Patrick Bateman and me: John Walsh comes clean about his intimate relationship with American Psycho's serial killer

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

 

In the summer of 1991, I was rattling along underneath London, somewhere on the District or Circle Line. The carriage was crowded and I stood, clutching the overhead support with one hand while holding my paperback open with the other. Then it happened.

"Excuse me," said a voice from below, about level with my waist. "EXCUSE ME..."

I looked down. A woman in a red coat and matching beret was glaring up at me.

"Would you mind TELLING me," she said, in a voice that suggested she was speaking for the whole carriage, "why you're reading THAT BOOK?"

"Why do you want to know?" I asked, quelling a desire to say it was none of her damn business.

"You know why I'm asking," she said in a steely tone. "That book is notoriously nasty, disgusting and ANTI-WOMEN. There have been articles about in the papers. I want to know why anyone – why any man – would want to buy and read it." She nodded, as if congratulating herself on nailing a furtive misogynist on the Tube.

"It's by Bret Easton Ellis," I said. "A good American author. Anything he writes is worth reading, though it may not be to your taste. And I think you'll find that the killer in this book doesn't stop at women. He kills men, dogs, cats..."

"And that's to your TASTE is it?" she said contemptuously. "You must be so PROUD of yourself." With that she rose and strode off the train, leaving me under a fire of accusing looks. As if, by reading the book, I was as bad as its deranged protagonist. As if I were Patrick Bateman.

American Psycho was the succès de scandale of 1991. It caused a furore before it was published – even before it was printed. When Ellis's publishers, Simon & Schuster, sent the manuscript to their printers, one of the machinists read a paragraph and drew it to the attention of others. The printers refused to have anything to do with it – and some offending passages were leaked to the press by "concerned employees" of Simon & Schuster. The company cancelled publication, citing "aesthetic objections", but paid Ellis the full $300,000 advance anyway.

Then Spy magazine published an article abusing Ellis for one of the book's more lurid scenes involving the flaying of a woman's skin. The LA branch of the National Organisation of Women issued a statement of disgust, calling American Psycho "a how-to novel on the torture and dismemberment of women" and threatening to boycott any publisher who touched it.

Picador's UK paperback edition of the book (Alamy) Picador's UK paperback edition of the book (Alamy)
For five days it seemed the book had been stifled. Then Sonny Mehta, the legendary president and editor-in-chief of Knopf bought the rights for his Vintage imprint. The book, he said, was a "serious" work of fiction. In summer 1991, American Psycho was published and loosed on the marketplace.

The reaction was outrage. Three weeks before publication, The New York Times ran a review under the headline, 'Snuff this book: don't let Bret Easton Ellis get away with murder'. Other US reviews were unanimously terrible, with the sole exception of Vanity Fair, in which Norman Mailer called it "Dostoevskian".

The response in the UK was little better. Joan Smith in The Guardian called it "an entirely negligible piece of work, badly written and wholly lacking in insight and illumination". In The Observer, Andrew Motion practically spat with fury. The book, he said, was "throughout numbingly boring and for much of the time deeply and extremely disgusting. Not interesting-disgusting but disgusting-disgusting: sickening, cheaply sensationalist, pointless except as a way of earning its author some money and notoriety."

Only two British reviewers praised Ellis's book. One was the novelist Fay Weldon, who called it a "beautifully controlled, important novel". The other was your humble scribe. Writing in The Sunday Times, where I was then literary editor, I described it as "serious, clever and shatteringly effective... For its savagely coherent picture of a society lethally addicted to blandness, it should be judged by the highest standards."

I meant it. It's an amazing satire on capitalist extremism, a world of surfaces in which everything about the milieu of bankers, bond dealers and billionaires in late-1980s Wall Street is minutely described, except the reason why one of them is killing people. Our guide is Patrick Bateman, aged 26, handsome, charming, cool, sophisticated, cynical and designer-suited. Bateman knows his labels. His eyes study the bodies and clothes of all his associates, identifying where everything comes from:

"Reed Thompson walks in wearing a wool-plaid four-button double-breasted suit and a striped cotton shirt and a silk tie, all Armani, plus slightly tacky blue cotton socks by Interwoven and black Ferragamo cap-toe shoes that look exactly like mine, with a copy of The Wall Street Journal held in a nicely manicured fist and a Bill Kaiserman tweed balmacaan overcoat draped casually across the other arm. He nods and sits across from us at the table. Soon after, Todd Broderick walks in wearing..."

