Eleven / Cherry / Extinction

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On the 11th of June, 1993, I was born with an extra digit, an eleventh finger. I am told it was a finger, so goes my parents’ mythology, but probably there is some anatomical word which better explains the strange appendage attached to my left pinkie. Resembling a kind of lollipop, a glass candy, my eleventh finger was a long thin vessel of muscle or blood (what I cannot know or ask of that fact) attached to a kind of crimson orb, like a cherry. It wasn’t really a finger at all, but the unfinished potential of what might’ve been one, a mutation. This was accompanied by a strawberry-shaped birthmark on my inner left wrist which, my dad assured me, would fade as I grew older. The cherry finger was lopped off on the day of my birth, and the blood splattered the doctor’s coat, bright red upon starch white. Soon after, I nearly died. A lightning storm raged through the morning. I was placed in an incubator, I had some kind of viral infection. They furnished me with the supplementary khora, until I grew blonde and better. So the story goes, and already I have probably messed up the order.

But I want to say something of the number eleven. Eleven feels like a residue, an extra. The loss of this finger, which I do not write with and yet slyly it makes itself present as absence, constitutes a kind of originary erasure. Years pass in which I forget this secret was mine at all. Eleven, perhaps, is a statement of entropy, a chaos spilling over our familiar limits and even regressing or falling in loops. However we parcel our intake/outtake, our sense of personal energy. I test out images of eleven, of extra. In Tom McCarthy’s novel Remainder, the protagonist wants to claim his free coffee, the remainder, so badly that he buys ten cappuccinos just to get the loyalty card stamped, just to claim the free one, the eleventh beyond the card. A strange caffeination that remains incomplete, to come. Then there’s Eleven from Stranger Things as a kind of genetic extra; the number identifies her as a test subject. The number becomes name. That phrase, turn it up to eleven, when really the system stops at ten. Why is it we make wishes on 11:11, when did I start doing that? The wish constituted itself as extra. Over time, I find myself ‘catching’ this time more and more, glancing at the clock of my laptop when it just happens to be 11:11. And the wishes pile up at the forefront of thought, they take a while to resume as memory. When I am sad, I visit the Kelvingrove fountain. There is water and clarity, the hum of other people’s wishes. Sometimes this is better than poetry, it’s simply potential.  
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I knew someone who named themselves after the sky in Super Mario (with Ayrshire inflection) long before either of us had even heard of Cory Arcangel. We were born on the exact same day, same year, and we called ourselves twins. It took eleven years of our lives to find each other. Speaking to this person, I felt always this chiasmus of consciousnesses, a sense of keeping up, or ongoingness.[1] They were super beautiful with luminous curls and sports jackets. Their nights were spent up with consoles and synthesisers, and we messaged each other until our windows crashed, or our parents needed to use the phone. I will not quash the romance of the dialup connection, for it was real, the frisson of interruption. The sense of a moving into, the attunement that performed itself in the temporal interlude of a radio whistle, blow of white noise that had its sonic continuum, warping and twisting as though all these howls in the wires were coming to life, and we would sing through the modem our deepest thoughts. You would teach me a riff. We were each messaging the others at once. There would come a point where everything was just text in the end, the fragile reminder of each bodily fragility.

You wrote in cyan-coloured Comic Sans, before this was ironical.
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Half of my brain wants a masculine state; the other half a quiet, feminine comedown. What is it to speak or sleep gender. I’d sip cider in the wee hours after the party, but nothing fragmentary said then was as good as it was on the computer. It was like coming to life, discovering what had not yet been told of a love or a taste. I suddenly felt affectionate towards everything, and the aesthetics of a particular website, the trajectory of a song, could startle me into tears. Everything grew fizzy and sugary; it was all too much. What we were supposed to say to each other. I was learning to apply eyeliner, clip bras and shed weight like a grownup. The environment was a diagram we drew at school, a set of names we recited while dipping for critters in rockpools, freezing our brains on polluted beaches. A joke that was told to the air before we could return to our games.

