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.