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“ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE is scrawled in blood red lettering on the side of the Chemical Bank near the corner of Eleventh and First…” Bret Easton Ellis begins his 1991 novel, American Psycho, with a paragraph that is comprised of a single sentence. This is an example of alternate grammar. While alternate grammar is used frequently in fiction, its usage is pushed to an extreme in American Psycho. This helps establish the various themes of Ellis’s incredibly dense novel.
American Psycho is about the dangers of consumerism, the depiction of mental illness, and the evils of privileged individuals. The narrator and protagonist, Patrick Bateman, is an investment banker in New York City during the 1980s. Bateman indulges in a lifestyle of designer suits and upscale restaurants. Bateman also indulges in homicidal behavior. The main argument presented in American Psycho is whether Bateman’s violent acts are a figment of his imagination, or if they are a product of his extreme privilege.
Ellis’s novel is extremely self-aware. In a 1991 article in The New York Times, Ellis explains:
I was writing about a society in which the surface became the only thing. Everything was surface—food, clothes—that is what defined people. So, I wrote a book that is all surface action: no narrative, no characters to latch onto, flat, endlessly repetitive. I used comedy to get at the absolute banality of the violence of a perverse decade. Look, it’s a very annoying book. But that is how, as a writer, I took in those years.
While the action of American Psycho may be surface level, the novel’s true meanings can be analyzed through its use of alternate grammar. These usages are primarily formatting and repetition.
There are several examples of formatting contributing to the themes in American Psycho. The first example is how the chapters are formatted.
None of the chapters in the novel are numbered and there are no page breaks between them. This is a deliberate choice by Ellis to maintain the novel’s stream of consciousness narrative. Each chapter title is simple: the name of an event, an object, a person or a task. Several of the chapter titles are repeated. An example of this are the chapters titled “Harry’s” and “Girls.” This adds to the overall use of lists in the novel (Bateman frequently lists the objects around him and the clothes the people around him are wearing). Following with the theme of repetition and lists, many titles echo their chapters’ first sentences. The most comical and poignant example of this technique is found on page 360. The chapter is titled, “In Bed with Courtney,” and its first sentence is, “I’m in Courtney’s bed.”
However, an exception to this can be found on page 148. The chapter is titled, “A Glimpse of a Thursday Afternoon.” The first sentence of the chapter begins, “and it’s mid-afternoon and I find myself standing at a phone booth on a corner somewhere downtown, I don’t know where, but I’m sweaty and a pounding migraine thumps dully in my head and I’m experiencing a major-league anxiety attack…” The sentence starts with a completely lowercase word. This forces the title of the chapter to be included in its first sentence. This choice contributes to the quick rhythm of this chapter. It is a continuous paragraph with no separations for dialogue. This style mimics the frenzied and unorganized nature of Bateman’s anxiety attack.
Another interesting departure from the novel’s formatting of chapter titles is the chapter that begins on page 343. The title, “Tries to Cook and Eat Girl,” is the only one that is written in the third person narrative. This shift of narrative is important because it mirrors the complexity of Bateman’s identity and mental state.
Later in the novel Ellis changes the narrative from first to third in a chapter long sentence.
…Racing blindly down Greenwich I lose control entirely, the cab swerves into a Korean deli, next to a karaoke restaurant called Lotus Blossom I’ve been to with the Japanese clients, the cab rolling over fruit stands, smashing through a wall of glass, the body of a cashier thudding across the hood, Patrick tries to put the cab in reverse but nothing happens, he staggers out of the cab, leaning against it… (Ellis 349)
Though this sentence encompasses the entire chapter, it is broken up by ellipses. It can be assumed that Ellis chose to do this to make the process of reading this chapter easier and to display an absence of mind for the narrator. This use of narrative shift not only shows the complexity of Bateman’s identity, but also the idea of Bateman as the ultimate unreliable narrator. The reader now knows that he cannot trust any of Bateman’s accounts. This makes the question of whether the violence did or did not happen all the more difficult for the reader to decide.
The theme of complex identity is featured in other uses of alternate grammar in the last chapter of the novel. In this final scene on page 398 Bateman and his friends are discussing their presumably new obsession, the Shepard account, while at their favorite establishment. There are fourteen lines of dialogue with no reference to which character is speaking when. This technique adds a purposeful confusion. Because the reader does not know when Bateman is speaking, the reader cannot not identify who Bateman is in the scene and thus the reader is unaware of his feelings on the topic of discussion.
In this same scene Bateman explains, for no apparent reason, why he is the way he is:
Well, though I know I should have done that instead of not doing it, I’m twenty-seven for Christ sakes and this is, uh, how life presents itself in a bar or in a club in New York, maybe anywhere, at the end of the century and how people, you know, me, behave, and this is what being Patrick means to me, I guess, so well, yup, uh…(Ellis 399)
In this quote, Bateman speaks about his identity. Though he does not explicitly say anything about himself, an explanation can be extracted from the use of italics. In fiction italics are traditionally used to show a speaker placing emphasis on certain words in their dialogue. However, Bateman puts emphasis on the first half of his first name. At a glance, this could be seen as a typographical mistake, but because of Ellis’ extensive use of alternate grammar it is surely not one. The literal split in Bateman’s name parallels the dual nature of his personality and the two clear interpretations of the novel: Patrick Bateman as a mentally disturbed man, or Patrick Bateman as a privileged serial killer.
Use of capitalization in American Psycho is another deliberate technique. Aside from abbreviations, completely capitalized words are used to convey written text. For example, on page 40, Bateman sees a man outside of a restaurant holding a cardboard sign that reads, “I AM HUNGRY AND HOMELESS PLEASE HELP ME.” This convention is used a few more times throughout the novel, but it is most notable at the beginning of the story and at the end.
After Bateman attempts to explain his identity he describes a sign on a door that reads, “THIS IS NOT AN EXIT.” This sentence is the very last in the novel. Ellis uses text within American Psycho to provide a stylistic bookend. Not only is this framing device important to the aesthetic of the novel, but it also verifies the theme of a cycle. The first example of this, “ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE,” warns the reader of a dangerous entrance (while of course also being a reference to Dante’s Inferno). The final example of this, “THIS IS NOT AN EXIT,” establishes that there is no escape. Bateman is trapped in an endless cycle of unconfirmed identity and reliance on the materialistic society in which he lives. Likewise, the reader (assuming that they are a citizen of the United States) is also trapped in this society. The reader may also be trapped by the book in the sense that they will never forget the horrific imagery presented in it and odd grammatical choices.
American Psycho is perhaps one of the more difficult modern classics to read. While many critics and scholars focus on its grotesque imagery and tedious narrative, the use of unconventional grammar is one of its identifying factors. This characteristic makes American Psycho very unique not only in its genre, but also in American literature in general. When the reader recognizes that grammar can affect a story on more than its technical level American Psycho can be a personal learning tool in the area of creative writing. Even if the reader chooses to continue their life with certain notions of how things can or should be written, they will come to realize that closing the novel is not an escape—that “THIS IS NOT AN EXIT.”
Cohen, Roger. “Bret Easton Ellis Answers Critics of ‘American Psycho’.”
The New York Times 6 Mar. 1991: n. pag. The New York Times. The New York Times Company. Web.
Ellis, Bret Easton. American Psycho. New York: Vintage Contemporaries, 1991. Print.