“…although I can hide my cold gaze and you can shake my hand and feel my flesh gripping yours and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are probably comparable: I simply am not there…”
The term “unreliable narrator” was first coined by Wayne Booth in his ground-breaking work The Rhetoric of Fiction and, since then, unreliable narrators have become prevalent in literature; from Lolita’s Humbert Humbert, to A Clockwork Orange’s Alex, to Fight Club’s Unnamed Narrator, to Wuthering Heights’ Nelly and Lockwood, these characters are presented. None of these literary characters, however, even come close to possessing the claustrophobic, suspicious, and psychotic narrative of the charismatic serial killer Patrick Bateman: the most unreliable of them all.
Bret Easton Ellis created the character of Patrick Bateman, a wealthy Wall Street yuppie specialising in mergers and acquisitions, in his 1991 novel American Psycho. The novel focuses on Bateman’s killing sprees, attacks of psychosis and hallucinations, and his disregard for those different to his exact class and gender, whom he murders in apparently random bursts of bloodlust and rage. Many, however, question Bateman’s narrative, and whether he really killed anyone at all. His descent into depersonalisation and neuroses finds himself in thought and speech patterns uncharacteristic to that of a sane narrator. This literary technique is utilised to create a deeply dark novel of uncertainty.
Bateman compulsively lists what people are wearing when he meets them. “He’s wearing a linen suit by Canali Milano, a cotton shirt by Ike Behar, a silk tie by Bill Blass and cap-toed leather lace-ups from Brooks Brothers. I’m wearing a lightweight linen suit with pleated trousers, a cotton shirt, a dotted silk tie, all by Valentino Couture, and perforated cap-toe leather shoes by Allen-Edmonds”; this is an example of how he’d typically introduce a new character. His seemingly random compulsive obsessions stretch far further than this, though, to his workout routine, drinks order, business card, beauty regime, and so on. His lack of emotional presence is self-fulfilled by a shallow, controlling desire for seemingly banal tasks and interests. Although seemingly emotionless, however, he often expresses extreme anger, frustration and embarrassment over simple events such as not being able to secure dinner reservations and certain establishments and forgetting to return videotapes. These strange behaviours are the basis for his unreliability. Bateman also takes an enormous amount of both legal and illegal drugs, and it is perfectly possibly to assume that his claims of grandeur and heightened murderous instincts are resulting from his drug-fogged, possibly schizophrenic mind. He says he is “imitating reality.”
His depersonalization is highlighted by others who continuously refer to him by the wrong name: Simpson, Halberstam, McCullough, etc, and he does nothing to correct them; in fact, he often adopts these various personas for his own personal gain. He indeed views himself differently to how others see him; his inward perception is one of a physically perfect human, with perfect clothes, the perfect job, and the ability to charm any blonde “hardbody” he sees worthy. Others, alternatively, call him “the boy next door”; his lawyer doesn’t even deem him capable of murder.
After apparently murdering business associate Paul Owen, Bateman uses his flat as a place to murder, torture and dismember young women. He then leaves the two hanging in closets and lying in pools of their own blood. When he returns to the flat, however, he finds no trace of his crimes and the spotless flat is being shown to prospective buyers. Then, after leaving a lengthy phone message for his lawyer confessing his crimes, including the murder of Paul Owen, his lawyer does not believe him as he claims that he had lunch with Paul just the other week. This simple exchange makes the reader question the validity and reality of Bateman’s crime, described to us so vividly and horrifically. Did he even murder Paul Owen and the subsequent prostitutes? Bateman’s descriptive murders are often never referred to again; when he goes on a killing spree, murdering a busker, cab driver, doorman, amongst others in rapid succession, with a SWAT team and helicopter being dispatched, the next day Patrick’s life continues as normal and nothing is brought up again. Indeed, one critic states that “because of the ‘namelessness’ of his victims, there is very little proof that these attacks occur outside of Bateman’s mind” (Phillips). During the aforementioned killing spree, the narrative suddenly slips into the third person, from “I” to “Patrick”, showing the climax of Bateman’s journey into complete depersonalisation.
He says to someone, in casual conversation: “I like to dissect girls, did you know I’m utterly insane”. But the lack of a concerned reply suggests that he didn’t really say this out loud at all, contributing further to his reputation as an unreliable narrator. Strangers thinking that he says he works in “mergers and acquisitions” as opposed to what Bateman tells us he actually said “murders and executions”.
During a discussion at a dinner party with his partner Evelyn, he says that “we have to provide food and shelter for the homeless and oppose racial discrimination and promote civil rights while also promoting equal rights for women”. It shows Bateman’s slimy, manipulative and charismatic outer shell; in reality, he doesn’t care about any of the highlighted issues – he taunts and kills homeless people, uses the ‘n’ word, and debases and demeans women on a daily basis.
Are we meant to believe Bateman’s narrative, or is the whole point of the novel to discredit it? Some view American Psycho as satire, a critique of the yuppie lifestyle of 1980s, and perhaps Ellis manipulated Bateman’s unreliability to achieve this effect. The author says: “regarding the murders, I was always on the fence about whether they were fantasy or real. I don’t know and I prefer it that way.” Perhaps this is the best stance to take – to never be able to truly know if Bateman was telling the truth – but the fact that this very doubt manifests itself in our minds is sheer proof of Patrick’s role as an unreliable narrator.
Words by Steph Green