 

***

 

I never learned the word for what happened at my birth, what grew on me, this residue fruit. After a while, it broke away, the fact of it which was a specialness. I was losing that specialness the more I learned language. There was a solvent process of being okay with a long red line that meant mine or anybody else’s ‘I’. (/) A length of energy, a vessel snipped close to the richness. We invent names for ourselves on the internet.

Something constant was the minor chord shard in my heart, when I knew there was a thing awry. I could not put my finger on it, much as I could not remember what I wanted to do with my life, or what passion that had driven me to write as a child. For I had filled documents and jotters with my rambles before. What happened, if you can forgive me for inserting a narrative turn here, was a loss of story. Post-puberty, it seemed there could be no climax in my life. Events I had expected to effect a shock into existence had not occurred so; a long hard drag had occurred instead, slow enough to trick you into passive submission. Resistance became a case of daily withdrawal, decay. It seemed there was nothing to write into, now I understood the mysteries of sex, reproduction, death. I had written these epic fates about unwanted births, woman impregnated against their will in labs buried deep in violet mountains. I had a horror of the body inside the body, which was the same as the body inside the planet or the planet inside you. What grows, regardless.

There was a fragile voice I was waiting to hear on the radio. I had not yet worked out the temporal trick that was poetry, the way it could stop you on the blot of a page, by fact of its shape. What grew charged or tangled. I became interested in the way the body was just a body, something to be seen, something to offer up to bodies beyond you. I wanted to know its limits, its multiplicities, as much as its points of attunement. Like plugging in headphones to the library PC just so I can hear the electrical charge of each scroll as a sonic intensity. There was a time of mark-making, rigging lighters, taking steaming baths. Staring at other people’s ceilings. I practiced lying on concrete, feeling the dark cold of summer’s inversion travel up from my spine. I listened to music so loud that stars began splintering inside my ears, and so I would have tinnitus forever more. I burned my tongue on a minor chord.

And so the same sound would scream back, muted lagoon trapped in my ear a decade later, the splitting sextillion stars of that music. The melody itself was irrelevant. I was drawn to songs where you could fall between verse and chorus, and the space of that slack guitar was far more important, the way a man’s voice could break on a word. For some reason, then, it was always men.

What does it mean to be taught how to feel by the opposite sex? Things tilted and sweetened the weaker I grew. We held hands in west coast impressions of sunset. The word for weather was like whether to say I’m going offline. The fort-da pull of your endless sign-ins. r u okay?

Jean-Luc Nancy: ‘A corpus is not a discourse, and it is not a narrative. A corpus is what is needed [qu’il faudrait] here, then. Here—there is something like a promise that this has to deal with the body, that is going to deal with it—there, almost without waiting […] there is a sort of promise tacitly to hush’.

Thus the body is clearer in machinic absence. Thus this vast proliferation of forgettable text was the logic we gorged on, empty calorific haribo words. There was no vegetarian alternative, we were eating each other. I mean the sway of exchange, this sense to be dealt with. A hunger, sugar rush. I message you later. The pressure of reply, now we’re always online; transmission as love’s endless labour. Isn’t it exquisite just to hush, to disappear mid-conversation and relish the ellipsis for a future hour. In these small ways I was building a tentative next, but its openness was yet clouded by thought itself. I couldn’t think beyond three minutes, and that was depression.

 

***

 

I learned the deformity of my birth was a sign of witchcraft. I bought a bright pink book on the subject when I was very young, and tried to astral travel. I wanted to see things from above, but instead I found myself suffocated by their closeness. Children can smell sorrow, the weight of it dripping from adult expression; the way dogs pick up the mood of the house and embody it through quivering and whimpering. I burned incense and imagined an orb of lilac light spreading over my body, which became the mountain I buried my heroines in as a child writer, an amateur at fantasy. I slept with crystals under my pillow (I still do).

The wrongness of the world was everywhere. The way people spoke to each other. I could not connect. I leapt into situations where voices were just echoes back into the water they came from, where sentences shored up nothing more than the vice of their speaker. I began a long affair with silence. I stopped writing, and later I stopped speaking. For weeks at a time, I would lose my voice. It broke on the shore. I smoked little menthols in wind tunnels, listening to reality talk shit back to me. I was broken inside before I began; that was the feeling. Long walks could not smoulder it off, and the only calm I achieved was from the absolute lack of understanding I experienced in math. Not knowing was a clarity, one I still crave in the space of writing. The absolute sentence as a violence that closes all others.

