Code / October 2016

American Psycho Analysis

Looking for some rakish Halloween inspiration? Look no further than Bret Easton Ellis’s controversial novel American Psycho, which turned 25 last year but remains as relevant as ever.

Christian Bale in the 2000 film version of novel 'American Psycho'.

Though the tale was intended as a snapshot of the conformist, consumerist, superficial late-1980s cultural landscape, American Psycho’s vision of modern urbane life has proven scarily prescient. Today, the world’s gone just a little bit Patrick Bateman.

Of that dashing yuppie psychopath, author Bret Easton Ellis said following the book’s release, “it was very clear to me when I started writing that this was going to be a character who was so obsessed with appearances that he was going to tell the reader in minute, numbing detail about everything he owns, everything he wears, everything he eats.” Many of us do much the same today via social media, fixated — like Bateman — with wearing the right thing, getting the hot reservation, eating the haute cuisine, and ensuring our circle is acutely aware of our access to these tasteful status symbols. Facebook et al have made flaunting so much easier than it was in 1991.

This year, marking American Psycho’s quarter-century anniversary, Ellis pondered whether — were he transported to 2016 — the sociopathic Bateman would be fiercely engaged with social media. “Would he have a Twitter account bragging about his accomplishments? Would he be using Instagram, showcasing his wealth, his abs, his potential victims? Possibly. There was the possibility to hide during Patrick’s ’80s reign that there simply isn’t now; we live in a fully exhibitionistic culture… The idea of Patrick’s obsession with himself, with his likes and dislikes and his detailing — curating — everything he owns, wears, eats, and watches, has certainly reached a new apotheosis. In many ways the text of American Psycho is one man’s ultimate series of selfies.”

Ellis explained that the book “was really about the dandification of the American male.” (A phenomenon the #menswear-obsessed Rake reader may well be familiar with.) “It was really about what is going on with men now, in terms of surface narcissism. Beginning in the ’80s, men were prettifying themselves… they were taking on a lot of the tropes of gay male culture and bringing it into straight male culture — in terms of grooming, looking a certain way, going to the gym, waxing, and being almost the gay porn ideals. You can track that down to the way Calvin Klein advertised underwear, a movie like American Gigolo, the re-emergence of Gentlemen’s Quarterly.”

Indeed, the pages of GQ provided rich source material for the excruciatingly detailed descriptions of designer style found in American Psycho. “GQ was inordinately helpful in costuming the characters in the book. They should have gotten credit,” Ellis said. Researching the characters’ wardrobes was a matter of “looking through GQ and seeing what the guys on Wall Street were wearing, since every other pictorial during those two years had guys hanging out in front of various office buildings downtown.”

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Christian Barker

Christian Barker is The Rake's Asia editor-at-large, a frequent contributor to this site, and an enthusiastic consumer of fine whiskies, sashimi and classic disco music - ideally in unison.