Before American Psycho came out, 25 years ago this month, it was already the most controversial novel of the Nineties. Its vivid depictions of gruesome murders of women, men, children and animals preceded wherever it went. The original publisher dropped it and told author Bret Easton Ellis to keep the money — but to please go away. The New York Times titled its book review “Snuff This Book!” On the opposite coast, Los Angeles Times begrudgingly wrote that “Free Speech Protects Even an ‘American Psycho.'” The National Organization of Women attempted to organize boycotts. Stores refused to order it. And Ellis, who turned 27 around its release, received death threats.
Despite the initial uproar, the book has enjoyed an unusual afterlife. At its heart, American Psycho is a caustic satire about materialism and the empty feeling that comes with chasing it. It’s a first-person account of a callous, vain Wall Street yuppie named Patrick Bateman who loves the pop music of the day (Whitney! Huey! Phil!) and has trouble coming to terms with his murderous inclinations. And it’s been translated into different media in sometimes unusual tones, notably a 2000 movie starring a smarmy Christian Bale, which presented the story as more of a black-comedy thriller, and most recently a tongue-in-cheek Broadway musical.
Over the past quarter-century, Patrick Bateman has also become a cult character, rearing his sleek-haired head in the imagery of Kanye West’s “Love Lockdown” video, in the lyrics of the Misfits and Fall Out Boy songs and in the dialogue of TV’s Dexter, How I Met Your Mother — even Keeping Up With the Kardashians. His catchphrase “I have to return some videotapes” has become a meme, as has an image from the movie of Bale with wide grin and an axe. Moreover, Ellis – who first introduced Bateman as the brother of The Rules of Attraction’s druggy college kid Sean Bateman – later revisited the character in a cameo in his 1998 book Glamorama and in his 2005 meta-novel Lunar Park, where a fictional Bret Ellis seals Bateman’s fate.
“You cannot control the popularity of your work,” Ellis says in a perfectly enunciated, Batemanesque way. “And you cannot control the influence of your work. I am sure that 99 percent of writers wish their work was more influential than it ultimately was. I have written books that have disappeared. And it’s not as if this book is a blockbuster: It hasn’t sold whatever Fifty Shades of Grey or All the Light We Cannot See or Gone Girl has. So for a book like this to somehow connect with the culture … you can’t not be kind of amused by it.”
The author, now 52, recently sat for an in-depth interview with Rolling Stone about the legacy of one of fiction’s most notorious – and best-groomed – dissidents.
Has the way that Patrick Bateman has become a cult character surprised you?
What if I said, no? [Pause.] I’m kidding [laughs]. Of course, it was surprising to me. American Psycho was an experimental novel. I wasn’t really quite sure, nor did I care, how many copies it was going to sell. I really didn’t care who connected with it.
Why is that?
I created this guy who becomes this emblem for yuppie despair in the Reagan Eighties – a very specific time and place – and yet he’s really infused with my own pain and what I was going through as a guy in his 20s, trying to fit into a society that he doesn’t necessarily want to fit into but doesn’t really know what the other options are. That was Patrick Bateman to me. It was trying to become a kind of ideal man because that seemed to be the only kind of a guy that was “accepted.” Bateman keeps saying, “I want to fit in.” I felt that way too. It’s very surprising and completely shocking that a novel that I was writing in 1987, 1988 and ’89, is being referenced now. Certainly the movie helped move it into a higher plane of consciousness for a lot of people. But it is surprising.
Long before the movie, though, the book was controversial.
I mean, what novels are controversial anymore? That world is gone. I don’t think that it’s possible, post-Internet and social media, to write a piece of fiction that would cause that sort of controversy. Whether the book should’ve caused controversy or not, that’s the other question. I think it’s always seemed to be an honest book in many ways, and I know there are a few people who laugh at me when I say that.
“In a weird way, it is serial killer chic, I guess. I mean, who was a serial killer before him who was that well-groomed or dressed?”
When was the last time you read it?
I think about 16 years ago when I was working on Lunar Park. I’m very self-critical. With any book, I want to rewrite things and wish things had been done differently.
In Lunar Park, you wrote dismissively about how American Psycho was accused of inspiring “serial killer chic.” Did the way people misinterpreted the point of the violence bother you?
Aren’t people just idiots? The older you get you realize everyone’s a fucking dumbass. So no surprise there. But in a weird way, it is serial killer chic, I guess. I mean, who was a serial killer before him who was that well-groomed or dressed?
Maybe Hannibal Lecter.
Yeah, but just not quite sexy in that way. It really wasn’t the serial killer aspect of American Psycho that was haunting me in the moment of writing it.