Later, much later, I would discover this glitch was a crisis far beyond me, a crisis of climate, a crisis of world itself: so huge my child’s mind could hardly have discovered it. And yet, having said that, I was already halfway there. Halfway towards ecocide. As a child, I swore to my mother I would leave the planet on my fifteenth birthday. She almost believed me. Mars beckoned, with its fiery red swirls and its secret knowledge of an evil beyond. I liked the way the name felt ‘full’ in my mouth. When nothing happened, I drank myself into amnesia; I stopped eating. It was a birthday gift to myself, the hope that I might still disappear.

Hungover, I know there will be a point where I go and that is to die. The blank is like a name you forget at the point of recall. It is so much worse than that, as if we’d forgotten our own name and the name of our mothers and the E____ itself. And what it means to see the back of the tapestry and a trypophobic horror where every unloosened stitch, a tiny blank, is the signal of multiple (un)ending worlds. Consider the strawberry seen from inside, with its millioning glowing yellow seeds of light. My wrists replaced originary marks with marks.

There was so much to learn about what was happening. I needed to know what would be okay. It was just this whole impossibility of thinking the future. The word ‘career’ was hilarious. It made me think of falling through time, Scrabble letters tossed into void at light speed. That was the language I wanted, letters at light speed.

 

***

 

Silver foil, the metallic smell on your fingers from playing guitar. The way I could play through brass and acquire an instrumental breath, vibrations that slid out of tune because I had damaged my ears too much to listen.

As promised, the strawberry birthmark faded. It was like somebody had slowly quietened the white noise, so slowly that I could not be sure if what I heard was truth or hallucination. The distinction mattered less over time.

Dream where I can’t sleep, so I wake up to watch Super Mario Clouds on YouTube, so I relive the level without level.

Sometimes I feel twinges of pain in the bump where my finger was. This phantom sensation is strange because I have no working memory of the limb itself, if it can be called a limb. The-cherry-nothing-more-than-a-supplement. Wikipedia tells me that the pain of phantom limbs can be aggravated by ‘stress, anxiety and weather changes’. The supplementary limb, then, its existence as a constant play between presence and absence (I had the limb, and yet no memory of its function; the limb was extra and yet in having it removed I felt less than a ‘normal’ person, I am less than I was and in sameness still more), acts as a site of super-attunement. When the temperature gets weird, the tingles start over. The pain is a drift of cirrus.

If you press very hard on the bump on my hand, I feel a sort of convex nerve pain, akin to the ache of pins and needles, concentrated in this single location. I wonder if this is what happens to a cherry when you slice it in half, when you make of the round fruit a sudden circumference. Something fell out, a long long time ago. The tiniest stone.

The world is wrong. There are only signals. Nothing has even really reached us yet. So why leave?

Wikipedia tells me one explanation for phantom limb pain is ‘the result of “junk” inputs from the peripheral nervous system’. There is an overhaul of arousal just to live now; somehow the waste of this activity is concentrated in this mark of removal. Can it be called a wound if it is not a gap or a hollow, but something in addition to the skin, a geologic feature: a kind of tiny crater, a half-sphere, a mound? I imagine a tangle of thread-like nerves coiled up inside. Nobody has noticed this bump of their own volition. To mention it to someone, I was born with an eleventh finger, is of course to commit an act of confession, a gesture of intimacy.

Like here, you can nearly have my birth back. A gift to the Earth in you.   

Derrida: ‘The wound can have (should only have) just one proper name. I recognise that I love — you — by this: you leave in me a wound I do not want to replace’.

I died when I was born, literally; I was born wrong. But in being born this way, I had to love the world as a child of enchantment. I had to trick myself into existing. It would be an obscenity to look back at those pictures, tiny  baby with this slight extremity, this tuning fork of flesh, so easily severed. Who knew anything of a redheaded future, a salad of spent conditionals and love. And I want you to be free.

