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On Being Patrick Bateman Close

David Eldridge | Jan. 24, 2014
Two men in suits look out of opposite windows of a taxi.

In his original incarnation, Patrick Bateman is (literally) deadly dull.

His life is hollow, defined by designer clothes, exclusive restaurants and elaborate personal grooming routines – all described in excruciatingly banal detail. Regarded by his own attorney as a “brown-nosed goody-goody,” Bateman strives so hard to fit in with his elitist Wall Street culture that he becomes totally indistinguishable from his arrogant yuppie peers.

What should gain him a distinctive identity are his horrifically sadistic murderous activities. Yet ultimately, even these “mean nothing,” for, when Bateman confesses, nobody believes that he could even “pick up a call-girl, let alone chop her up.’” Indeed, the only place Bateman is cool and charismatic is in his own psychotic head, from which, in the first-person narration of Bret Easton Elllis’ novel, there is no exit.

A few months before the launch of a musical adaptation of American Psycho, Director Rupert Goold’s description of Patrick Bateman, as “an incredibly cool, iconic, charismatic figure” shows how much perceptions have changed in two decades.

In 1991, the criticism of American Psycho was extreme. When passages of the novel’s most shocking sexual violence were leaked before release, feminist groups condemned it as a “how-to-manual on the torture and dismemberment of women.” Simon & Schuster abandoned publication and death threats were received by the editor-in-chief of Knopf when he picked it up.

The moral panic only increased once the novel was published to a critical savaging. Naomi Wolf decried it as “pornography”; others labelled it as “sickening,” “pure trash” and “as scummy as anything it depicts.” Roger Rosenblatt of the New York Times even called upon the public to “snuff this book.” Naturally, this notoriety made American Psycho an instant best-seller, but Ellis was harshly denounced, as the sexism, misogyny, and monstrous egotism of Bateman were treated as the product, rather than the representation, of a warped and deranged mind.

There were a few lonely voices of defence; Fay Weldon judged it “a beautifully controlled, careful, important novel.” Yet furious debates about censorship, violence and freedom of speech further obscured what Ellis had actually written. Only over time did literary scholars come to analyse the text, finding the artistry in Ellis’s construction of Bateman’s unsettlingly obsessive voice, “only a very small fraction of a degree madder than the average style magazine,” and lauding it as postmodern satire. Mary Harron and Guinevere Turner then brought this critical rehabilitation to a much broader audience with their film adaptation in 2000.

Controversy remained. When Leonardo DiCaprio was briefly associated with the title role, Gloria Steinem urged him to not to make it, on the grounds that his post-Titanic fan base of young girls should not be exposed to such material. The discovery of a copy of American Psycho in the home of Canadian murderer Paul Bernadino also sparked protests against violence in entertainment while Harron was filming in Toronto. The book’s reputation still had to be overcome; but the film largely achieved this. Harron’s credentials as a feminist filmmaker reinforced Ellis’s argument that the misogyny of Bateman did not make the text itself a misogynistic work.

Fully exposing Bateman’s narcissism, his bad taste, and the insecurities that drive his rage (notably in his terror when realizing someone has a better business card than him), the movie highlighted the novel’s black comedy and reshaped the way in which the book was read. The Guardian’s recent discussion of Bateman as “one of the funniest comic creations since Bertie Wooster” would have been unthinkable in 1991.

Moreover, in playing with the implausible excesses of action movies and horror films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in Bateman’s scenes of carnage, Harron retained the vital ambiguity about whether Patrick really does kill, or whether these are delusional fantasies. If his sickeningly insane “murders and executions” are real, then the true horror lies in how society has become so self-absorbed and so incapable of looking beyond the surface, that either no one notices, or no one cares.

What changed perceptions most fundamentally, however, was Christian Bale’s star-making performance; Time praised his fluid metamorphosis from “preening, wolfish yuppie to chain-saw wielding maniac to whimpering crybaby.” The very act of personifying Patrick Bateman was transformative.

Ellis had never created Bateman “as a character per se” but as a “generic faceless voice” that both summarized and criticized the values of Reagan’s America. Bale, however, fixed him in the public imagination as the iconic monster that Empire magazine now rates as number 40 in the 100 Greatest Movie Characters of all time. As such, he has taken on a new existence. You can buy the action figure, tour New York City visiting the restaurants and clubs that Bateman reels off to his associates, and even download his workout routine.

Bateman has returned in Ellis’ novels, too. He briefly appears with a “nasty stain” on his Armani suit in Glamorama (1998), while in Lunar Park (2005) he haunts a fictionalized “Bret Easton Ellis.” Apparently still haunted in March 2012, Ellis shared his ideas with thousands of twitter followers about what Bateman might do in a contemporary sequel. Reports in Variety in September 2013 suggest that a sequel is indeed in development–though in the form of a television series, centred on the “now iconic killer” in his mid-50s, training a young protégé and “still just as outrageous and lethal as ever.”

Ironic, then, that the vacuous void who tells us “there is no real me, only an entity, something illusory” has now found that distinctive identity and external recognition that eludes him and drives him insane in the novel.

Yet still there is no exit. The cold-hearted, arrogant exercise of power by the over-privileged continues. A morally barren investment banker, getting away with murder and acting with impunity with the complicity of society’s elite, is more like ghastly fact than fiction in the wake of the Enron scandal, the sub-prime mortgage crisis and the bailing out of banks “too big to fail.” Bateman today, as Ellis has suggested, would most likely be a hedge-fund manager.

Dr David Eldridge teaches cultural history in the American Studies Department at the University of Hull. He holds a PhD from Cambridge University and is the author of The Generic American Psycho (Journal of American Studies: April 2008).