What is the book about in your opinion?
It was really about the dandification of the American male. It was really about what is going on with men now, in terms of surface narcissism.
What do you mean?
Beginning in the Eighties, men were prettifying themselves and in ways they weren’t. And they were taking on a lot of the tropes of gay male culture and bringing it into straight male culture — in terms of grooming, looking a certain way, going to the gym, waxing, and being almost the gay porn ideals. You can track that down to the way Calvin Klein advertised underwear, a movie like American Gigolo, the re-emergence of Gentlemen’s Quarterly. All of these things really informed American Psycho when I was writing it. So that seemed to me much more interesting than whether he is or is not a serial killer, because that really is a small section of the book.
In Lunar Park, you wrote about another inspiration for Bateman: your dad. How did he play into the character?
I used him as a scapegoat, in some ways. The character was much more about me. I didn’t feel comfortable talking about that for a long time because of the outcry over the book and I thought, “Oh, God. Why get into that now, since that book [was] so misunderstood?” So using my father became an easier way to talk about the book. And in some ways, my father had traits similar to Patrick Bateman. I saw him being affected by the new Eighties, male cosmetic overhaul. I was an artist, more liberal than he was, and certainly an outsider in terms of being gay. He was popular, white, privileged, Republican – all these things that Bateman was that I didn’t necessarily feel like I was. I was more interested in the metaphor and how it connected to me.
How did the turmoil surrounding the American Psycho book release affect you?
Well, you have to understand that I was not ever popular with critics or the press before American Psycho … or since [laughs]. I never felt like I was part of the literary establishment. The breakdown didn’t come overnight. There were a lot of problems eight months before the cancellation, so when the final axe came in the last week of November 1990, and the book was dropped, it didn’t come as that much of a shock. But when it landed, we all looked at each other and said, “Is this really where we are? This is corporations owning publishing houses.” Someone at Gulf+Western [Simon & Schuster’s parent company] made the call. I was personally affected by it for a couple of days, but then I was vindicated by [Vintage Books publisher] Sonny Mehta picking it up for Random House. It softened the blow. I kept it together. I was working on my next book and I was in a relationship, and I was hanging out with friends.
You first referenced Patrick Bateman in The Rules of Attraction. Did you know what he’d be as a character then?
When I was working on the notes and the outline for American Psycho, I didn’t really know who this person was. I think it was going to be a much more earnest and straightforward novel, like Less Than Zero set in Wall Street. It’s sort of like what [the movie] Wall Street became with the Bud Fox character being seduced by Gordon Gekko. It wasn’t going to be a hallucinatory, experimental model, which is what I ultimately wrote.
What happened was the longer I hung out with these guys that I was researching to write the book, the more the aspect of the serial killer came into view. I don’t know why; I just suddenly thought, “Oh, my God. He’s going to be a serial killer.” And I was haunted for a long time by that character that shows up at the end of The Rules of Attraction, Sean Bateman’s older brother. For some reason, when I was writing it, I was fascinated by him in the three or four pages he had, and I thought, “That’s him. That’s the guy.”
“American Psycho was conceived as a completely literary experience. No one saw it as a movie.”
How have you felt about how Patrick Bateman has been interpreted and changed over the years?
Complicated. Look, you write a book, it goes out into the world, what do you do? In the Nineties, no one wanted to turn this book into a movie. Certainly it’s helped sales of the book. I don’t really see what the drawback is. People don’t take me seriously as a writer now? Or they think the corruption of the literary experience is complete now with a Broadway musical? I just don’t know if I ever looked at it that way. Every now and then you see things like, “Dear God, this is a musical. How did Bret Ellis let this happen?” Well, Bret Ellis didn’t really let anything happen. Ultimately, I don’t have a problem with it.
It’s such a difficult story to translate to another medium.
That’s true. American Psycho was conceived as a completely literary experience. No one saw it as a movie, including myself and my representatives. But there was an enterprising producer, Ed Pressman, and a couple of filmmakers who did think it could be done, and it happened.
Were you happy with the way the film turned out?
Yes. It was a very well done adaptation. But the meaning is different, as is the meaning of the play from the movie is going to be very different. So, you can only do Patrick Bateman a certain way in a film, and you can’t do that same character in a theater, because the medium is different. So what [actor] Benjamin Walker is going to be doing is going to be much different than what Christian Bale was allowed to do in the film. It’s going to have to be a rethinking of that character.
You were writing a script for David Cronenberg at one point.
