The Editors Debate: Is American Psycho A Good Book?

Last week, some madcap genius broke down Patrick Bateman’s New York: all the clubs and scene-y restaurants the protagonist of American Psycho haunted and where they are now (most are closed, natch). This week, editors Jennifer Wright and Ashley Cardiff continue their years-long argument over the merits of Bret Easton Ellis’ 1980s classic.

Jennifer: I actually find it really surprising that you hate American Psycho and I love it. That’s because I generally think of myself as more conservative than you, and I’d be hard-pressed to think of a more bleeding heart (hah!) liberal book.

Ashley: Really? Because it can be interpreted as a savaging of 1980s corporate culture? A takedown of soulless, money-grubbing ambition on of Wall Street?

Jennifer: Yes. So we agree. What a short debate this was!

Ashley: I mean okay, sure, in the sense that it’s a critique of capitalism and the emptiness of that world, it’s very liberal. It’s also kind of a celebration of it, though, in the way Ellis tends to inject glamor into decay.

Jennifer: But I think Patrick Bateman is so much a buffoon that, as an intelligent person, you can’t read the book and think “I really want to be like him”. Anyone who reads the book and thinks ”this guy is the coolest” is reading it wrong – although I can see how you could interpret the movie that way because Christian Bale’s abs are just spectacular. Keeping with that, I think one of the more interesting aspects of the book is how the glamour never results in anything akin to joy. At best, having a good table produces a feeling of relief.

Ashley: That’s Bret Easton Ellis in a nutshell. Joyless glamor.

Jennifer:  I think that is a really interesting take on the period, because the 80′s was this age that embraced reckless decadence. And American Psycho, to me, is a great examination of what happens to a human soul if you embrace only those values.It’s telling that the only character Bateman has any respect for- the one he thinks of as “the only cool person I know” – chooses to exit that world halfway through the book.

Ashley: Wait. You DO embrace only those values. You like American Psycho because it makes you feel complicated even though you’re just shallow.

Jennifer: Yes, but when I get a good table as Espace relief washes over me in such an awesome wave that sometimes it’s enough. Also, I’m going to feed you a urinal cake.

Ashley: …

Jennifer:  I think it is a work of satire, and in most works of satire there’s not really a lot going on with the protagonist. I mean, Gulliver in Gulliver’s Travels. Did he have a personality? (Not really).

Ashley: He had a herd of tiny sheep, though.

Jennifer: Yes, and perhaps he loved them the way Bateman loves Dorsia.

This is really transgressive.

Ashley: I don’t think you can make the case that American Psycho is good satire because Bateman in empty and one-dimensional.
Jennifer: It’s so funny, though. The writing is just really excellent comic writing. And it’s a great mish-mash of different themes – and even types of writing – running throughout the period. That incredibly self indulgent chapter about Huey Lewis? That was the kind of music writing that was actually popular at that time! People wrote that way! Because internet commenters weren’t around to destroy them, I guess.
Ashley: Okay, you can’t say it’s good satire because it’s accurate to the time period, either.

Jennifer: Why not? I think it accurately pokes fun at a really specific period. Really, really well. And I’m pretty sure that’s what satire is. I mean, “A Modest Proposal” is a really great satire, and one that spans a lot of ages, but it is best when you consider its ties to the period and what was going on then.

Ashley: You mean the period when babies were too delicious? Also, American Psycho is neither pleasurable to read nor good for you in any capacity. American Psycho‘s only real excellence is in being a scarily accurate reflection of the times; that is to say self-indulgent, empty, relentlessly vain and shallow. So yeah, in this regard, American Psycho is an accomplishment. But why would I want to read the book version of such a shitty period, culturally?


Jennifer: Becase it’s really funny. No, really. The part where the friend starts talking to suhi like it’s a pet? Where Pat hears tempura is delicious but “I wouldn’t know, I’ve never eaten anything fried.” There’s a scene where Pat tells Evelyn that a friend of his is breaking up with a friend of her’s because “he’s sick of watching her sit around all weekend doing nothing but her nails.” And Evelyn replies “Oh God, you mean… she didn’t have someone do them for her?”

Ashley: That is really funny. I can’t argue with that.

Jennifer: I think the first time you read the book, you get kind of caught up in the comic book violence of it. And it’s only on a second reading that you realize it’s really witty.

Ashley: I’ve only read it once. But I don’t want to read it again because it was so aggressively shitty to read the first time. It’s not a well written book, Jen. It’s manipulative and shallow and ugly.

It's also very subtle.

Jennifer: First off, I really feel books that make you laugh cannot be categorized as “shitty” because it’s a difficult task, making people laugh. Besides, I guess I do not see what you’re basing that on? You could say that all satire is a little ugly, insofar as it’s not really a deep examination of a person’s soul so much as a more sweeping takedown of a period. It’s supposed to be a bit mean spirited.

Ashley: Good satire tends to be a little grotesque. I agree. But reading page after page of essentially meaningless information–suits, restaraunts, coveted reservations, clubs–I recognize that this is supposed to tell us something true about these men. But it’s not pleasurable and satisfying to read lists, just endless pointless data. Nor is it pleasurable to read impressively accurate depictions of how bad music writing was at the time. Nor is it pleasurable to read about assholes from the perspective of an asshole. American Psycho is significant because it’s about a bad time and in order to depict that, is bad itself.

Jennifer: Don’t you find Patrick Bateman somewhat pitiable though? He’s miserable. He’s a buffoon. He’s terribly, terribly uncool. And very angry. At everyone.

