Is evil something you are? Or is it something you do?
– Bret Easton Ellis, American Psycho
The word ‘psychopath’ is tossed around a lot. In the colloquial sense it means someone especially angry, immoral or aggressive. Dave Cullen researched psychopathy for his book on the Columbine killings. Experts agreed that psychopaths were characterised by severe lack of empathy and ‘a poverty of emotional range’.
In Hannibal Lecter’s words, they could not be ‘reduce[d] to a set of influences’. There was a neurological difference. Cullen writes about a doctor who submitted ‘a paper analysing the unusual brain waves of psychopaths to a scientific journal, which rejected it with a dismissive letter. ‘These EEGs couldn’t have come from real people,’ the editor wrote.’
From Cullen’s chapter on psychopathy:
Psychopaths are distinguished by two characteristics. The first is a ruthless disregard for others: they will defraud, maim or kill for the most trivial personal gain. The second is an astonishing gift for disguising the first… Yet the majority have consistently eluded the law… He’s not just conning you with a scheme, he’s conning you with his life. His entire personality is a fabrication, with the purpose of deceiving suckers like you…
He goes on: ‘The fundamental nature of a psychopath is a failure to feel.’ Although psychopaths can display terrifying rages, this is mere ‘readiness of expression’ without ‘strength of feeling’. They seem to have some ‘primitive emotions closely related to their own welfare’ but that really is it: ‘Even an earthworm will recoil if you poke it with a stick… Psychopaths make it that far up the emotional ladder, but they fall far short of the average golden retriever, which will demonstrate affection, joy, compassion and empathy for a human in pain.’
The above criteria are certainly met by Patrick Bateman, Wall Street trader by day, torturer and killer by night. His narrative is a flatline hum. Whether he’s obsessively cataloguing the designer labels of everyone in his field of vision, or torturing a woman to death, the emotional tone remains exactly the same. He boasts of his expensive David Onica painting until a victim points out that the artwork has been hung upside down. Not only is he unable to feel, he’s unable and unwilling to recognise emotion in others. (Cullen quotes a psychopathic armed robber who found it confusing if bank clerks shook or babbled when his gun was pointed at them: why? What was the point?)
I first read American Psycho on a vulgar-Marxist level: as Jenny Turner had it, ‘a black-hearted satire on the terrible power of money.’ Bateman and his indistinguishable friends were part of the wealthy revered caste. Even Bateman had his limitations – witness his flailing attempts to get a Dorsia reservation – but still, his power and status allowed him to kill without fear of reprisal. His victims were almost exclusively from what Bateman himself called the ‘genetic underclass’; homeless people, prostitutes. Interestingly, while Bateman’s fellow yuppies had no idea of his murderous nature, it was that army of urban serfs – bar staff, beggars, waiters, cleaners, callgirls – who saw Bateman for what he was. He is mugged by a taxi driver who has witnessed his murder of another cabbie, and a transient blinded by Bateman is able to recognise him, by voice alone, almost two years later.
Reading the novel again, I noticed the inconsistencies. The yuppies consistently mistake each other for each other, as anonymous to themselves as the underclass are to them. Bateman murders a business rival who turns up later on in London. He visits an apartment in which he killed two escort girls to find no trace of the crimes – in fact, an estate agent is in the process of selling the flat. In Lunar Park, his best work, Ellis says this:
Patrick Bateman was a notoriously unreliable narrator, and if you actually read the book you could come away doubting that these crimes had even occurred. There were large hints that they existed only in Bateman’s mind. The murders and torture were in fact fantasies fuelled by his rage and fury about how life in America was structured and how this had – no matter the size of his wealth – trapped him. The fantasies were an escape. This was the book’s thesis. It was about society and manners and mores, and not about cutting up women.
This last line chimes with the quote from Judith Martin at the beginning of the novel: ‘There’s a whole range of behaviour that can be expressed in a mannerly way.’
American Psycho works very well as a comedy. There are the lengthy, inane discussions at Harry’s and Nell’s – Which bottled water is the best? Should you wear tasselled loafers with a business suit? Did you know cavemen got more fibre than we do? There is the classic business card scene. There are catchphrases (‘I have to return some videotapes’) and a good running joke in The Patty Winters Show, a daily programme that Bateman watches religiously and whose topics get more and more bizarre as his sanity erodes. Comic highlights include Bateman’s attempts to bond with a black man (‘We be, uh, jamming…’ ) his excruciating small talk with a couple of prostitutes, his faking of a Dorsia reservation. There are moments of wriggling awkwardness and feeble deception that rival and precede The Office and Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Take the murders out of the picture and Bateman comes off as Walter Mitty. His final crazed confession, made on the voicemail of a work acquaintance, is not believed. The colleague in question, after naturally mistaking Bateman for someone else, expresses his incredulity:
Jesus, Davis. Yes, that was hilarious… Bateman killing Owen and the escort girl?… Oh that’s bloody marvellous… But come on, man, you had one fatal flaw: Bateman’s such a bloody ass-kisser, such a brown-nosing goody-goody, that I couldn’t fully appreciate it… He could barely pick up an escort girl, let alone… what was it you said he did to her?
Bateman is without doubt an American psychopath – but is he active or passive; a genuine serial slayer or a pathetic fantasist? Is evil something you are or something you do? Both readings have validity and interest, but American Psycho can be primarily appreciated as a period piece and a fine dark comedy of modern manners.