Yes, in the early Nineties with a young actor attached named Brad Pitt. David was lovely – is lovely, I still like David – but he had strange demands. He hated shooting restaurant scenes, and he hated shooting nightclub scenes. And he didn’t want to shoot the violence. I ignored everything he said. So of course he was disappointed with it and he hired his own writer; that script was worse for him and he dropped out. I did another pass on the script for Rob Weiss in 1995. That didn’t work out either. And then it was Mary Harron and Oliver Stone and again Mary Harron, who made the film, and the draft that Mary wrote with Guinevere Turner had a lot of similarities to the drafts I did for Cronenberg and Weiss. That really was what you could take from the book.
Bateman made a cameo in Glamorama, and he was a big part of Lunar Park. Why did you keep going back to him?
When I wrote that little cameo, I just thought it was funny. It didn’t really mean anything. Much of Glamorama was about the idea of your real self being replaced by a fake self. It had happened to me around when I was beginning that book. I’d see drawings of me in newspapers and magazines, with a cape and fangs, and that was “Bret Ellis, prince of darkness, evil person.” I was disgusting, a misogynist, a sadist. I had made millions of dollars off the profit of victims. And none of this was true. So I said, “Oh, I’m being replaced. This is not me. But this is the story that’s going out there.” And that informed Glamorama: This public self that has been constructed by the media overwhelms and becomes the real you to people.
And then in Lunar Park, which started out as just an homage to Stephen King, it became increasingly more and more and more about myself and where I was in that moment. You are always haunted in some way by the characters you create, and especially by the ones who are incredibly popular. Whether you think you should be or you shouldn’t be, it’s really not your call. So I will always be defined by Patrick Bateman. I don’t think there’s ever another character I will create that will have that kind of impact. I thought it was fun to grapple with that idea, but I really don’t know if there’s any way I would reference it now.
You recently wrote an article about where Patrick Bateman would be today, but concluded that you couldn’t picture him outside of the Eighties. Do you not think he would have survived the Wall Street crash of the Eighties and the housing collapse of the 2000s?
I really did think about him during the dot-com bubble, when I was living through that in Manhattan. That really amped up the decadence of that city tenfold from 1987. Like, bottle service as a concept? A thousand dollars for a bottle? I mean, are you kidding me? Then I thought about him in Silicon Valley, obviously. But I don’t know, I never thought that he wouldn’t be able to adapt, because in the two years in the novel, he does lose his shit but kind of rallies forward. He’s still at large by the end of the book, so I don’t know.
Again, you have to understand I saw him very much as a literary idea, a metaphor for my own life, my own pain and an overall criticism of the culture. It wasn’t as if I really saw him as a flesh and blood person, that he could be waylaid by the housing market crash or the dot-com thing.
Even as a metaphor, Patrick Bateman, who was obsessed with Donald Trump, would likely be pretty happy with his campaign.
Or would he be embarrassed? Trump today isn’t the Trump of 1987. He’s not the Trump of Art of the Deal. He seemed much more elitist in ’87, ’88. Now he seems to be giving a voice to white, angry, blue-collar voters. I think, in a way, Patrick Bateman may be disappointed by how Trump is coming off and who he’s connecting with.
To the guys that I was talking to in the Eighties when I was researching American Psycho, Donald Trump was an aspirational figure. That’s why the jokes are throughout the book. It wasn’t like I pulled that out of my hat; that was happening. And so I just thought it was funny that “OK, well, Patrick Bateman’s gonna be obsessed with Donald Trump. He’s gonna want to aspire to be Donald Trump.” And I don’t know if he would think that today.
The way Patrick Bateman reviews music comprise some of the most compelling chapters in the book.
And it’s strange: My editor wanted two of them gone. He hated all of them, but he also hated the book.
The music he listened to in American Psycho was stuff that was extremely commercial and popular, stuff to help him fit in. What would he listen to in 2016?
What is anyone listening to these days? This is the question. There just does not seem to be this consolidation of popularity that there was in the Eighties. What would they be? Adele? Taylor Swift? I don’t know who amasses the concentration of popularity that someone Huey Lewis could and sell 16 million copies of his third record. I just don’t know whether that’s swirling around in the culture right now in the way that we listen to music. It all seems so niche.
“Phil Collins didn’t want to meet me … because he had gotten upset about the Genesis stuff in the book.”
Have you ever heard feedback or criticism from Tom Cruise, the guys in U2 or any of the pop culture people namechecked in the book?