 

***

 

So what do we do with this extra? Knowing too much of the world and what the self cannot say of the world in itself. Autoplay is paused for the meantime, by which I mean the time in which we are mean. I remember discovering cruelty in the playground, where a boy would go round and hit us with strong red branches he pulled from a shrub that grew with some abundance around our school. And realising the marks made on the back of our calves were really just marks of a pain this boy had felt; a pain inflicted upon him from elsewhere, so that cruelty was something you transferred, a kind of heraldic ink you wore for your life, for your family. I would not explain these marks to my mother, or to myself, for years. My early experience of inflicting cruelty: throwing Chao against the wall, only to nurse them back into serenity later. Teasing the dog, watching a friend knock his head off a wall, deliberately fucking things up. Then the delirious pleasure: to throw one’s avatar off into starry void, a final sacrificial act. In Sonic Adventure 2 Battle, a game to which I dedicated many hours of pre-adolescent life, the villain Dr Robotnik has programmed his space colony, ARK,[2] to collide with Earth if the chaos emeralds are used. Such annihilation intends vengeance on ‘the government’ for condemning the doctor’s research and killing his daughter, Maria. Her request to Shadow, Sonic the Hedgehog’s Jungian double, is to help mankind. When Shadow plummets back to Earth, following the ultimate battle, ‘the Finalhazard’, he is happy, because he has fulfilled his promise to Maria.

Admittedly, this cosmological battle of heroes is little more than parenthesis here. I want to say something of my entrance into this discourse of annihilation. Shadow was a supplement: Sonic’s ‘double’, but also his genetic extra, his genetic remainder; both hero and villain, his narrative volition was ultimately self-sacrifice to save the world, and yet he was created to conquer the world. He embodies the eerie promise of a kind of living apocalypse, an ‘end’ to the world that does not end. I remember the final book of Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom series, whose blurb used the word cataclysm, or cataclysmic, to describe the events that closed the trilogy. That word lived on in me as a wound, cataclysm: something sharp that had already cut me. It was a word I could not unthink. What actually happened in the book was terrible, was a battle, it involved the loss of life; and yet there was redemption. I knew then that cataclysm was not necessarily apocalypse, because one world of fantasy could open into the new, like a modified species. There were chain reactions.

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But all this is just average Earth. Learning to like the light, to paint a thought with the similar blue, knowing it only exists in dreams, and the way she holds a note.

 

***

 

These days, everything mostly feels like transing times. I listen to a Jason Molina recording and realise that he is gone, he is missing from the world, and yet the warmth of his fingers, these arpeggios; the sound of sirens passing through the windows of his Chicago apartment. These are present but I discover them only after absence. I have to realise this over and over, to register the shock of this or that loss. I close one tab, only to open another window onto extinction: this fact of a text we can’t share, because the text is ourselves, and we have shared unto each other enough of the missing space. And someone else I once loved dies. Data is what’s given, it clots into so much hurt. We just are confusion, the two of us and the planet and what’s opening up.

Everything swells; a cherry-red globe recurs in memory. I drift on a lifelong melancholia that isn’t quite mine. I want to be able to parse this bodily symbology as a something beyond me, of course; I want to look outwards at the felt inequality. So many wounds between us. The word continent crunched sour in my mouth. These histories we can’t unpeel or remain in singular. I want to be able to understand the matheme, but there is a wilderness still. The breath won’t catch up. Scared I’ll fall off the edge of my mind.

What we make difficult for ourselves, these fractures in fact or family. Always a guilt that sticks. It is as though we were speaking underwater, our altered tongues; what we could only bring together as lyric.

I had all these dreams of traffic, and the traffic could only move in the night. I was at the edge of a slip road, but I could not merge. Are we closer, now that you know this?

whatever in the world behind closed eyes the doors whispered. let her be. let her be her. let us be as if we were not forever entwined in that, as if we were not able to unthread the conclusions, deliver ourselves of the plot. at that level she intercedes for you. she cries mercy at the feet of her father. she knows where he is at the far corners of the universe. he has removed himself. he has gone off to sit and brood beyond the pale of light. if not that then this. but we had opened it. the knife that cuts both ways. always. in the centre of it the rose. pure. the flaming heart, an artifact. believe me. this is not a special dispensation. this is a matter of life and death.

