Bret Easton Ellis vs. Ayn Rand — Round One — FIGHT!

American Psycho, like Bret Easton Ellis’ other magnum opus, Less Than Zero, captures the disenfranchised soul caught in a world of opulence, decadence, and amorality. In the character of Patrick Bateman, Ellis explores what happens when the shallow, self-absorbed ego interacts with others without the benefit of a moral compass. The end result, however, is only satisfying if we’re willing to dig for meaning.

Patrick Bateman is a narcissist. He works as an investment banker by day. He spends his nights carousing with his equally shallow friends in high-end cocktail bars and restaurants, attaching dollar figures to everything, seeing everyone through a purely utilitarian lens (consider the red snapper pizza outburst and Bateman’s handling of the distraught waitress, how he uses money and authority predicated on intimidation to control his environment.) Obsessed with pop music, notably the least respectable works of Huey Lewis and the News, he displays the type of shallow, narcissistic, objectivist identity we’ve come to expect of the Bernie Madoff set.

Unlike the characters in Less than Zero, Bateman doesn’t suffer the same sort of desperate ennui that consumes that novel’s protagonist, Clay. Rather, the depravity of Bateman is the depravity of a life lived without the search for true meaning. In Less than Zero, the life lived in search of meaning is devoured by the depravity of the meaninglessness of life, the inconsistency of past acquaintances, the failure to connect with others in a significant way due to the perceived impermanence of personality. Clay isn’t Patrick, they’re almost polar opposites, but they both inhabit a pleasant dystopia, a sensate world of drugs, wealth, and sex–a world of artificial stimuli and equally fraudulent people.

Comparing Ellis to another writer, I’d select Ayn Rand. Ellis is the superior novelist  because he manages to accurately depict the self-centered protagonist perfectly. Whereas John Galt’s philosophy of the self is pure lip-service, Patrick Bateman manages to effectively derive maximum pleasure from the objectification of his victims. Of course he espouses no true philosophy at any point in the novel, and that’s critical.

This objectivism, this desire to get what we want at the expense of the wills, feelings, and lives of others, lies at the core of both Rand’s and Ellis’ writing. Yet unlike Rand, Ellis takes the low road, the easier road, the path of least resistance. Instead of world-changing, passion-driven characters who do mighty deeds contrary to what they profess, we’re left with the shallow and superficial. (That, or with the disenfranchised, disillusioned, and despondent as in the case of Clay.)

In a head-to-head match determined by who has a better grasp of the end result of objectivism, Ellis defeats Rand easily. Viewing people are mere objects is one of the hallmarks of a psychopath. Bateman lacks empathy and his actions reflect this. Galt claims to lack empathy but, none-the-less, risks his life to deliver an illegal sermon extolling the virtues of objectivism over collectivism. To this end, Galt fails as an objectivist while Bateman succeeds. That’s why I’ll read American Psycho again. (Yet if I were forced to choose between reading Atlas Shrugged once more or going full Oedipus Rex on my face…? Anyone want to buy a pencil?)

By the end of American Psycho Bateman doubts his own sanity, finds that either he has hallucinated his wrongdoings or they’ve been cleaned up by others intent on using him for his financial prowess. The character continues to live his shallow, vapid life, unsure if he’s a murderer or simply deranged and delusional. This lack of self-knowledge isn’t merely a tactic of the author to end on a cryptic note, but binds the character of Patrick Bateman to the depraved, carnal world that suffers no truth, let alone an ugly and scandalous one, to destroy it.

3 thoughts on “Bret Easton Ellis vs. Ayn Rand — Round One — FIGHT!

  1. I didn’t find the ending cryptic at all. Clearly Bateman chose to continue his path, as highlighted by his ultimate treatment of Jean and the final sign in Harry’s (Not an Exit). This was the kind of book you really had to think about in order to suss out the meanings and subtext.

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  2. Victor –

    I’ve never read Rand because what I’ve read about her makes me hate her. Why? “Just because.” Is that logical to hate her “just because? It makes sense to me and that’s all that matters. Anyway, thank you for against giving me another reason to hate her. She’s evil. More, she’s an extreme narcissist—according to more psychologically savvy folks than I—so it’s lovely that you folded both her, narcissism, and Bateman into one post.


    I’ve done some research on personality disorders, in my goal to one day write Horror/psycho books, and learned that once upon a time narcissism was slotted in the Cluster “B” personalities, which are the disorders described as “dramatic, emotional and erratic.” Basically: Antisocial, Borderline, Histrionic and Narcissistic. I have heard (rumor?) that narcissism is (already?) arguably not distinct from Antisocial and, thus, shouldn’t be its own section. That’s probably not important, but it may be somehow useful in a book or something.

    Anyway, your mention of Rand reminded me of a book I have ( and the following section reminded me absolutely of Bateman:

    Like a hungry wild animal, the narcissist searches his environment for sustenance. His psychological foods are admiration, wealth, power and fame. Without these ego gratifications, he feel diminished, even dead. He meticulously constructs an entire lifestyle that supports his distorted beliefs. Narcissists are constantly on the hunt, stalking the tall grasses for game that will satisfy their enormous appetites … When the sources of those ego rewards become unavailable or fail him, the narcissist experiences intense feelings of emptiness (89 – 99)

    And that unfed need is what triggers the narcissistic rage, full-blown and murderous.

    I posted that I thought Bateman was bi-polar, but you may be onto something here. There is nothing that says Bateman’s manic personality didn’t contort into the extremis of his “normal” personality disorder, the narcissist.

    A complex and thoughtful portrayal of madness, that’s for sure.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I like what you’ve said about the portrayal of the true side of objectivism coming from the superficial and “low” end of the spectrum. I have noticed that the tendency to be preachy in literary fiction is part of the reason why it is less effective than an outright and clear portrayal that we see in popular fiction. A reader can be shown much more easily and effectively than he can be taught through lecture. Moreover, I agree that a character should not contradict himself in order to make a point to the reader about himself. That’s for the other characters to do, if it should be done at all.

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