American Psycho: Spaces Real and Imagined
Will Garbett | Lancaster University
American Psycho is a dark, satirical novel by Brett Easton Ellis, first published in 1991. The novel is set in Manhattan, New York City, over about three years in the mid-to-late 1980s. The story follows Patrick Bateman, a banker by day and a serial killer by night. The author’s use of space in the text is striking. The novel is written in the first person, and Bateman is very self-conscious of his environment: streets are called precisely by name, and he narrates his routes as he travels about the city. For example, from the police pursuit in the chapter ‘Chase, Manhattan’:
The only sign of human life [is] someone playing a saxophone on the corner of Duane Street… ignoring them I make a left on Broadway, heading down toward City Hall Park, ducking into an alleyway… I run out the end of the alley as fast as I can onto Church Street… and I barely avoid a collision with another cab on Franklin - is it? - and Greenwich… while running toward Wall Street.
Here street names serve to set the scene – they add an element of realism, placing Bateman in the real Manhattan. You could go to New York and follow this route yourself, if you liked. They also add momentum to the chase: Bateman is not moving vaguely from place to place but moving quickly from one street to another. This felt like an unusual level of precision, not only for a novel but for anybody narrating their life. This article explores the rich descriptions and strange uses of space in American Psycho, using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) software. GIS software are computer programs that use spatial data to create maps.
What is space?
What exactly is meant by space? There are two qualities of space that are important in the context of this article. Firstly, that space can be simultaneously real and imagined. Secondly, that space is produced by and produces human experience.
Although Manhattan is a real place, American Psycho is a work of fiction and imaginary locations in the city are part of the story. An imaginary space is a space that is figurative, like a city in a book. To say that a space is imaginary is not to deny its relation to reality. Imaginary spaces might be based on real spaces, and they might in turn impact reality by inspiring the creation of new spaces or by emotionally moving real people. So, for the purposes of this article Easton Ellis’s Manhattan is both real and imaginary. Because Manhattan exists, it is very easy to create maps of the novel. The reality of Manhattan also gives the author a lot to work with, a vibrant space built up by millions of people over hundreds of years. Compare that with this stark map of King's Landing from George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire: despite having a long (fictional) history and being one of the key settings for the books, the city seems much less fleshed out.
Another characteristic of space is that, although the things in space are really there, and some of these things have been there for much longer than us, the physical and conceptual dimensions of space are shaped by society. The spaces of American Psycho are not only informed by the actual Manhattan, but also Easton Ellis’ cultural values and the context of the novel’s production. In turn, space shapes our everyday lives and our social and cultural contexts. So, we can say “space produces”, as well as “space is produced”.
But why map space? Anders Engberg-Pedersen, a Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Southern Denmark who writes on literature and cartography, argues that thinking of spaces in cartographic terms is second nature in the digital age. Since we are charting Patrick Bateman’s movements in Google Maps, there is probably some truth to Engberg-Pedersen’s idea. After all, is Google Maps not our first port of call in any strange city? Mapping parts of American Psycho helps those unfamiliar with the geography of Manhattan make sense of Easton Ellis’ use of commutes and directions. Mapping helps us use description that the reader might take for granted, to begin to ask where things are, and why they needed to be there.
This article will first look at a map plotted on Google Maps of a journey that takes place at the beginning of American Psycho and examine the challenges of mapping the past in the present. Then we will turn to maps made in the GIS software package ArcGIS Pro that uses the mentions of homeless characters in the novel to elucidate the breadth of space that American Psycho inhabits. The final section will use another journey plotted in Google Maps to think about interesting relationships between the real and imagined Manhattan.
The first map in this article depicts the route of a taxi ride in the first chapter, ‘April Fools’, using four locations mentioned by Bateman during the journey. The ride is from Wall Street to Bateman’s girlfriend’s apartment. The novel begins:
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 and is in print large enough to be seen from the backseat of the cab as it lurches forward in the traffic leaving Wall Street […] the word FEAR sprayed in red graffiti on the side of a McDonalds on Fourth and Seventh’ […] a beggar on the corner of Seventh and Fifth’. [The taxi stops] on the corner of Eighty-first and Riverside.
On the first attempt to map the journey for this article things did not seem to add up. At the time, this seemed like an example of how maps can change the reader’s perspective of a narrative: a reader who had never been to Manhattan might have no idea that the taxi’s route makes no sense, because it is narrated as if it was just a commute. Google Map’s most efficient route for a motor vehicle from Wall Street to the corner of Eighty-first Street and Riverside Drive primarily takes the New York State Route 9A north (see Figure A). This would completely avoid the intersections in the passage above. The second attempt to map this journey tried to plot a route on Google Maps that would take a taxi past these intersections, to see if it would make sense. The route created (Figure B) isn’t very practical and takes twice as much time to get from Wall Street to Riverside Drive.
