Nor is this an exit

Bret Easton Ellis realized the apex of his writing genius within his third book, American Psycho, a truly bold attempt at a violent and shocking creation: a young American yuppie Patrick Bateman, whose solipsistic affliction cleverly exposes the putrid underbelly of consumerism. The narrative is limited to the first person, an intimate access to Patrick Bateman’s warped perspective and Ellis skillfully employs this technique to ratchet up the tension in order to convey a successful black comedy.

At surface, the book is essentially a sizzling satirical deconstruction of the zeitgeist of the predominant eighties ideology: greed. The morbid fascination of trash television, the irony of call waiting, and analytic interpretation of the contemporary music phenomenon all paint the bleak world Patrick Bateman lives in.

The protagonist Patrick Bateman’s narration is a constant vacillation between the obsessively detailed description of the mundane items of brand-name consumer society and the cynical and snobbish account of excruciatingly shallow and bland characters, which lack any semblance of humane depth or any distinguishing characteristics from one another.

The incessant identification of brand name attire is given a much richer description than the characters who wear them, so they are all essentially interchangeable. At least outside of Patrick Bateman’s inner circle, people constantly mistake one another for someone else. Is that Luis Carruthers? Bateman said “I think a lot of snowflakes are alike… and I think a lot of people are alike too…”

Their dialogues are either depressingly insipid and plain, or a complete rip off of excerpts from experts. During conversations with annoying characters, e.g. the fiancée Evelyn, Bateman’s narration drops verbs and pronouns altogether, and chooses to signify only the brand names.

Patrick Bateman is an “emotional vampire” who is incapable of transcending hedonistic values of his society. He lacks any impulse control whatsoever, any resistance to indulge his basest whims, and engages in escalating acts of abhorrent violence, which is always presented in explicit detail: “The ax hits him midsentence, straight in the face, its thick blade chopping sideways into his open mouth, shutting him up.”

There is no ethical principle expressed in the book, absent from the wholly existential, subjective motives that are promoted by the over-arching ideology of the wealthy class in the late eighties. However, the implicit principle of Bateman’s actions is the precise source of satire – a scathing critique of the self-centered livelihood of yuppiedom.

According to Bateman, respect is a materialistic phenomena; the prestige of handling top accounts, owning the best business card, the ability to get in exclusive places. Yet respect remains something altogether elusive for Patrick Bateman.

As the designated poster boy of Reagan’s ruling class, throughout the book Bateman inflicts various forms of violence against the victims of a bourgeois society – people of color, people of different social classes, minorities and women – and never had to pay for his actions, at least on the social level of justice.

However, there are several victims of Bateman’s murderous rampage who fall outside of that spic and span category – the ex-girlfriend who could get into the restaurant exclusively for the upper-crust, Dorsia and his archrival Paul Allen – so Bateman does not exactly discriminate in his killing binge. Thus, labels such as racist and misogynist do not apply here.

Most of the book is a disjointed, plotless, chaotic discourse about how “things fell apart and nobody paid much attention.” Once we move beyond the level of literary analysis into the vague realm of ontology and metaphysics, the book is understood as an aesthetical application of solipsistic boredom. It is solipsistic because the entire book is a soliloquy told from the first person by an unscrupulous psychopath.

Boredom pervades the book because nothing truly excites Bateman, nothing ever moves him passionately. His frank admissions of his homicidal behavior to his colleagues completely fail to register anything whatsoever with them. One character exclaimed, “Bateman killing Owen and the escort girl? Oh that’s bloody marvelous!”

In existential philosophy, boredom is a unique state of being. According to Sartre’s novella, Nausea, boredom is related with existence and being, not with autonomy or transcendence. Only in certain emotions does Being manifest itself to us starkly, and these emotions are boredom, or nausea. As the naked access to existence, boredom is the immediate realization that there is something rather than nothing.

Bateman is not in despair, nor is he joyful, but on the other end in a deep protracted struggle with the commonplace nature of daily life so much that he no longer cares whether anything is or not.

So, the experience of a phenomenon of being drenches the book, thanks to the existential vacuum that lies at the heart of the protagonist. For Soren Kierkegaard, Patrick Bateman leads an aesthetic life, a life of a devotion to immediate experience, like materialists or hedonists, and is doomed to boredom. Their repetitive life of disconnected ‘nows’ is the very source of apathy, and this is precisely the case with Bateman. The closing attempt at self-criticism, “this confession has meant absolutely nothing,” presented within the final pages of the book, truly a divine resonance of a denouement, shows how deeply central Bateman’s boredom is.

Perhaps, if Albert Camus were alive today, he’d call Patrick Bateman a post-modern Sisyphus, a character who began the novel as clueless and ambiguous as he ended it. The phrase “ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE,” an allusion to Dante’s Divina Commedia, is the first line of the book, graffiti on a wall. That prepares the reader for a mesmeric experience into a world where nothing is ever solved. Ellis closes the book with the words of a sign: “THIS IS NOT AN EXIT.”

3 thoughts on “Nor is this an exit

  1. I found this post on AP to be very insightful. It is amazing how many people consider Ellis’ work to be sensationalistic pulp without ever digging deeper than the surface layer.

    I am a big fan of Ellis’ work and find that existentialism runs throughout his catalogue, and perhaps most evident in Less Than Zero. But I do see the connection between Patrick and the protagonist in Camus’ The Stranger as far as motive goes. Why does Bateman kill? Perhaps he is seeking sensation in an otherwise desensitized world.

    Many readers may consider Patrick to be a sadist, but I think he is actually a masochist. His exercise routines are an explicit example, but also consider how he seems to “enjoy” putting himself in bad situations. Even in his daily life he wants to “feel normal” by working. Does that mean he wants to suffer like the rest of us instead of living a life of leisure that he could easily afford?

    Man, I could go on all day about this stuff… but I will stop. Thanks for the great read, I enjoyed it.

  2. I haven’t read Hogg, but the description alone concurs that it would be quite a shocking read.

    I read the essay that you linked to and found it both insightful and enjoyable. Thank you.

    Have you ever read Ellis’ Less than Zero? Forget about the lame ’80s movie with the same name. If you are into Camus and Sarte, I recommend it. Its flat, minimalist and existential approach is what got me hooked on Ellis in the first place.

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