BOOK (1991)

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 December, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 05 December, 2010, 12:00am

American Psycho
by Bret Easton Ellis

American Psycho begins about as far from the fashionable world as possible with a quote from Dante's Inferno scrawled in blood red lettering on a wall: 'ABANDON HOPE ALL YE WHO ENTER HERE.'

Nevertheless, fashion forms one of many circles in Bret Easton Ellis' darkly satirical vision of hell. His inferno is not made of fire and brimstone, but of whatever is transitory, superficial and narrowly contemporary. So having cited Dante, he lets the pop culture references fly thick and fast: Les Miserables, McDonald's, Blaupunkt, Tumi, Walkman and D.F. Sanders.

This is just the first page and a half. At the bottom of page two, Ellis strikes a characteristic note: 'Price is wearing a six-button wool and silk suit by Ermenegildo Zegna, a cotton shirt with French cuffs by Ike Behar, a Ralph Lauren silk tie and leather wing tips Fratelli Rossetti.' In this world (New York City of the late 1980s), people are recognised, not for their character or even their face, but by the clothes they have selected. The choice of a suit by Cerruti 1881 or Alan Flusser can inspire envy, pity, disgust and even confusion - especially if you are Patrick Bateman, narrator of arguably the most infamous novel of the past half century.

By day, Bateman is a successful Wall Street trader. But by night, he is a serial killer with a particular taste for sexual violence. Bateman's psychopathology presents itself in many ways - most controversially in the torture scenes that Ellis describes in sickening detail. Yet his lack of basic human compassion makes itself felt everywhere, not least in his emotional attachment to inanimate objects.

Bateman is fashionable to a pathological degree. He craves the latest toys, the latest clubs, and the latest music, even if it is Huey Lewis, Whitney Houston and Phil Collins. He is in love with late 20th-century modernity, with new surfaces that have neither depth nor spirit. In other words, Bateman loves whatever offers a reflection of his own lack of conscience and soul. 'There is an idea of Patrick Bateman, some kind of abstraction, but there is no real me, only an entity, something illusory, and though I can hide my cold gaze and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping yours and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are probably comparable: I am simply not there.'

In this, he provides a nightmarish representation of a generation that have sold their individuality and become whatever everyone else wants them to be: in Bateman's case, a Wall Street trader who favours Clinique moisturiser, Ralph Lauren boxer shorts and silk ties by Valentino Couture. But he is also a warning. No matter how pristine our masks (Bateman prefers a herb-mint facial), our true selves will out, as sure as murder.