Why had Easton Ellis devised a route that did not make sense? It was certainly a good introduction to the author’s dark depiction of New York, taking the reader past scenes of desperation and poverty and juxtaposing this with the wealth and material concerns of Bateman and his colleague. But after more thorough research, it seems that Google Maps’ most efficient route in 2020 would not have been possible until 1995, because before then there was no 9A. The previous iteration of the 9A, the West Side Elevated Highway, had collapsed in 1973. Figure B probably does represent a fairly efficient route for the 1980s setting of American Psycho.
This mistake highlights two important points about spatial research. Firstly, that even when dealing with a contemporary source we should not imagine that its spatial features have not changed since that source’s creation. Secondly, that any map is going to be limited by the cartographer’s knowledge and the software. You could not ask Google Maps to devise the most efficient route from Wall Street to Riverside Drive in, say, 1987: the software is only designed to work with the present. We must provide our own knowledge of what routes would have been possible in the past.
But, returning to the extract at the beginning of this section, there is no way anyone could see graffiti on the side of a chemical plant on the corner of Eleventh Street and First Avenue from Wall Street: not only is this a distance of three kilometres as the crow flies, but Manhattan is so densely built up that – on Google Street View – you can barely see buildings after the next intersection (see Figure C). This serves as a reminder that even imaginary spaces anchored in real spaces – like Easton Ellis’ Manhattan – are not always easy to map onto spaces in our reality. Thus, the intersection of Eleventh Street and First Avenue is not included in figures A and B.
Homeless in Manhattan
I hand a beggar on the corner of Duane and Greenwich a dollar.
The homeless are a constant companion to the reader throughout American Psycho. They inhabit the spaces between places – the corner of Duane and Greenwich, above, is not a precise location. You could guess at the coordinates, but never pinpoint them. They only exist where the narrator notices them, but a homelessness map can tell us something about the book – perhaps just where the narrator visits. Some places in the book are fictional: the exclusive restaurant Dorsia and Patrick’s residence at the American Gardens Building for example. But the intersections seem for the most part real, and so the homeless who occupy these non-places are one way Easton Ellis anchors the imaginary Manhattan onto our reality.
There may be one exception to this rule. ‘A beggar dressed as a Hawaiian frets over a garbage can on the darkened corner of Eighth and Tenth’. This intersection doesn’t appear on Google Maps, and there appears to be no historical record of it, but Tenth Avenue south of the Lincoln Tunnel is now part of the 9A, so it may be that this intersection no longer exists. The beggar is dressed as a Hawaiian, so they may in fact be a figment of Bateman’s imagination – perhaps it is better to analyse this character as part of Bateman’s madness, in the same way Broadway seems to be the recurring scene of his breakdowns.
Because the homeless are such a recurrent motif in American Psycho, they are a good theme to base ArcGIS maps of the novel around. Figure D visualises the homeless characters who can be definitively linked to geographical coordinates in American Psycho by order of appearance – essentially it serves to demonstrate the geographic breadth of the novel. If we look at Figure E, we see that not only are homeless characters spread across the geographic range of the text, but throughout the novel itself. In other words, they are not concentrated in any one part of Manhattan or of the narrative. But homeless characters are clustered, although this seems to be because they are near the places that Bateman visits. Points 7 and 11 on Fifth Avenue are close to Trump Tower (on Fifth Avenue between Fifty-sixth and Fifty-seventh street). Point 2 is outside Bateman’s girlfriend’s house. Points 4 and 5 are outside a nightclub. Point 3 is not only near Bateman’s place of work on Wall Street but also his favourite restaurant, Harry’s. Point 10 is in the Tribeca neighbourhood, where Bateman cruises for prostitutes. These are only the points that could be linked to a geographical coordinate with some probability – like the beggar at Duane and Greenwich, in the extract – some homeless characters are not geographically placeable at all. The map reveals a few more things. There are no dots on the eastern side of Manhattan – why is that? Does Bateman avoid that area in the novel? Perhaps eastern Manhattan simply is not on the way to anywhere Bateman would go. Another thing apparent from the map is that Bateman and his girlfriend both live on Eighty-first Street. This is not something that was at all apparent from reading the book. Bateman’s girlfriend is a distant character who often seems like she is on another world: it feels like she should live on the other side of the city, rather than the same street. The map also shows how Wall Street and Bateman’s Apartment almost serve as brackets for the novel – most of the text is set between these two points.