(Beverly Dahlen, A Reading)

And why did they give me the middling name of the Rose? There was a world tucked in and still to unfurl, and the rose was a planet with cloud tucked into its darkest heart. Let her be here. That time I set my hair on fire and everything of the world smelt singed for weeks. It happened at the funeral. She was at the mercy of a childhood memory, curled at the window as they came in the night to tip the car. And she remembers the way the oil ran down the road as rainbows. The sound of her parents on the phone and a knife that cut the silence of Sunday. It was a thick gelatine; the boiled fruitmeat of calorific lyric. The cut in the world behind closed doors, closed eyes, the lids we can’t keep on our possible futures. So we swim through; no, it gets stuck in our teeth. How can it be a matter of both?

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Crank the anthropocene up to eleven. I wish we had been sweeter to each other. Like listening to the bees without meaning to. We’ll never know why we are born the way we are born, or whether that matters. And I’m pushing sleep for the pleasure of that stretch of the break: when you say the break of the sky and is it a pink cloud I see, or just blue. The 8-bit troposphere catching nightly. Facebook is blue because Mark Zuckerberg is colourblind. There is the overlay, the twice-lived light of the screen and the sky beyond, which is also contained in a window. At no point do I choose to go outside, as it were; for this is the happening of a necessary containment. I need to be able to switch between tabs, my brain still reeling. There is always extra, the bit we missed and have to pursue.

If I saw you again, and we were the same as we were.

Excoriations of time are like Facebook disavowal; don’t click, don’t react. They rub off on our skin as however many times we surrendered our diaries, only to take them again in our arms, cradling tiny diacritics. The first broadband was the rupture of a secret, something breaking out widescreen and hurting.

Narcissism: this essay. A name comes out the sky(e), its extra e for the isle, for extinction. The Earth is active now, this state of evil, eleven, never even.

We should be kinder to each other, said the tree to the thing that would grind it to pulp. When Justine eats the meatloaf and it turns to ash in her mouth. And you know that all this extraness, extremeness of death is from the other planet that is our planet. Just is. I put a bar through Mars, I pierced its fat red eye with the proto-knowledge of Earth’s erasure. That was my great stupid rebellion. It felt like a dreamwork of futile justice.

The fact is only an identity, a pristine midnight. Land lines of countryside glimpsed in the feed, I know the moon only this way until I leave the library. So sigh, milk silver of gaze. Instinctive descent occurs in dark mode, and we play it over, scrolling and scrolling. The hours between. For all I remember of that night, there is only the simple avocado emoji, and a thank you. You’ve been more than a friend to me.

 

***

 

What do we call for?

It’s like the first time I saw Jane Campion’s Bright Star and thought of something shimmering in the woods, that would not come as powder or song but simply as itself. And yet even that was split. Cancer moon/Pisces rising. I could sense it, and the morning hurt, and the continuum of pain whose fidelity remained still into the half planet smudged on the edge of my hand. The Earth is a cherry that lost its innocent self. You would interrupt our greeting in honour of the end of the album. That was the tempo we stretched for ourselves, syncopating sleep with the lights adorning our names with time’s ongoingness; eleven hours at the end of the wish again, after we stayed up past the chorus of dawn. And the world was shimmering in the woods. Our cut had barely interrupted the story.

 


 

  1. And ongoingness is, as Tim Morton puts it, the temporality of melancholy in the anthropocene, this sense that ‘nothing is determined yet’. This sense that we are not looking towards apocalypse but rather trying to be here, knowing this ‘here’ is not ours or fixed but is a viscous spreading of multiple subjectivities, bodies and times. Ongoingness is to look for pleasure as well as pain, to not look towards loss as imminent or behind us, but rather to appreciate the uncanniness of reality. So this person’s consciousness became for a while another half of my own, their thoughts would echo and remain in me, beyond pathology, warping from something raw and ‘live’ to a gentler articulation of being here, being-with. The enviro-mind, formerly-known-as
  2. Incidentally, the Ark was a youth club I’d frequent as a teenager, beside the sea. The site of many formative drinking experience, it was surrounded by dunes of lawn and behind those dunes I’d learn my first versions of drowning.

Falling through Glass

 

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self-portrait//circa 2008

[An essay on anorexia, femininity, adolescent pain & writing the body]

I distinctly remember the first time I watched someone apply liquid liner to their eyes. We stood in the Debenhams toilets before a sheet of unavoidable mirror. She emptied her rucksack of trinkets and tools, drew out a plastic wand with a fine-tip brush and skimmed the gooey ink skilfully over her lids, making curlicues of shimmering turquoise. Her irises were a kind of violent hazel, whose flecks of green seemed to swim against the paler blue. She was very tall and for a while, very thin. She had a nickname, a boyfriend and sometimes she shoplifted; in my head, she was the essence of teenage success. Only later, in the maelstrom of a drunken night out down the beach, do I discover she’s heavily bulimic.

A year or so passes since this first incident, watching my friend slick her eyes with electric blue. I have since learned to ink my own eyes, draw long Egyptian lines that imitate that slender almond shape I long for. My makeup is cheap and smudges. I have grown thinner and people are finally starting to notice.

My mother goes quiet when we do the shopping. She tells me to move out the aisle and I ask what’s wrong. People are staringshe says. I turn around and there they are by the stacks of cereal, mother and daughter, gesturing at my legs and whispering: stick insect, skeleton. A feel a flush of hot pride, akin to the day in primary school when I got everyone to sign my arms with permanent marker—this sudden etching of possession. I am glad I lack this conspiratorial relationship with my own mother, reserving comments on others for the page instead, for my skin. My pain and frustration are communicated bodily: I slink into the shadows, sleeping early, avoiding meals. When people stare, they imbue me with a visibility I desire to erase. I should like better to float around them intangibly, diaphanous, a veil of a name they can’t catch. Instead it rests on everyone’s tongue, thick and severe: anorexic.

It took a week for all the names to fade from my arms; it takes much longer to erase a single label.

In the television series Girls, Lena Dunham’s character reveals that she got tattoos as a teenager because she was putting on weight very quickly and wanted to feel in control of her own body, making fairytale scripture of her skin. In Roald Dahl’s short story, ‘Skin’, an old man gets a famous artist to tattoo the image of a gorgeous woman on his back, the rich pigment of ink like a lustrous ‘impasto’. Years later, art dealers discover his fleshly opus and proceed to barter, literally, on the price of his skin. The story reveals the synecdochical relations between the body, the pen and the value of art. Everything is a piece of something else, skin after skin after skin. In Skins, Cassie Ainsworth gazes into the camera: I hate my thighs. With black marker, she scrawls her name onto her palm; she’s got a smile that lights up, she’s in love. Everyone around her rolls cigarettes, swaps paper skins like scraps of poetry. It feels dirty, the chiaroscuro mood of sunshine and sorrow. Her whole narrative purpose is the spilling of secrets, of human hurt turned to vapour, smoke. Wow, lovely.

For a while, my name mattered less than my skin. There were levels of weight to lose, dress sizes which signified different planes of existence. Over and over, I would listen to ‘4 st. 7lbs’ by the Manic Street Preachers, Richey Edwards’ lyrics spat over a stomach-churning angst of guitar: ‘Self-worth scatters self-esteem’s a bore / I’ve long since moved to a higher plateau’. That summer, ten years ago now, I would walk for hours, the sun on my skin. All the fields stretched out before me like fresh pages of impossibility; my life was a mirage on the flickering sea. I thought of liquid turquoise ink, the friend in the mirror. I started to forget the details of her face, so she blurred into the impressionist portraits I wrote about in school.

Midsummer’s eve; I laid down in one of those fields. With bone-raw fingers, I counted the notches of my spine. Even in free-fall you never feel quite free.

