edited the summary of American Psycho Saturday, September 18, 2010.
Set in Manhattan and beginning on April Fools' Day 1989, American Psycho spans roughly three years in the life of wealthy young investment banker Patrick Bateman. Bateman, 26 years old when the story begins, narrates his everyday activities, from his daily life among the upper-class elite of New York to his forays into murder by nightfall.
Bateman comes from a privileged background, having graduated from St. Paul's School, Harvard (class of 1984), and then Harvard Business School (class of 1986). He works as a vice president at a Wall Street investment company and lives in an expensive Manhattan apartment on the Upper West Side, where he embodies the 1980s yuppie culture. Through present tense stream-of-consciousness narrative, he describes his conversations with colleagues in bars and cafes, his office, and nightclubs.
The first third of the book contains no violence (except for subtle references apparent only in retrospect), and is simply an account of what seems to be a series of Friday nights, as Bateman documents travelling with his colleagues to a variety of nightclubs, where they snort cocaine, critique fellow club-goers' clothing, trade fashion advice, and question one another on proper etiquette.
Beginning with the second third of the book, Bateman begins to describe his day-to-day activities, which range from such mundanities as renting videotapes and making dinner reservations to committing brutal murders. Bateman's stream of consciousness is occasionally broken up by chapters in which Bateman directly addresses the reader in order to critique the work of 1980s musicians, specifically Genesis, Huey Lewis and the News and Whitney Houston.
In addition to describing his daily life, Bateman also speaks about his "love" life. He is engaged to a fellow yuppie named Evelyn, though he possesses no deep feelings for anyone; additionally, he frequently solicits sex with attractive women ("hardbodies"), manipulates his secretary's feelings for him, and tries to avoid the attention of Luis Carruthers, a closeted homosexual colleague who confesses his love for him. Bateman also documents his relationship with his estranged family, including his senile mother, whom he visits in a nursing home, and his younger brother, a hedonistic college dropout (Sean Bateman, one of the protagonists from Ellis's earlier novel The Rules of Attraction; Patrick Bateman himself also briefly appears in said novel).
As the book progresses, Bateman's control over his violent urges deteriorates. The description of his murders become increasingly sadistic and complex, progressing from stabbings to drawn out sequences of torture, rape, mutilation, cannibalism, and necrophilia. His mask of sanity appears to slip as he introduces stories about serial killers into casual conversations, and confesses his murderous activities to his co-workers. People react as if Bateman is joking with them, appear not to hear him, or otherwise completely misunderstand him ("murders and executions" is mistaken for "mergers and acquisitions", for example). As the book nears its conclusion, Bateman describes incidents such as seeing a Cheerio interviewed on a talk show, being stalked by an anthropomorphic park bench, and being ordered by an ATM to feed it a stray cat. Bateman's mental state appears increasingly questionable, and the events in the novel draw into question whether he has actually committed any of the murders he has described.
Towards the end of the novel, he visits an apartment where he has been stockpiling mutilated bodies; to his amazement, Bateman enters a perfectly clean, refurbished apartment with no trace of decomposing bodies, but with many strong-smelling flowers, as though meant to hide a bad odour. He runs into a real estate agent showing the apartment to prospective buyers. The estate agent asks him if he saw the advertisement in the New York Times. When Bateman pretends that he did, the estate agent says that there was none, and that he should leave and not cause any trouble.
Bateman confronts Harold Carnes, his lawyer, on whose answering machine he has previously confessed all his crimes; Carnes, who mistakes Bateman for someone else, is amused at what he considers to be a good joke. Carnes reproaches Bateman for laying the list of crimes at his feet, and further says that Bateman is far too much of a coward to have committed such acts. Challenged by Bateman on the disappearance of Paul Owen – a colleague whom Bateman hacked to death out of professional jealousy – Carnes unexpectedly claims that he had dinner, in London, with Paul Owen a few days previously. The ambiguity is heightened by the fact that mistaken identity is a recurring theme throughout the book. Characters are consistently introduced as other people, or argue over the identities of people they can see in restaurants or at parties. Whether any of the crimes depicted in the novel actually happened, or were simply the fantasies of a delusional psychotic, is deliberately left open.
The opening lines of the book have Timothy Price staring at graffiti on a Chemical Bank building, reading Abandon all hope ye who enter here, an allusion to the gates of hell portrayed in Dante's Divine Comedy; the book ends with a similar scene, as Bateman sits in a bar, staring at a sign that reads "This is not an exit", which is a direct reference to Jean-Paul Sartre's play No Exit (from which the famous quote "Hell is other people" is derived).