Chasing Patrick Bateman: On the Importance of Details

I always like literary detective work. Even though it usually deals with tiny pieces of information it can be extremely satisfying. I spent part of this morning working my way through American Psycho, the notorious Bret Easton Ellis novel which is one of the pillars supporting my thesis. Much of the existing scholarship on the subject focuses on one of the following issues:

  • Patrick Bateman does really / does not kill people
  • Patrick Bateman is a misogynist serial killer / is a satyrical device
  • Patrick Bateman is a proper character /  a narrative device
  • Patrick Bateman is a reliable  / an unreliable narrator

While all of this is very interesting, one can discuss it until the cows come home without reaching any kind of consensus. I would happily argue for or against any of the statements listed above. In terms of originality though, picking a different perspective is a good idea. But how to find one when talking about such a notorious novel, the reputation of which is definitely well-deserved?

The chapter I was working on this morning is called Chase, Manhattan. It is located close to the ending of the novel and part of Patrick’s gradual collapse into madness and violence. At the beginning of the section he shoots a saxophone player and – very uncharacteristically – is chased through TriBeCa by police officers. Eventually he manages to hide in his office and calls his lawyer to make a confession. I always had a feeling I was missing something when analyzing this section but couldn’t figure out what it was. The title turned out to be my way in. Or out, depending on how you prefer to see it.

I used to think that “Chase” simply refered to Patrick’s main activity described in the chapter, mainly because most of the chapter titles of the novel are composed in a similar matter-of-fact style. However, when researching a different aspect of the book I came across the Chase Manhattan Bank. Currently part of J.P. Morgan Chase, one of the largest investment banks in the world, this bank was very succesful during the 1980s. In its more recent incarnation it was one of the names which frequently popped up during the 2007-8 banking crisis. Of course, this could be a mere coincidence. But it was the start of a productive line of thought which made me think about one of the main problems the novel addresses: neoliberalism and its emphasis on ideals, rather than physical facts.

I need a crash course on 1980s financial practice to fully develop this idea, and will use my summer holiday to find out more about this extremely complicated field. See, one of the problems uncovered by the 2007-8 crisis was that bankers traded products which no one understood. In fact, many of these professionals did not understand their own products. They were no longer trading actual objects or actual money. Instead, they were dealing in extremely costly and extremely complicated… dare I say dreams?

The succes of The Wolf of Wall Street suggests that many people wonder about the same thing: how does this system work and why is it so complicated? And has it changed at all since 1987’s Black Monday? A brief look at Oliver Stone’s classic Wall Street suggests that Gordon Gekko is still very much alive (and not just in the sequel which was released a few years ago). One thing all critics and academics appear to agree on is that American Psycho is an extremely bleak book. When read as a report on capitalism, its message could be even darker.

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