No. I’ve never heard anything from either one of those. But once I was on a TV show in Italy in 2010 and the only other guest was Phil Collins. One of my publicists said, Do you wanna meet him?” And I said, “Sure.” I’m waiting around. My publicist comes back, and I say, “What happened?” He goes, “Oh nothing, nothing, nothing.” I say, “What happened?” And he’s like, “He doesn’t really want to meet you.” Then I ran into his daughter, Lily, at a party about a year or two ago. She had told me how she loved American Psycho, and her dad had gotten upset about the Genesis–Phil Collins stuff in it, but he’s actually a very cool guy and, you know. … I told her that her dad didn’t want to meet me and she just laughed it off.
In the “Genesis” chapter, Bateman said No Jacket Required was satisfying because it was more commercial than Genesis. You would think that’s a compliment.
I know, I know. Ugh.
You said you hadn’t re-read the book in over a decade. What stood out to you about the gruesome murder sequences? You wrote them after you’d finished the rest of the book.
It was all kind of written in a haze. I waited to write those scenes because I didn’t know how to write them. I got a hold of this big FBI criminology forensics textbook, and there were descriptions of murders in it. I would just go through it and think, “What would Patrick do?”
Then I realized because of the aesthetics of the novel, “Oh, he’s describing everything.” So how do I detail this? What does he do to a woman? Or how do you blind a beggar? What happens when the knife goes in? So it was really all about collecting details. And then, because of three years of being with Patrick Bateman, I kind of took off from his rage and his pathology, and the things fused themselves. It was all kind of depressing and gross to write, but at the same time, exciting because I realized this was aesthetically working for the novel. Even though, again, my editor wanted all of it cut out and thought it was disgusting and that I was going to be ashamed of it five years down the road. Now I honestly don’t remember a lot of what I put in there.
When I was going through the book recently, I saw the scene in the chapter “Girl” when Patrick inserts a rat into a woman.
Oh, that. That really is a thing that I think gets me. And that’s actually a take on something I read in the Marquis de Sade, in his work. It involved a mouse, and I just upped it to whatever it would be in 1989. I think that’s actually where I did get it.
I’m sure 25 years later you must be happy not to be called a misogynist every day.
Well, look. I certainly got into trouble with a few tweets I made about Kathryn Bigelow winning the Oscar, and Kathryn Bigelow being the object of tokenism. And I think these comments were blown out of proportion because of the perceived misogyny of American Psycho. I think it has trailed me. It’s ridiculous, of course. You know, whatever. It seems online, that over 50 percent of fans of American Psycho are women. They are fascinated by Patrick Bateman.
“To the guys that I was talking to in the Eighties, Donald Trump was an aspirational figure. So I just thought it was funny: ‘OK, well, Patrick Bateman’s gonna be obsessed with Donald Trump.’ And I don’t know if he would think that today.”
Some people forget, too, that the way a fictional character acts allows you to draw a conclusion about what kind of person he is.
Yeah. But it also cues you into the contradictory nature of everybody, because he’s also correct about his criticism of society. Patrick Bateman’s revulsion and criticism implicit in his narration of that novel is really not pro-society. It is fraught with complications. He’s very upset by it. So I think the idea about being a young man in a world that you know you’re supposed to fit into, but you don’t want to fit into because you think its values are disgusting, I think that resonates with people all over the place. We are in a society that we think has a lot of problems, and we think is wrong about things.
Patrick Bateman is not interesting to me as pure, unadulterated evil. He’s much more interesting to me as someone I am questioning things about. I mean, does he murder? Does he not murder? Is it more interesting to know one way or the other? No. I don’t think it is. I think it’s much more interesting to leave that unanswered. So as awful as Patrick Bateman is in many ways, I also find him oddly sympathetic at many points in the novel. It’s just the contradictory nature of being a human.
Since Patrick Bateman is an unreliable narrator, and it is unclear at the end, have you ever decided whether or not he actually is a killer?
No, I’ve never made a decision. And when I was writing the book, I couldn’t make a decision. That was what was so interesting to me about it. You can read the book either way. He’s telling you these things are happening, and yet things are contradicting him throughout the book, so I don’t know.
What are you working on next? Do you have another book in the works?
I’ve been thinking about a book for many, many, many years now, and it’s just not coming into fruition. I know the ending. I know the first quarter. I’ve been thinking about this book every day for the last six or seven years. But I’m distracted by other things right now that seem to be just calling out to me more. I’m really interested in filmmaking, visual art and content creation that is not necessarily as weighed down as writing. And I’ve been doing the podcast, directing a web series, directing commercials. All this right now seems much more interesting to me than the idea of the novel. I mean, I’ve published seven books. That’s a lot. I don’t know how many more I should be doing, but I have to feel it. I’m not going to write a book just to fulfill a contract. That seems like the definition of hell to me.