Around the Block
Originally this section was going to be about the police chase from the chapter ‘Chase, Manhattan’. But when the route was mapped, the chase turned out to be a straightforward zig-zag through lower Manhattan. It looked less impressive than it seemed in the novel, and the map would only have served as a visualisation. Instead, this section focuses on the events described by Bateman in the chapter ‘Tuesday’. ‘Tuesday’ is interesting for two reasons. Firstly, unlike the two other scenes in this article, Bateman navigates Manhattan on foot. Secondly, this passage deals with one of Bateman’s many terrible crimes that this article has so far avoided: it seems dishonest to write about American Psycho without at least alluding to the more disturbing aspects of the text. The scene begins with Bateman leaving a lavish yet boring party at the Puck Building on Houston Street at about 10:30pm. He heads north along Broadway until he spots a homeless character on Twelfth Street. He then loops around the block (in which direction is unclear), returns to the homeless character and assaults him. He then flees the scene, taking refuge in the McDonalds on Union Square. Figure F represents the interpretation of this sequence created for this article. What was most interesting about mapping this route is the time walking it would have taken. In the novel, Bateman moves along Broadway unhurried – visiting a cash machine and a phone booth –despite the unappealing picture that Easton Ellis paints of drug dealers and dilapidated streets. But this route should take about half an hour, according to Google Maps. It’s interesting that this journey that takes up a page of text and takes only a minute to read, but takes half an hour in real life and takes up an indefinite amount of time in the text. This demonstrates the limitations of thinking about imaginary spaces in novels as anchored in our world – real places might appear in fiction, but they are twisted to fit the ideal space and time for the narrative. Unlike the route Bateman takes in ‘April Fools’, ‘Tuesday’ demonstrates how mapping contemporary cities can be easier than mapping ancient ones: the McDonalds on Union Square is still there today (Figures G and H).
Mapping shows that Broadway is not only an important space in the novel, but it is centrally situated in Manhattan’s geography. Broadway is associated with moments of madness throughout the text. In ‘A Glimpse of a Thursday Afternoon’, Bateman finds himself suddenly in a phone box, panicking, ringing his secretary. In ‘Killing Dog’, after Bateman commits the first murder (‘In the middle of Sixty-seventh street’) of the novel, he finds himself ‘running down Broadway, then up Broadway, then down again, screaming like a banshee’. Bateman teeters on the brink of insanity throughout the book and Easton Ellis has himself said that he did not know, and was not interested in knowing, whether the events of the book were real (in his fictional universe) or whether they happened in his character’s head. This leads us to another interesting question: should Bateman’s ambiguous sanity temper the way we think about space in American Psycho? Might this article be taking his testimony too literally?
Engberg-Pedersen asks whether literature can even be mapped, and this seems a good theme for final reflections. The question of whether literature can be mapped depends on what we mean by mapping. If a map is a tool we use to better understand the relationship between us and space, then we can map literature. Because space is so clearly labelled in American Psycho, we can map the imagined Manhattan and our Manhattan onto one another easily. Mapping American Psycho onto our Manhattan at the very least enriches our understanding of space in the story. We might go further to ask what these maps tell us about the relationship between spaces imagined and real. Having said that, Anders Engberg-Pedersen gives a voice to Edward W. Soja’s criticism that ‘everyone thinks they take part in the spatial turn when they map something’, and this might give the reader pause for thought: do these maps contribute to the spatial humanities in a meaningful way?
The maps are not self-evident – Patrick Bateman is an unreliable narrator – but it does not seem very helpful to ask whether a character took one route or another in a work of fiction. Rather they seek to show the relationship between real and imagined spaces. So, they do not have to show anything obviously breath-taking directly. But they are important because they make the reader more aware of how space is used in literature. Further research into space and American Psycho might investigate the relationship between space and feeling or affect. Two things might be particularly interesting. Firstly, what spaces does Easton Ellis associate with feelings and affects? Secondly, are there feelings and affects that the reader associates with specific spaces within the text? It would be interesting to use GIS to compare the novel’s feeling-words and the feelings of the reader. Either would further elucidate a complex and provocative text.
Bret Easton Ellis, American Psycho (London: Picador Classic, 2015)
Anders Engberg-Pedersen, Literature and Cartography: Theories, Histories, Genres (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2017). A collection of essays on space and literature edited by Anders Engberg-Pedersen.
FreeMapTools, ‘How Far Is It Between’. https://www.freemaptools.com/how-far-is-it-between.htm Try measuring the distance between places in a novel you like!
Street View of 1980s New York. http://80s.nyc/#show/40.7301/-73.9854 A sort of modern street-view for the 1980s using photos from NYC Municipal Archives’ Department of Finance Collection
ArcGIS Pro 2.4.0
Google Maps in Firefox 75.0 (64-bit)
Will Garbett is an MA History student at Lancaster University. He is particularly interested in contemporary history, and is writing his dissertation on the aftermath of German re-unification.