In this text, I will be looking at the narrative structure of the story in American Psycho to see how this relates to the protagonist Patrick Bateman`s feeling of selfcontrol. By looking at his relations, both familial and friendly, can we get a better understanding of why he uses violence? I have also looked at how his relations links up to his own perception of reality, and whether or not the events Bateman narrates are actually real.
There are different ways in which violence is used in American Psycho. One of them is for Bateman to retrieve his lost identity. Berthold Schoene writes in his article that although Bateman`s frequent `panic attacks´ help him in providing momentary relief, they «cannot reassemble his fragmented self into a coherent, viable identity». So, then, the violence may be interpreted in a different, more personal way. Bateman`s violence could be a way of keeping himself sane or even to `reassert´ himself. (Schoene, 2008, p 383) It is an outlet for holding up with his unbearable social relations, which overflow with boredom, repetition and is, essentially, a competition over who has the most expensive suit. During the depictions of torture and mutilations, however, Bateman shows a much more colourful and lively use of language, than in the repetitive and arguably boring parts when he lists up what people are wearing. These passages becomes almost a ritual to him (and to us as readers), that gradually becomes less and less significant, reflecting what the formalist Shkolvsky`s writes when talking about habitualization; «And so, life is reckoned as nothing». Bateman`s obsession over The Patty Winters Show is another example of this. At the end of the book, after continually summing up what the days show was about, he says that, on page 268 of my book: «The Patty Winters Shows were all repeats. Life remained a blank canvas, a clichè, a soap opera.» (American Psycho, p 268)
Let`s return to his reason for violence. I would like to suggest it is also a way of way to compensate for a dysfunctional childhood. We know virtually nothing of his childhood, and we have to make our own interpretation from what we know of his parents. I am making my interpretation from what we know about Bateman`s relations to his mother. Only one and a half pages are given to his mother, but during this passage we can interpret their relations to be one of non-functional. His mother is «heavily sedaded» and Bateman himself ignores her and is more interested in how he looks like. Through this, as well as keeping in mind a passage in the zoo, where Bateman sees a woman breast-feeding which awakens something awful in him, I suggest that he might have had a troublesome, dysfunctinal childhood, or mother-figure, which may be a source to understand his mysogynistic treatment of women. Another hint that points to this, is how he films his victims in order to «understand them better.» This could all be a way for him to say he wants to understand his mother better.
Of course, this is based on very small passages from the book, and are mostly a result of self-interpretation. Carla Freccero would disagree with my point of view. She writes in her article, «… no clues are provided that would suggest a tortured relationship between the two» (Freccero, 1997, pp 51). She, rather, focuses on Batemans`s father, whom all we know about is through a photograph Bateman looks at, where he stands besides a topiary animals, and «… there’s something the matter with his eyes» (Ellis, 1991, pp 352)
Whether or not Bateman is an unreliable character can be (and has been) interpreted narratologically. (see Jennifer Phillips, 2009) There are hints that point in each direction. There are a number of instances where we can question whether what Bateman says and does are actually happening. More than once does he straight out tells someone he is a murderer, and the reaction he gets is either non-existant, or very unlikely. There seems to be an incompatibility between what Bateman says, and what happens immediatley after. This is a source of his unreliabilty. Furthermore, he keeps talking about his own reality, and points out what is and what is not a part of it. Even his trustworthiness is questionable. But when it comes down to it, whether he is reliable or not is really irrelevant. The gruesome, horrific scenes of violence are still there for us to read. And if they don`t actually happen, they are still very real to Bateman. As we have seen, it is in these events in which he assumes total control over the narrative, and himself.
There is a passage in the book where the narrative shifts from first to third person. It happens while Bateman is being chased by a police officer through the streets of New York. The timing is not coincidental; as we know, throughout the book, being the perpetrator Bateman has been in control over the narration, but in this specific part of the book, it is himself who has become the victim. He loses control over himself and feels chaos taking over him, and thus, fittingly does he lose the narrative authority. This is interesting in a narratological perspective, but we will stick to the notion of Bateman as being in control over himself as a way of maintain his identity. He is unable to do so in this passage. When he gets back his control, the first person narrative resumes.
There is a significant lack of a complex, round character in the book, other than Bateman. This links up to his excruciating obsession of constantly listing up what his friends are wearing in practically every situation Bateman finds himself in. Bateman in this way detaches himself from other human beings, and turns them into objects. Julian Murphet writes that «the people are invisible, swallowed by the products they wear». It becomes hard to distinguish a definite, substantial character that stand out from the book. (Murphet, 2002, pp 28) Humans have become products and merchandise. This becomes painfully clear when reading about the way Bateman picks up prostitutes, as if browsing through a shopping centre. During this de-humanising process, the act of murdering has become routine for Bateman, in the same way (as we have seen) listing up what people are wearing, and The Patty Winters Show. At some point in the book, Bateman doesn`t even bother to specify who says what, he only says «someone says», or «a sound coming from somewhere».
The only character in his social circle Bateman treats with respect, and like an actual other human being, is his secretary Jean. Despite the obvious misogynistic discourse, I argue that Jean is the closest to a heroine this book comes to. Bateman is able to open up to her, unlike anyone else. He treats her with respect, and asks himself what kind of books she reads, so as to get closer to her intellectually.
One way in which the horror in American Psycho is depicted, is how behind a `normal´ shell, there lurks a psychopathic cannibal. The fact that individuality is not longer an issue is also horrorfying, for two reasons. One; because we are no longer able to understand ourself fully. Our subject becomes fragmented, and figuratively eaten up. And two, in the words of Freccero; because of the way American Psycho is «collapsing form and content and [by] eliminating a `moral framework´ for the depiction of `monstrous criminality´» (Freccero, 1997, pp 51) Meaning, this could be anyone. Furthermore, the possibility of an unreliable narrator works as a horrifying element in American Psycho because we constantly ask ourself the probability of Batemans actions, and what their possible effects could be. Whether we can really trust anyone becomes a question. I would like to conclude by including a quote from Ellis, from Freccero`s article, on art: «… art has now become our need to be terrified» (Freccero, 1997, pp 56)
Bibliography / further reading
Freccero, C. (1997) Historical Violence, Censorship and the Serial Killer: The Case of «American Psycho» Diacritics [Online] (Vol. 27, nr. 2) p. 44 – 58. Available from: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1566351 [Accessed: 18th October 2015]
Murphet, J. (2002) Bret Easton Ellis`s American Psycho: A Reader`s Guide London: The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc.
Phillips, J. (2009) Unreliable narration in Bret Easton Ellis`s American Psycho: Interaction between narrative form and thematic content. Research Online. [Online] (Vol. 1, nr. 1) p. 60 – 68. Available from: http://ro.uow.edu.au/currentnarratives/vol1/iss1/6 [Accessed 11th October 2015)
Schoene, B. (2008) Serial Masculinity: Psychopathology and Oedipal Violence in Bret Easton Ellis`s American Psycho. MFS Modern Fiction Studies. [Online] (Vol. 54 nr. 2) p. 378 – 397. Available from: http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/mfs/summary/v054/54.2.schoene.html [Accessed 16th October 2015]
Shklovsky V. (1917 / 2004) Art as Technique. In Rivkin J. & Ryan M (eds.) Literary Theory: An Anthology 2nd Edition. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing