Monday, March 4, 2013

Less Than Zero - The Vintage Project Book Club Meeting

Less Than Zero

Bret Easton Ellis, 1985

My copy.  I'm not quite sure what the more famous cover art is supposed to represent, but I much prefer this one.

Hello Lovelies! 

I'm glad you were able to make the second meeting of The Vintage Project Book Club.  I sincerely hope you had a chance to read February's selection.  Because.  It.  Is.  Amazing.  Not since Catcher in the Rye or The Bell Jar, have I read such powerful stream of consciousness prose.  This novel has no chapters and is a series of vignettes which further aids in making this less of a traditional story and more of a glimpse into a world and series of characters that few of us will ever know.  Less Than Zero is an account of the four weeks Clay, our narrator, spends back in Los Angeles for the holidays.  For the last four months, he has been going to school at a university in New Hampshire.  I got the impression that things in L.A. are exactly as he left them, but over the course of his visit, Clay no longer sees things in the same light.  

'People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles...It seems easier to hear that people are afraid to merge rather than "I'm pretty sure Muriel is anorexic."'  The opening vignette of this novel is brilliant.  Not since 'It was a clear, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York.' do I remember such a powerful opening for a novel.  I can't speak to whether Ellis, who was only 19 when he penned Less Than Zero, was familiar with the opening line of The Bell Jar, but I find it fascinating that I couldn't stop comparing the writing style and impact of these two works.  But back to the opening of THIS's incredible how quickly the tone and apathy for the character, and the story itself, is established.  It did, however, take me a bit of time to stop expecting the characters to begin acting like decent human beings.  Within the first few pages of this novel, Daniel, a classmate of Clay's from New Hampshire who is also out in Los Angeles to visit his family for the holidays, makes one of the few relatable statements of the novel: '"I want to go back," Daniel says, quietly, with effort. "Where?" I ask, unsure. There's a long pause that kind of freaks me out and Daniel finishes his drink and fingers the sunglasses he's still wearing and says, "I don't know. Just back."'  Early on, the reader also wants to 'go back'.  While completely unrelatable, this novel is special because, unlike most novels, it doesn't try to be.  There is no hero.  No moral compass.  No shared human experience.  I don't know about you, but I've never experienced anything like this:
'Trent senses I'm tense and says, "What do you want me to do? You wanna lude, is that it?" He pulls out a Pez dispenser and pulls Daffy Duck's head back.  I don't say anything, just keep staring at the Pez dispenser and then he puts it away and cranes his neck. "Is that Muriel?"
"No, that girl's black."
"'re right."
"It's not a girl."
I wonder how Trent can mistake a black teenage boy, not anorexic, for Muriel, but then I see that the black boy is wearing a dress.'

While I don't feel Ellis is trying to make any great social commentary with Less Than Zero, and it's difficult to pity any of these characters, I feel he does do a great job in giving Clay context.  The parents of Clay and his friends are the same people, simply a few generations removed, that were established in our first novel, What Makes Sammy Run?.  These parents are mostly Industry people who party with their kids, are largely uninterested in anyone but themselves, and are quite aware of (and condone) their children's rampant drug use: '"Mom, tell him to answer me. Why do you lock your door, Clay?" I turn around. "Because you both stole a quarter gram of cocaine from me the last time I left my door open. That's why."'  In an attempt to try to make up for the lack of parenting, they send their children to shrinks.  And I'm pretty sure that Clay's is a quack.    
'"What about me?"
"You'll be fine."
"I don't know," I say. "I don't think so."
"Let's talk about something else."
"What about me?" I scream, choking.
"Come on Clay," the psychiatrist says. "Don't be so...mundane."'

The apathy these characters have towards everything is largely tied into the excessive (and when I say excessive, I mean offensively exorbitant) drug use.  Even towards the drug use itself.  There is a scene that reminded me of St. Elmo's Fire when I first read it, but upon doing some research, it isn't at all like the scene I first thought.  I think this novel is just so quintessentially '80's, that I'm trying to draw parallels, but really, can anyone think of the film equivalent of this?  'Muriel holds down the syringe and Kim whispers, "Don't do it," but her lips are trembling and she looks excited and I can make out the beginnings of a smile and I get the feeling that she doesn't mean it...Muriel begins to cry and Kim strokes her head, but Muriel keeps crying and drooling all over, looking like she's laughing really and her lipstick's smeared all over her lips and nose and her mascara's running down her cheeks.'  But the most striking examples of the apathy and the self-preoccupation can be seen when it comes to people outside this social circle, people who are of no consequence to them.  '"Cool down..." Rip says, looking at the menu. "It's getting hot. Real hot. Like last summer."
An old woman, holding an umbrella, falls to her knees on the other side of the street.
"Remember last summer?" he's asking me.
"Not really."
There are people standing over the old woman and an ambulance comes, but most of the people in La Scala don't seem to notice.
"Yeah, sure you do."'
A woman could die in the street and no one would blink an eye.  Do they understand what is right and what is wrong?  '"What's right? If you want something, you have the right to take it. If you want to do something, you have the right to do it."
"But you don't need anything. You have everything." I tell him.
Rip looks at me. "No. I don't...I don't have anything to lose."'

Much of the novel focuses on these people and the drug use, the sex, the downward spiral that to them simply seems normal and Los Angeles merely acts as a backdrop instead of a main character like it did in our last novel, but there was one passage that I couldn't help but compare.  Between 1941 and 1985, many aspects of Los Angeles had changed - the glamour was gone, replaced instead with the garishness of the 1980's.  That is very evident in the description of the nightlife. 'The club's crowded tonight and some of the kids waiting out in back won't be able to get in. "Tainted Love" is playing, loudly, over the stereo system and the dancefloor is packed with people, most of them young, most of them bored, trying to look turned on. There are some guys sitting at tables who all look at this one gorgeous girl, longingly, hoping for at least one dance or blow job in Daddy's car and there are all these girls, looking indifferent or bored, smoking clove cigarettes, all of them, or at least most of them, staring at one blond-haired boy standing in the back with sunglasses on.'

While the characters exhibit no redeeming qualities and the lack of interest in doing anything at all with their privileged lives is rather disgusting, the way in which the story is told is captivating and brilliant.  It has a voyeuristic feel and Ellis grabs you instantly.  At the beginning the stream of consciousness style might be a little off-putting to some, it is ultimately what makes Clay get into your head.  '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 the way the pool at night looks, the lighted water, glowing in the backyard.'  And while there are so many things that happen throughout the novel, this is simply a slice of life.  There is no real beginning and no real end.  The only end we get is when Clay's four weeks are up.  On one hand, the reader feels a relief to be done with this life, with this place, and I think most people would agree with me when I say the glimpse of a Clay who is just as disgusted with this life as I was is welcomed.  '...The images I had were of people being driven mad by living in the city. Images of parents who were so hungry and unfulfilled that they ate their own children...These images stayed with me even after I left the city. Images so violent and malicious that they seemed to be my only point of reference for a long time afterwards. After I left.'

In 2010, Ellis published a sequel to Less Than Zero, Imperial Bedrooms.  I would be interested in giving that a read as well.  While I was happy to see Clay leave Los Angeles, I can't help but wonder about what happened to him as well as all the character he left behind.  Perhaps I will lock myself away for a week to read that and American Psycho as well, since I've been meaning to give that a read for a long time.

What did the rest of you think?  While vastly different from our first novel, were you happy with February's selection?  I have the March novel selected and will have that posted in the next day or so and, in keeping with the theme, this is such a departure from our first two novels, so I'm looking forward to that.  Hopefully, you are as well.

XOXO, My Lovelies!

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