With vanity and greed driving society the novel is more reality than fiction
At its core, American Psycho is centred around Patrick Bateman; he’s twenty-six, working on Wall Street, and living high-end, but he’s also an emotionally void and psychotic serial killer.
It’s through this focus on Bateman that Bret Easton Ellis is able to deliver his cynically-witted views on capitalism as he makes the character hold all the qualities of a person living a shallow and materialistic life within Manhattan’s elite.
A large part of what shapes American Psycho is the context of the era. Set during the presidency of Ronald Reagan, the ‘Reaganomics’ of the time can credited for forming the ‘80s America that the novel takes place in, by following, in the words of Reagan’s critics, ‘voodoo economics’. These included some of the largest tax cuts in American history, a strong decrease in federal spending and heavy deregulation of the social market. These combined factors helped form a strong right-wing economy that was very beneficial for Wall Street. Reaganomics also inadvertedly developed the contemporary idea of a “yuppie”, people who were ‘young, urban professionals’ employed in well-paid jobs. It comes as no surprise that figures like Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump, exemplars who have benefitted from capitalism in life-altering ways, are therefore propelled to ‘god-like’ statuses and looked up to by these yuppies and upper-class individuals – Trump is even Bateman’s personal idol.
With Ellis’ first person narrative, New York is seen through the eyes of Bateman with a sense of artifical glamour. On the surface, it’s almost utopian, full of luxurious goods and apparel that are consistently described, with Bateman proficiently pointing out every piece of clothing a person he meets is wearing – brands such as Polo Ralph Lauren, Oliver Peoples and Fendi are all frequently name dropped amongst others – but ironically all these items which would provide someone a sense of identity, actually ends up making them lose it since everybody looks the same. It’s evident that Bateman, his colleagues, their girlfriends and everyone living in this supposedly-elite world are merely feigned, fronts and façades. They’re barely even human.
Bateman and the people around him are simply products of hyper-capitalism and consumer culture, and it’s because of this that he is allowed to successfully get away with his murders, even in a place like New York City. Why? Because everyone is so individually warped within themselves and oblivious to everything passing by them. Bateman is even very clearly aware of the world he’s living in, but chooses not to do anything counteractive. He is equally complicit in his vanity and the attention he places towards possession, because in his words, “I want to fit in”. It’s through all of this that the reader truly gets to see the criticism of capitalism and Wall Street with the warped effect it’s had on all these people, rendering them almost null of any true human interaction.
MACKAYAN: AMERICAN PSYCHOTweet
By Ben Kourakis: Literature Columnist
This seemingly-utopic world ironically becomes dystopian with its stark and desolate life. One line in particular showcases this extremely well, Bateman states “You can always be thinner… look better”. It perfectly encapsulates the relentless greed and intoxicating need for more from this heightened exposure to capitalism. They’re some of the few people who may have truly conquered the American Dream, but have sacrificed their emotion, connection and empathy for it in turn.
The world Ellis gives is contained within shiny monotony, but he still allows room for exceptionally dark humour – which acts as the novel’s spine and spirit – at the absurdity of the issues of these people living seemingly fashionable lives. Though the reader may laugh at their ridiculous nature and spoilt behaviour, there is no feeling of sympathy for them: Ellis makes it obvious that these are horrible people, from their racist attitudes towards minorities, cruelty to the homeless and their misogynistic behaviour. Their upper-class positions have dissolved them of any authenticity and relatability with the common-person in both an economic and social sense. Ellis extends the novel’s humour with a great miscommunication throughout, where yuppies are always getting each other mixed up in the workplace, leading to a general large air of confusion as to who’s who. Maybe this is Ellis’ way of mocking the ingenuine and competitive American corporate atmosphere with its ‘survival of the fittest’ attitude.
Perhaps a large part of the power of American Psycho has is that its critique of capitalism isn’t era-defined and therefore can be associated with the present day. Even compared to the 1980s with America’s ‘Reagonomics’, society is now consuming more than they were fourty-years prior. With the age of the smartphone and 24/7 online shopping with websites such as Amazon where the customer has an easier and more appealing alternative, there’s an even greater incentive to buy.
Despite being set in the past, the novel predicted the future in some regards with how lifeless society is becoming with this increasing attention to possession. Ellis isn’t necessarily warning the reader about the effects of toxic consumer culture, nor is he showing how to avoid it, but is merely just showcasing the misery it can cause and that we should be wary of it. The book’s philosophy regarding the ideas of 1980s hyper-capitalistic, individualised attitudes towards American consumer culture can be summed by the character of Patrick Bateman – or moreso, a Patrick Bateman, an idea of an individual who represents all these toxic traits in their most bombastic and disgusting ways. Conclusively, it is even Bateman himself who sums up a large part of the novel and its themes in a simple, yet damning phrase which accurately exposes the true characteristics of these people: “All it comes down to is this: I feel like s**t but I look great”.