Bret Easton Ellis caused outrage with his controversial novel (Getty Images) Bret Easton Ellis caused outrage with his controversial novel (Getty Images)
Bateman's narrating voice is a seamless hybrid of nullity and irritation. He notes everything around him with toneless exactitude (until the reader starts to skim the mantra of Brooks Brothers shirts and Oliver Peoples eyewear) and passes judgement on his fellow bankers and their girlfriends with flat disgust. We eavesdrop on their conversation. Nobody talks about money, investments, or jobs; they talk about getting concert tickets, getting the best table at Dorsia or Nell's.

Four characters have a tense exchange about which has the best business card. Everyone seems interchangeable. Investment bankers called Robert or Craig or Timothy are routinely mistaken for > each other. Everyone goes to the same gym, follows the same moisturiser regimen, drinks in the same bars, fancies the same blonde "hardbody" girls. The only thing missing is any human feeling.

Bateman knows this. He accepts his own nullity. "There is an idea of a Patrick Bateman, some kind of abstraction, but there is no real me," he says at one point, "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 simply am not there."

Just as we're dulled into accepting this echo-chamber of trendy nothingness, it all kicks off on page 125. Bateman teases a down-and-out lying in the garbage on 12th Street, humiliates him until he weeps, then flicks out his eyeball with a knife, stabs him in the guts and breaks his dog's legs. Then he goes for supper.

Hereafter, the narrative breaks its chronicle of affectless encounters to describe ever-more grotesque killings and mutilations. Chapters blandly titled 'Girl' describe, in dead-eyed detail, attacks with Mace and nail-guns, the appalling rat-in-the-vagina episode, Bateman's attempt to eat a victim's brains with Grey Poupon mustard. As he gets madder, and tries to confess his ghastly crimes, his fellow bankers hardly notice. Their moral compass is haywire. "Jesus, Bateman, you're a raving lunatic!" says Craig McDermott. "You can't eat at Smith & Wollensky's without ordering the hash browns!"

There's a problem here. American Psycho is a book that's admirably clever, structurally brilliant in its beady-eyed, post-modernist way (all those recitals of clothes and shoes and haircuts) and also incontrovertibly revolting in places. In parts of Australia and New Zealand, it's still available only in shrinkwrapped form, with an R-18 sticker. There are scenes you wish you could un-read. Bret Easton Ellis later said the passages were difficult to write, that he'd written them in a two-week period after finishing the rest of the book, and used "criminology textbooks to help me with some of the more graphic descriptions. They were upsetting to write, but this is what happens when you form a partnership with the person whose story you are telling together".

Maybe that's why Patrick Bateman has stayed in my head for 22 years: because his narrating voice is so belligerently satirical about the consumer world one minute, and because it's so coldly, disgustingly inhuman the next. You have to ask yourself: do I want to know the limits of the human imagination's capacity for cruelty? Would I just rather not?

Charvet silk tie and Sabatier stainless steel knife, author's own; business card by moo.com (Kalpesh Lathigra) Charvet silk tie and Sabatier stainless steel knife, author's own; business card by moo.com (Kalpesh Lathigra)
I met Ellis in 1994, three years after American Psycho, when he came to London to launch a collection of stories, The Informers. He was invited on to BBC2's Late Show. I recorded a link on-camera, describing the flap caused by his notorious earlier book, then the show, after which he was interviewed in the studio next door. That evening we met at the Ritz, where the book was being launched in the Palm Court. Le tout Londres littéraire stood around drinking champagne. Formal in a dark suit, Ellis was a curiously bland, baby-faced man with a look of chronic affront, as if he'd just been mildly insulted.

