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Why I Think Patrick Bateman Wasn't Fantasizing in American Psycho
Ever since the release of Mary Harron's adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis' American Psycho in 2000, there has developed a school of thought that says that all of the atrocities that Patrick Bateman commits throughout the story are fantasies. The end of the film unintentionally implies that Patrick Bateman's punishment continues to escape him along with any acknowledgement of Paul Allen's absence solely because Bateman imagined all of it; in reality, he's supposedly a bored yuppie who doesn't work and instead draws his violent fantasies in his notebook at the office. His secretary Jean discovers this notebook in his desk drawer, horrified by the sketches of women who have been sexually mutilated and cut with chainsaws.
Mary Harron herself has made it clear that the “fantasy conclusion” was not intended and a misinterpretation, while Bret Easton Ellis has more recently stated that he “changed his mind” about the ending, believing it could be interpreted as a daydream. While I do find this idea amusing and satirical in its own way, I think the idea that Bateman is actually free to commit these horrible acts within the real world enhances the inherent satire.
In the novel American Psycho, Patrick Bateman is a wall street yuppie whose job we never know or need to know, but he gained it through nepotism on part of his father's reputation in the company Pierce & Pierce. He is entirely materialistic, describing people only by what designer clothes they wear along with their hairstyle. Hardly a mention of facial features appears in the text, which leaves the world of Bateman relatively faceless. This is actually a common theme in Ellis' works. Bateman's colleagues are equally vapid in the novel and film, so concerned with fitting in that all individual identity is lost in the process. It's made clear numerous times that characters are mistaken for others because they all look so similar, which is made all the more humorous when people mistake Bateman for somebody else while talking about what a dork Patrick Bateman is in his presence.
The very fact that Patrick Bateman and his fellow yuppies are so shallow and self-absorbed allows him to murder men like Paul Allen (Paul Owen in the novel) without anybody noticing his absence. Everybody, including Bateman's lawyer Harold Carnes (who also mistakes Bateman for somebody else), believes that Paul Allen is still alive because they met with him somewhere, when in fact it's likely that everybody mistook somebody else for Allen. This is made clear in detective Donald Kimble's statement at lunch with Bateman, when he says that he found that others were mistaking other people for Allen, leaving him puzzled as to what really happened.
Patrick hints at his murderous ways many times in nonchalant confessions during casual conversations, almost serving as cries for help. However, those around him are so concerned with themselves and their own perceptions of reality that they either mishear or dismiss Bateman's hilarious admissions entirely. The prime example would be in one of the nightclubs when he talks with an aspiring model, who inquires about what he does. His answer? “I work in murders and executions mostly.” The model's understanding? “Most people I know who work in mergers and acquisitions really don't like it.” She hears what she wants to. Another instance would be the drunken dinner Bateman has with Paul Allen, during which he casually states that he likes to dissect girls among other activities. All of these go unacknowledged of course because of Allen's own obsessions with himself.
One of my favorite passages in the novel relates to Bateman's own perception of his lost identity while at yet another upscale restaurant with his colleagues: “I stare into a thin, web-like crack above the urinal's handle and think to myself that if I were to disappear into that crack, say somehow miniaturize and slip into it, the odds are good that no one would notice I was gone. No... one... would... care. In fact some, if they noticed my absence, might feel an odd, indefinable sense of relief. This is true: the world is better off with some people gone. Our lives are not all interconnected. That theory is a crock. Some people truly do not need to be here.”
The concept of Bateman being so embedded in this superficial society that he can do the worst of things and remain anonymous solidifies how empty the society is. Everybody around him is obsessed with vanity and social status that when a vicious killer is in their midst he's still a ghost.
Even greed serves as a means to free Bateman of any consequences, which we see when he goes back to Paul Allen's apartment to check up the place after murdering him there. Instead of the gruesome murder scene he left behind–particularly after butchering prostitutes Elizabeth and Christie–he's greeted by a clean apartment and a real estate agent who instantly finds his presence suspicious. She asks him if he saw the ad in the New York Times and when he says he did she states that there was no ad; she's pinned him as the killer. And yet, in spite of this realization, the woman tells him to leave and never return, to which he complies. This of course indicates that there was a murder that took place there, but that the apartment complex was so obsessed with retaining the value of the apartment that they would rather cover a crime scene up than sell the apartment for less. Again, this helps solidify the satire.
Patrick Bateman is a monster who's allowed to roam free in the yuppie culture because of its emptiness. I find that much more intriguing and satirical than if he's simply a bored office employee who fantasizes about rebellion. He can do the things he does in the film and novel because of his perceived status and the lack of perception of those around him, and even when he seeks punishment when confessing to his lawyer on the phone, we see his own lawyer is just as vacuous when they meet in person: “Davis, I'm not one to badmouth anyone, your joke was amusing, but c'mon, man, it had one fatal flaw. Bateman is such a dork, such a boring spineless lightweight. Now if you said Bryce or McDermott. Otherwise it was amusing.”
“I'm Patrick Bateman,” a frustrated Bateman responds.
Throughout the novel Bateman grows increasingly insane, experiencing elaborate and often hilarious hallucinations, but I like to think that this is his sanity slipping and the mask can't be left on for much longer. For instance, the normally Jerry-Springer-like Patty Winters Show grows more bizarre, to the point where a small lifeless cheerio is interviewed on the show. I think the conflict between Bateman's own perception of reality and the lack of perceptiveness of those around him generates a great deal of commentary about the society. One example would be when he's in Central Park and believes an anthropomorphic park bench is following him as he walks, but nobody else around him notices his breakdown.
There are plenty of moments that suggest that Bateman's own madness stems from everybody else's belief that all is well in their world. Sadly, I don't think society has changed all too much from the one depicted in Ellis' 1991 novel, and even today a sneaky Bateman might be able to get away with the same crimes as everyone worries about his or her own self-importance above all else.