Ashley: His painting is upside down. (Puppy face)

Jennifer: It’s funny, you often bring up the scene where he gives Evelyn a urinal cake dipped in Godiva chocolate and she tries to eat it (because Eveleyn values presentation over subtence!) as a scene that’s particulatly disturbing and evidence that it’s just a gross book. But – spoiler for The Help! – in The Help the comedic high point is when one of the maids feeds a former employer a pie into which she has baked her own shit.

Ashley: That is horrible.

Jennifer: This is seen – to pretty much everyone in the book - as hilarious and righteous and great. Grandmothers are presumably reading this scene and chuckling while knitting scarves for orphans.

Ashley:  I can’t even begin to articulate why I don’t want to read a book about a moral system in which that is seen as acceptable, much less triumphant.

Like this, only human feces baked in pies.

Jennifer: Ashley, it’s The Help. It’s perhaps the most wholesome book of the year. It’s about people coming together through literature and church groups. The audience presumably can relate enough to bizarre, vengeful displays of anger for that to be included. It’s only shocking because Patrick just feels that way about EVERYONE.

Ashley: Doesn’t he use a jackhammer to open the vagina of a dead prostitute so he can work a sewer rat inside of her? What’s the equivelant of that in The Help?

Jennifer: That part of The Help did not make the final editing cut, because their editors were cowards.

Ashley: Well, okay. I also find it really lame and cheesy that the payoff of American Psycho is: “But was it real?” and this kind of stupid glee it takes in its own ambiguity. I meean, I guess it would be impressive if BEE invented the unreliable narrator. But he didn’t. In the book’s defense, I do like that scene where Tom Cruise tells Patrick his nose is bleeding. That’s funny.

Jennifer: Oh, I think it’s real. I don’t think the book means anything if it’s not real. I mean, I think it’s real the way manga comic books are real, which is to say it’s real in the context of a surreal universe.

What happens if your parents don't love you?

Ashley: Okay, well, we’re not going to debate whether it all happened. My closing argument is this: one time, in college, I said I liked the movie. This kid told me “The book was better” and I told him people only say that to announce they’ve read the book and they’re just revealing something stupid about themselves by doing so. And then he tried to push me off the roof we were standing on. Luckily, a bigger guy was there and stopped him. So, my closing argument is that people who like American Psycho are emotionally unstable. Which I learned from a single isolated incident. Airtight. …Bitch.

Jennifer: Maybe you shouldn’t be so abrasive if you don’t want people to try to kill you, Ashley. Maybe that should be AP’s ultimate takeaway.

Ashley: Huh. Maybe we’ve been talking past each other,

Jennifer: The whole time we were as one. Like Pat and Evelyn.

Ashley: Which of us has to eat the urinal cake?

Jennifer: Do you know how many grams of fat and sodium are in the chocolate coating ALONE?

Ashley: We both should be punished.

[UPDATE: Now with more poll!]

Sorry! This poll is now closed.

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    • kjon

      Like Ashley, I’ve read it once. Based on this, I was most struck not by his OCD materialism/vanity, or even the fact that he was a brutal serial killer, but that he fit in so well while doing it. Even though his male colleagues thought he was a nerd and they didn’t always get his name right they ‘recognized’ him as one of their own. He is a faceless manifestation of the American Dream. Desperation for conformity and ‘mirroring’ each other, the book shows yuppie lifestyle at its worst (or best?).
      There are several parts that seemed tedious such as debating the proper use of a tie bar and it’s hard to not get distracted by the sheer, disgusting violence of it. The lack of empathy throughout the whole book is astounding, somewhat expected, but astounding nonetheless. PB is impossibly empty inside. The only emotions I sensed are envy (in a superficial sense), inexplicable anger and paranoia. Also, most importantly, his need to fit in. According to the Bateman, he feels only “greed and disgust” (sorry I don’t have a page number for that).
      An interesting thing I noticed is Bateman’s treatment of male vs. female victims. It seemed that he killed men quickly, even mid-sentence, while with females he was much more, uhm, creative. I think he kills about the same number of men as women so I can’t decide if that makes him more or less misogynistic. Does the method matter? PB holds everyone in contempt except himself.

    • Meghan Keane

      Patrick Bateman is my hero.

    • Amanda Chatel

      I have to say that American Psycho is one of my favorite books… it’s hysterical, painfully gruesome and is one of the few things in this world that makes me feel sane.

    • Christopher Wren

      I just made 17 french fries dashed with pecorino cheese from half a stick of vermont cultured butter while drinking a glass of 14 year Caol Ila… which age is this book of yours about?

    • Nicole

      I haven’t read this particular book (though did enjoy the movie), but as a rule, I hate BEE. Some of his books don’t even make any SENSE, and even when there is a coherent plot, it really is,as Ashley said, comprised of a long list of fucked up shit. Shock value can only take a book so far.

    • porkchop

      As far as I can tell, each adaptation of a BEE novel is better than the last.

      American Psycho IS a good book. It’s true that you have to love the worst of the 80s in order to hate the worst of the worst of the 80s properly, but that’s interesting, right? The reason this is good satire is because the people who really think all the materialism and excess of the 80s is wrong won’t like the book, whereas people who kind of love it will either totally get this book, or will actually take it’s empty values seriously and become even more a part of the joke than they already were.

      The layers of illusion are even better because you don’t know what’s real, and even if it were all real it wouldn’t have any more or less meaning.