The key to American Psycho, a novel advertised as containing terrifying insights into the materialistic culture of the '80s, may be found in the publisher's disclaimer. Not only, we are assured, does author Bret Easton Ellis intend no reference to living persons, neither does he intend ''to disparage any company's products or services.'' Any more, that is, than he means to recommend that Manhattan yuppies torture, dismember, and devour their lovers in the manner of his hero, Wall Street banker Patrick Bateman. The murder and mayhem are there for the sake of literature, you see, and as such serve a higher purpose.
But it's all a great fraud. Apart from what they wear, Ellis knows less than zero about what Wall Street bankers do all day. His characters think, talk, and act like GQ mannequins, and Ellis' incantation of brand names allows him to traffic in just the stuff he pretends to abhor. Bateman's not just any maniac, see, he's a rich maniac with impeccable taste. Hopping into a limo for a night of hunting anonymous prey, we find him attired in ''a wing collar jacquard waistcoat by Kilgour, French & Stanbury from Barneys, a silk bow tie from Saks, patent-leather slip-ons by Baker-Benjes, antique diamond studs from Kentshire Galleries and a gray wool silk-lined coat with drop sleeves and a button-down collar by Luciano Soprani.''
Compared with a truly frightening book about the dehumanized '80s on Wall Street like Michael Lewis' nonfiction Liar's Poker, American Psycho's social criticism is purely sophomoric horrifying only for its author's utter lack of narrative skill. To say that Ellis creates two-dimensional characters would be to flatter his understanding of human nature.
It's when Bateman locates his prey, however, that American Psycho turns genuinely disturbing. The countless and obsessively detailed scenes of carnage roll on without purpose or emotion, leaving the reader numb to the narrative but appalled by its creator. Picture the most explicitly degrading porno movie imaginable. Add Charles Manson with a shop full of torture instruments.
So what does it all mean? Toward the end and entirely out of the blue, Ellis has Bateman deliver the deep hidden meaning. ''Intellect is not a cure. Justice is dead. Fear, recrimination, innocence, sympathy, guilt, waste, failure, grief, were things, emotions, that no one really felt anymore....God is not alive....Surface, surface, surface was all that anyone found meaning in.'' Yeah, sure. The only terrifying insights American Psycho gives are into the mind of its creator and the moral incoherence of those who have published it in the name of literature. F