"Hi," I said, "I'm John. I saw you at The Late Show studio earlier. I was introducing the segment about you, and talking about American Psycho."

"Yeah, I remember," he said. "Is that what you were talking about? I saw you through the glass, waving your arms around. I thought, 'Wow there must be some big deal to have got this guy so worked up'."

"So you didn't actually listen to what I said?" I asked coldly.

"No!" said Ellis, laughing. "Should I have?"

He turned away. I went off him a little bit at that point, truth to tell. Remembering how I'd championed him in 1991, in the teeth of the world's disapproval, I thought he might have been more polite. I moodily crushed a mushroom vol-au-vent between my teeth and wished it were the index finger of his writing hand. A tiny twitch of Patrick Bateman annoyance had entered my soul.

In 2000, the film of American Psycho was released. Many commentators had ridiculed the idea of filming such an unfilmable book (how would they do the nail-gun bits? And the rat scene?) but they reckoned without Mary Harron, the American director of I Shot Andy Warhol (and a university contemporary of mine).

She found a style of breezy sophistication and manic comedy that turned the Ninnies of Wall Street into modern-day male Stepford Wives and made the killings almost plausible as an extreme response to their blandness. Suddenly, Bateman's bloodlust seemed merely a step away from Billy Fisher machine-gunning his tiresome granny in Billy Liar, or Jim Dixon, in Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim, longing to throttle the madrigal-loving Professor Welch.

The film's credit sequence was brilliant. What looked like drops of blood falling down the screen became a raspberry coulis drizzled on a posh dessert plate. And Christian Bale, as Bateman, was wonderful – his joshing contempt for his banking peers need turn up only a notch to hit full psychopathic wrath. And there's a wrenching pathos about his final scenes, when he confesses his crimes to his lawyer and isn't believed because, he's told, "Bateman is such a boring, spineless lightweight" that he isn't capable of murder.

Bateman returned in 2005 when Ellis published Lunar Park. Though couched as a celebrity memoir, it's a meta-fiction about a character called Bret Easton Ellis whose glamorous life as a novelist (the early chapters are more-or-less autobiographical) is disturbed when he and his family move to the suburbs and he discovers he's being stalked or haunted. And the figure doing the haunting is... Patrick Bateman, who is rumoured to be responsible for murders in suburbia.

Ellis's most vivid character has clearly proven hard to shake off. Last year, Ellis said he was planning to write a sequel to American Psycho, in which a 21st-century Bateman sets out to murder famous men including David Beckham and Gavin Rossdale, the British singer and guitarist with the band Bush. More immediately exciting, however, is the stage musical.

Since 2008, rumours have spread that two American producers, Jesse Singer and David Johnson, were looking to turn American Psycho into a musical. It's not as mad as it sounds. Sweeney Todd, the demon barber of Fleet Street, who slit the throats of his customers and sold their reconstituted flesh in his partner's pies, got the full Stephen Sondheim treatment. American Psycho will have its world premiere at London's Almeida Theatre on 3 December.

Matt Smith, the former Doctor Who, will star as Bateman. Music and lyrics are by Duncan Sheik, an American Buddhist singer-songwriter best known for the musical Spring Awakening.

At the helm is Rupert Goold, the Almeida's new boss, whose major credits are for directing Patrick Stewart in Macbeth, and the banking-crash play Enron, both at Chichester. He won Best Director at the Evening Standard Theatre Awards for both of them, in 2007 and 2009.

And what is American Psycho, and its irrepressible titular hero, Bateman, but a masterly conflation of a chimerical and superficial Enron world of dodgy money, and a man who takes to murder because he has lost sight of all sense of himself?

Sidenotes

Patrick Bateman has a tiny cameo in Ellis's 1998 novel 'Glamorama'. The book's protagonist meets him in a bar and notices a strange stain on Bateman's cuff

'Bright Lights, Big City', by Ellis's Eighties counterpart Jay McInerney, has also had the theatrical treatment. The rock musical, about a hard-partying young New Yorker, had a brief 2010 run in London

Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker