Bret Easton Ellis — Less Than Zero (1985)
To my mind the opening line of Bret Easton Ellis’s debut novel ranks alongside all of the famous examples you care to think of:
People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles.
With those ten words Ellis sends a message about the setting for his story, and about the people that inhabit it, as well as deftly setting the tone of his prose and introducing a concept central to the book: fear.
Rather than a merging, the movement which propels Less Than Zero is a downward spiral. Throughout the novel the protagonist moves from one club to another, one penthouse to another, one party to another — all the time gathering a terrible momentum which takes him to worse places, worse situations, worse people….
At first the people we meet are merely reprehensible. Every character Ellis introduces is obsessed with status and perception: lazy, rich, bored, self-interested to the point of obliviousness. They are so self-involved that they never show genuine interest in others, never remember details unless they pertain to themselves, and never form any genuine connections. There’s Kim, who learns her parents’ whereabouts from Variety; and Ronnette, convinced that the world will melt if she doesn’t dye her hair. In Ellis’s LA the bonds of money, drugs, and sex have primacy over friendship, family, and genuine intimacy.
Consider the paucity of true communication in this interchange between Blair and Clay:
“Clay?” she whispers loudly.
I stop but don’t turn around. “Yeah?”
The dramatic weight of a loud whisper, the refusal to face the person who called your name, and then the terminus — another stillborn conversation between two people afraid of really speaking to one another rather than acting a part. These are people whose life is a constant drift between moments in which they are never truly engaged, and as a result a lack of certainty pervades every layer of the novel. Characters rarely have surnames, cases of mistaken identity are frequent, even Clay’s narration is full of holes:
And somewhere along the line, Blair leaves with Rip or maybe with Trent, or maybe Rip leaves with Trent or maybe Rip leaves with the two blond girls, and I end up dancing with this girl and she leans over to me and whispers that maybe we should go to her place.
At points Clay leaves out salient detail presumably due to lack of attention:
I mumble something… After taking him to some emergency room at some hospital, we go to a coffee shop on Wilshire…
Note how the location of the coffee shop is recalled and relayed effortlessly. Brand names, street names, the names of hip clubs all carry a weight of importance absent from other areas of the characters’ lives.
And things only get worse. Throughout the novel there are a number of catalogues of disturbing material. Early on Clay recalls one summer that he collected newspaper reports on acts of horrendous violence “because, I guess there were a lot to be collected.” Towards the novel’s conclusion Clay recalls a similar number of violent acts (man-made and natural) that happened whilst he was in LA; the tumult is constant. And Clay is also collecting something else, even if unconsciously: fragments that hold some meaning for him, beginning with the book’s opening line and continuing throughout. These phrases, often with dark portent, appear in the narration once and then stick, Clay often repeating them at moments when he’s feeling most uncomfortable. So, whilst high at a tense family meal:
I think about Blair alone in her bed stroking that stupid black cat and the billboard that says, ‘Disappear Here’ and Julian’s eyes and wonder if he’s for sale and people are afraid to merge…
And whilst witnessing the nadir of Julian’s arc, as the pimp Finn threatens him and injects him with drugs:
The syringe fills with blood.
You’re a beautiful boy and that’s all that matters.
Wonder if he’s for sale.
People are afraid to merge. To merge.
This is a panic attack in print. A loss of narrative coherence. Clay’s conscience screaming at him to take note, to be present in a moment and to feel something — to react. Eventually, at his most honest, he comes to realise that all that matters to him “is that I want to see the worst.”
This is an almost miraculous level of self-awareness for Clay — nothing short of a revelation which it takes him almost the entire novel to come to. It is obviously not a positive change in his character but it is an important first step. Axiomatically the first step in recovery from addiction is to admit that you have a problem: Clay’s addiction is to detachment and here he is working his way towards admitting it.
There have been signs throughout the novel that he wanted this. The half-dozen or so italicised passages in which Clay reminisces about earlier periods in his life contain little more in the way of genuine emotion than is found in his reporting of the present, so we know it’s something that he is capable of. At points he has to push back against the emerging idea that something is wrong, for example at the party in Malibu when he first notices that all of the attendees look alike and then starts “to wonder if I look just like them. I try to forget about it…”
Almost as soon as he voices his desire to see “the worst,” his wish is granted, as he finds himself out behind the club Flip with Rip and Spin (consider the disruptive connotations of all of those proper nouns), and in their company he reaches a new low.
The book’s darkest moments — the paedophilic rape and the video of a similar act that foreshadows it — are the far end of an experience spectrum for their deadened observers and perpetrators. These are the most extreme incidences of characters submitting themselves to ever greater levels of stimulation in the hope of being able to feel something, whilst at the same time remaining mortally afraid of doing just that.
Only at the pressured depths late in the novel, once he has sunk further, been closer to “the worst,” is Clay able to admit his dependence on detachment. In the novel’s closing moments Clay has a conversation with Blair that reveals him at his most emotionally honest: admitting to his emotional bankruptcy. She asks him,
‘What do you care about? What makes you happy?’
‘Nothing. Nothing makes me happy. I like nothing,’ I tell her.
‘Did you ever care about me?’ she asks again.
‘I don’t want to care. If I care about things, it’ll just be worse, it’ll just be another thing to worry about. It’s less painful if I don’t care.’
But Clay’s arc is unfinished. Though he reaches the milestone of admitting his problem, he leaves Los Angeles behind and we don’t know whether or not the progress will stick; his great revelation means nothing if he is unable to act upon it. The prospect of the upcoming sequel, Imperial Bedrooms, is exciting precisely because that question might just be answered. What has become of Clay in the last 25 years? And what too of that cavalcade of addicts, sociopaths and perverts that comprise the rest of the novel’s cast?
Fingers crossed for that opening line: Last night I dreamt I went to LA again.