The correct interpretation of American Psycho (the book/novel)?

I’ve read the book and the novel too but some things confuse me.

It seems obvious to me that this is a criticism of materialism and yuppie society, but I don’t understand his mentality. He seems so self-loathing that he needs to kill people he thinks are a detriment to society (he’s racist, homophobic, etc). And yet, sometimes he says completely odd things (sees a Cheerio being interviewed on TV, a park bench is stalking him, he finds bone in his ice cream bar). Other times he seems to exaggerate the situation to make himself look better.

I can’t tell what’s really going on, here. Does anyone understand this book or understand the main character and his motives?

Since this is about a book, let’s move it over to Cafe Society.

General Questions Moderator

My mistake, thanks for moving it.

You’ve read both the book and the novel?

I’ve only read it once and that was a while ago so I don’t have any deep insights and this may be an overly-simplistic interpretation. I think it’s fair to assume he’s an “unreliable narrator”; his shooting spree seems exaggerated at the least and whether or not he ever killed Paul Owen is in doubt. I think what did and didn’t happen is deliberately left unclear and there’s probably no “right” answer to that and therefore no real way to be clear about his motives, if there are any. If even some of his crimes and other strange behaviour is real I think he essentially does what he feels like at the time and has no particular underlying motives in that respect.


However, I think one of the possible explanations we’re presented, and the one that I like the best, is that most of the events of the novel are a fantasy of a slightly crazy but ultimately ineffectual narcissist. He dreams of having power over those he feels that he should dominate (women, his peers), but in real life he doesn’t even have power over his own life, let alone others.

Yikes, I meant book and movie.

Anyway, I guess my question here is about the literal turn of events. It seems obvious that he’s murdered SOME people, at least, but I question whether ALL the murders were true or if certain murders were exaggerated.

For instance, in the book he attacks this beggar and if you read the descriptions he uses, the attack is just brutal and appears terminal. However, somehow the beggar returns again later in the book with scarred eyes… evidence that he survived the attack somehow. Stuff like that just made little sense to me.

I suspect he did kill Paul Owen (since they eventually took over his apartment to sell it), especially since he was more successful than Bateman in most ways.

The shooting spree is what really confused me. In the book, he goes into third-person when describing it – like a movie scene. In the movie, it just seems unrealistic to have all these cops pursuing him, the ATM asking for a cat, his pistol blowing up entire cars, and so on. It almost looks like he just WANTS people to come after him / to pay attention to him, and makes up stories to portray the image he wants.

But I can’t really tell at all.

I’ve read the book and I bought the movie a few years ago. My interpretation has always been that the events are all Bateman’s fantasy.

I think if I had to pick an interpretation I’d go with this.

The fact that his apartment was for sale does suggest this, and I think there was some implication that there was an attempt to cover up a bad smell (like the smell of three bodies left in there). But on the other hand, there appears to be no murder investigation or news of any discovery. So either Owen and the prostitutes were never killed, or someone else disposed of the bodies, for some reason. I quite like the idea that the lady who was selling the apartment did it in order to keep the value of the property, but that seems… unlikely. Don’t forget Bateman’s lawyer says he had dinner with Owen long after he was supposedly murdered, and laughs at the idea of him doing anything like that, which fits with the idea that he is simply a weak man who fantasizes about taking control but never does or can.

I’ve only seen the movie, but I was always baffled by people who said it was ambiguous. I thought it was clear as day that the entire thing took place in his head.

I think it was ambiguous…or do I?!?

My interpretation of the novel is that this is exactly what happened. The owner of the flat made the decision to cover up the murder in order to avoid losing money. Everybody in Bateman’s world is utterly self-absorbed and completely amoral; and they’re all so obsessed with surface and status that they’re almost a set of attitudes rather than actual physical creatures, which is why the lawyer thinks he had dinner with Paul Allen. He didn’t, it’s just that he didn’t realise. At the dinner he probably didn’t interact with his guest, beyond the handshake and exchange of business cards. American Psycho takes place in a world where no-one connects with anybody else.

The general theme is that Bateman gets away with utterly savage crimes because no-one suspects him - on the outside, he’s anonymous - no-one cares for the victims, he has no shortage of resources, everybody is out for number one, and no-one really benefits from investigating his murders. The world is all surface and there isn’t an ounce of human compassion or feeling.

From what I remember he does get caught at one point, by a taxi driver who realises that he is the mass-murderer who has been going around killing people; but Bateman bribes the taxi driver, who lets him go, because he is just as insubstantial as everybody else in the book. The novel gives us one little bit of hope that this monster might get his comeuppance, and then destroys it. Who is going to stop him? The police don’t really care. He’s never going to feel any remorse. He’s untouchable. On a metaphorical level he’s one of the vampire parasites that rule our lives.

“Outside the limit of our sight, feeding off us, perched on top of us, from birth to death, are our owners! Our owners! They have us. They control us! They are our masters! Wake up! They’re all about you! All around you!”

Now, it’s not necessarily realistic - it seems odd that he would get away with killing the kid - but there’s a big difference a work of fiction that takes place in an exaggerated world, and an out-and-out dream sequence. The film is a lot more ambiguous, but again there’s a theme that Bateman exists in a refined world where human compassion doesn’t exist and people mean nothing to each other.

I think it is quite probable that it is mostly his fantasy. But as others have said, there isn’t really a way to tell for certain from the book alone.
I enjoyed the book (though “enjoyed” is probably not quite the right word for it). My only complaint is that perhaps the satire is laid on a bit thick for what I take to be a simple premise, that the same sort of person who’d obsess over a business card font would gladly gut a prostitute for kicks. Mind you, having met some rather scary Bateman types I’m not sure he’s too far off the mark.

In my opinion Bateman is descending into psychosis, and is himself unsure of what’s really real and what’s fantasy. All the crazy stuff is fantasy, though; psychotic people can’t tell the difference.

It certainly reads, to me, like Ellis is deliberately evoking the exact kind of hallucinations that are typical of psychosis.

I’m feeling like reading the book again now, and looking out for evidence that it’s real or not real. I actually have several Bret Easton Ellis books on my bookshelf waiting to be read. The problem is that I read American Psycho and Less Than Zero very quickly and, although I liked both (I agree with Novelty Bobble that “enjoyed” is probably not quite right) I ended up feeling quite weird afterwards.