achieved by making a hell-of-a-lot of money and chasing fame and power over everything else.
For some, this might genuinely lead to happiness and fulfilment. It’s likely however that the number of people for who this works is very few, and Bateman is the perfect warning of what happens when one tries to obtain fulfilment from external sources. On the face of it, Bateman has it all, but beneath that, he is just a shell. He has very few genuine human connections, secretly despises most people and is unable to see women as anything more than objects, perhaps with the exception of his secretary Jean.
Worst of all, Bateman is very aware that he is living a fraud, as we see during his lunch with Bethany, an ex-girlfriend of his, when he admits that his sole reason for continuing to work in investment banking, despite hating it, is because he ‘want[s] … to … fit … in.’ It is this realisation that leads him to brutally kill her, and more widely, it is the recognition that what she says is true that drives him to murder dozens of innocent people. This and his inability to derive satisfaction from anything material. The fact he’s got it all but remains completely discontented to the point that he’s driven to cannibalism and murder says a great deal about the notion that ‘success’ is solely defined by one’s material possessions and fame.
A running thread throughout the novel is that of false appearances. Almost everything, from the lunches at fine establishments such as ‘Dorsia’ to the glamourous apartments in which the characters live, has been constructed to give the appearance of success but cloaks discontent and fear. The players in American Psycho are constantly mistaking each other for other people, showing both how weak the social bonds have become as a result of the hyper-consumerist and narcissistic society in which we live, but also how beneath the apparent ‘success’ where all wear designer suits and dine at the same restaurants, there is very little to differentiate us.
Since its publication in 1991, this narcissism and self-obsession, an important theme in American Psycho, has only accelerated due to the rise of social media and smartphones. We are constantly comparing ourselves to others, questioning whether we are living the ‘right’ way and constructing ‘perfect’ versions of ourselves. What we don’t realise is that whilst we are busy doing so, everyone else is also doing the same thing, leading us nowhere. It does not fulfil us and instead draws out our worst characteristics, as Bateman brilliantly exemplifies in his treacherous acts of violence.
One of the things that shocked me was not the violence itself, atrocious as it may be, but the fact that we are almost dulled to it and have come to expect it. Reading American Psycho, I did not feel the same ‘fear factor’ that I did whilst reading other novels such as Burgess’s ‘Clockwork Orange’ or Greene’s ‘Brighton Rock.’ It is perhaps illustrative of the world in which we live: one where our newspapers and Twitter feeds are filled with so much gore and violence that we simply stop caring.
It may be that the ‘Psycho’ in American Psycho is not just Bateman, who is almost what you’d expect of a typical psychopath, but the system which we have created where we elevate appearances over all else.