American Psycho is a cult classic novel about Patrick Bateman. If you didn’t know, he works in Wall Street.
Some details about his life: he is rich, old money, lives in the same building as Tom Cruise, and he has an obsession with Donald Trump. He idolizes those with more status than himself.
He also murders bums, dogs, prostitutes, friends, and children. Life has no rush to Patrick like slicing open a victim, drilling holes into orifices, electrocuting breasts, cannibalizing human flesh, making souvenirs from skulls. I do not recommend reading these scenes.
No one suspects his secret life. There’s a lot at play here. His life is mainly lived in his head. He obsesses about hard abs, nutrition and skincare, sex with multiple women, rock music, porn, high-end dining.
He is the prototypical American achiever, chaser of the next high. He doesn’t enjoy Christmas parties, clubbing with friends, cheating on his fiance, he wants what the culture portrays, a fast-paced life of the movies, with picture perfect moments. But really, he wants none of this either. His confessed desire is to fit in. His dilemma is to lose self identity to join a group, or keep his identity and lose access to the group.
There is no third option. And Patrick being born from a noble line of finance, cannot risk losing the only social group he can understand.
Patrick’s life on paper is the best life; he lives in the wealthiest city on earth, with an education and career of prestige and opulence; his physique and youth are at a maximum. It is as if he’d stepped out of a magazine, a living status symbol.
He is like a chameleon, blending into his role in society so deftly, that strangers mistake him for a fashion model, an actor, somebody famous but without a familiar name. Nobody knows there exists a Patrick, every fellow in Wall Street misnames him. The bored Wall Streeter, flipping through magazines on men’s fashion, restaurant openings, etc, even acknowledges the lack of identity. He is a figment of society’s imagination.
In one scene, after murdering a girl in his apartment, he demands the bloodstains on his bed sheets be removed by an Asian dry cleaner who can’t speak English. Frustrations of every day life do not pass unnoticed. Life is a chore, full of incompetent service, language barriers, and dissatisfaction.
This discord, disconnect, unreality, that separates actual life from the culture’s projection, fills Patrick with inescapable dread. He reminisces on past ski trips in Aspen, about better days that can never be again, which play in his memory like film. How could life from this moment, as a twenty something Adonis living in an era of extravagant wealth, working in the booming finance industry, get much better. It cannot, by the limited standards set by his culture and peer group.
Life can only go on, in cycles of repetitive shallowness. He will lose his appearance, his energy and sex drive, even the allure of hyper-violence will deflate. He meanders as a hollow shell, unloved, misunderstood, full of self-hate.
There are few moments when Patrick feels emotion. After a dinner date with his secretary, Jean. In a short time he sees himself as a genuine person, not a status symbol to be feared, hated, or revered. His fantasy of settling down with this woman of humble origins, sets in his mind a freedom not found in his world. Of letting go of status, and living with another without the constraints of high society’s rigor.
This bond with his secretary, makes him leap alone in the city with a feeling in his heart which is not replicated again.
In another scene, he follows a colleague into the restroom, with the intent on strangling him to death and gloating about fucking his fiance. This plan of action is the ultimate alpha power move, cuckolding an equal in status to gain the upper hand. Dominance in the social hierarchy.
He slips on his black leather gloves, the victim’s back turned. When the hands wrap around his neck, and adrenaline fills Patrick with pride and glory, the victim softly touches Patrick with unexpected tenderness. It turns out, the colleague was a closeted homosexual with feelings for Patrick.
Patrick loses his grip, his muscles deflate. The motivation to go through with the murder is cut short. The shift in status relations between the two men go from social competitors, to homosexual misunderstandings. The victim begins to confess his long concealed dotage, thinking Patrick strangled him as sexual initiation.
We see here another example of emotion in Patrick. He no longer sees the victim as some one to dominate in the hierarchy, he only feels disgust, and flees the scene. Because the safeguards of status quo had been shattered, and vulnerability was shown, and so normalized to social order, Patrick reacts in utter confusion.
His world is not of genuine displays. It is glitzy with hard drugs, women, fashion, trendiness, conversations about superior brands of mineral water. This display of love, though unrequited, is something truly out of the norm, similar to his dinner with Jean. The world in American Psycho, reflects a vein of the real world, where status is supreme. Things now have gotten much worse than the 80’s.
American Psycho is glut with references to real clothing brands, liquor brands, prominent streets and avenues, celebrities. Every scene with his social circle describes these in intricate detail. Patrick views the world through status, because these are the signals culture dignifies. A man’s place in the hierarchy, is of a far greater importance, than identity.
Humanity on the surface, prides itself in its social order. The similarities of mankind with the animal kingdom, such as the lobster, signals to our primitive ape mind the new normal of degenerating to the amoeba. Our species now invests capital in lab-grown human meat to simulate cannibalism.
However, we see from Patrick, how shallow and empty, being a part of the animal structure can be. The tension within peer groups masks human authenticity. Every one plays a role most acceptable to the herd, and maneuvers within that space to one up one another, to climb the ladder at what ever cost.
In a later encounter with his homosexual colleague, Patrick is lavished with tears and cries of love in a department store, while Christmas shopping. This aggravates Patrick more so than before, as he’d been avoiding contact since the bathroom incident. Finally, Patrick promises a false meeting, plotting an opportunity to murder the pathetic victim, but this plan is abandoned as well. Once again, we see Patrick who at one time seemed an indiscriminate murderer, who enjoyed the mere act of violence, leaving his prey be. This indicates a motive for his violence, partly arising from status quo and culture, cutthroat social interactions in literal terms.
In contrast, he murders a bum in an alley because he played his role of beggar so perfectly; the beggar weeps and clings to Patrick for help, to appeal to his empathy. Patrick replies to the man, that he could not begin to imagine what his wretched situation was like; he could not empathize at all. As a person raised in wealth, going from Exeter Academy to Harvard Business School. The bum in all probability, was raised in a broken household of drug use, minimum wage parent, public education, in poverty and misery.
Patrick does not feign this truth. Their life experiences could not be further apart, though they share the same national flag. Patrick’s murder of the homeless man is the only way his social class ostensibly treats the poor. With a viciousness of a predator, of a business cartel, a loan shark, a landlord; Patrick’s gouging of his victim’s eyes demonstrates in violent fashion, the equally brutalizing economic factors that have led generations to wallow. His class is the gatekeeper to economic order.
The era of Wall Street’s rise, from the 80’s onward, divided the classes further, brought on by the free trade agreements, which shipped the middle income manufacturing jobs overseas, creating unheard of wealth in the financial and tech sectors, leaving the middle class in poverty and state sanctioned drug addiction. All the while extracting slave labor from the third world.
There is a fortress built around Patrick’s inner self and the outer world. He peeks through spy holes, at the vast culture, the people who inhabit it within their own fortresses, and sees nothing human. There is only exertion of power and will. Relationships are business transactions, love bonds pornographic escapades, status is exchanged and strengthened by vain associations. To quote Eastern wisdom: “All is vanity.” He sees the world as an unfeeling place, and his outbursts of violence are the primal expressions of this discontent.
In the end, though Patrick fantasized married life with his secretary, he rejects her love because of the wide gap in social hierarchy. The story ends with another party in an exclusive new club, with men high on cocaine, women on prescription drugs, nestled together from the outside world in their sheltered status and wealth.
The novel concludes in the bathroom, where Patrick sees a colleague scrawling on a stall “die yuppie scum.” A message, not of economic woe, but of social order and false pretense, status glorification, masked identity, the Darwinist animal existence. There is no escape from the prison of social hierarchy, and degeneration and emptiness is the status quo.