I was obsessed with Richey’s ghost. He disappeared decades ago and they never found evidence of his body. I wanted to evaporate like that, leave my abstracted car somewhere along the motorway; step into the silence of anonymity. Richey wrote screeds of furious notes: ‘I feel like cutting the feet off a ballerina’. There it was: the dark evaporation of resentment and envy. Around this time, Bloc Party released A Weekend in the Citya record that uses Edwards’ lyric to express the racial frustration of being made Other by a racist society. I was acutely aware that the figure of a ballerina, the doll-like white girl, was a divisive source of symbolic desire. We inscribe such societal alignments on the female body, and shamefully I was more than ready to fall into place, to shed the necessary weight. But what I wanted was less the bloody violence of a crippled ballerina, and more the success of erasure.

In Zelda Fitzgerald’s only novel, Save Me the Waltz,the protagonist Alabama trains to be a ballerina late in her twenties, too late to ascend to any real career success. Here was ballet, the pre-adolescent world of waif-thin bodies and she was a mother, a woman—someone who once gave birth, who was strong in flesh. She reaches this frenzied state of beautiful prudence, honing her body to the point where every movement and thought is guided by the waltzing beat, the perfect arabesque: ‘David will bring me some chocolate ice cream and I will throw it up; it smells like a soda fountain, thrown-up, she thought’. I could attest to that. Ben and Jerry’s, swirls of it marbling the toilet bowl, clots of sweetness still clear in your throat. Fitzgerald’s sentences stream towards endless flourish. Alabama makes herself sick with the work, her desire is lustily bulimic. She gets blood poisoning, finds herself hospitalised with tubes in her body, drip-fed and cleansed by the system. I thought of how I wanted to photosynthesise, survive on nothing but air and light. Like a dancer, I was honing my new ascetic life.

Sometimes at night, the old ticker would slow to such a crawl and I thought it would stop in my sleep, sink like a stone. A girl I met on the internet sent me a red-beaded bracelet in the post and in class I’d twirl each plastic, pro-ana ruby, imagining the twist of my own bright sinew as later I’d stretch and click my bones.

I was small, I was sick. I used to write before bed, write a whole sermon’s worth of weight-loss imperatives; often I’d fall asleep mid-sentence and awake to a pool of dark ink, flowering its stain across my sheets. Nausea, of one sort or another, was more or less constant. Waves would dash against my brain, black spots clotting my vision. I moved from one plane or scale to another, reaching for another diuretic. I tried to keep within the lines, keep everything in shape.

Often, however, I thought about water, about things spilling; I drank so much and yet found myself endlessly thirsty. Esther Greenwood in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, trying to drown, being spat back out by the sea: I am I am I am.

 I’m fine I’m fine I’m fine. The familiar litany.

Something buoyed up, started showing on the surface. People could read the wrongness in the colour of my skin, all that mottled and purpling blood like a contrast dye my body had been dipped in. Against my pallid aquatic hue, I used to envy the warm and luxurious glow of other people’s skin. I sat on a friend’s lap and he freaked out at the jut of my bones. Someone lifted me and we ran down the road laughing and they were like, My god you’re so light. The sycamores were out in full bloom and I realised with a pang it would nearly be autumn. Vaguely I knew soon I would fall like all those leaves.

Anorexia is an austerity of the self. To fast is to practice a refusal, to resist the ideological urge to consume. To swap wasteful packs of pads and tampons for flakeaway skin and hypoglycaemic dreams. Unlike with capitalism, with anorexia you know where everything goes.

The anorexic is constantly calculating. Her day is a series of trades and exchanges: X amount of exercise for X amount of food; how much dinner should I spread around the plate in lieu of eating? It was never enough; nothing ever quite added up. My space-time melted into a continuous present in which I constantly longed for sleep. The past and future had no bearing on me; my increasingly androgynous body wasn’t defined by the usual feminine cycles—life was just existing. This is one of the trickiest things to fix in recovery.

Dark ecologist Timothy Morton says of longing: it’s ‘like depression that melted […] the boundary between sadness and longing is undecidable. Dark and sweet, like good chocolate’. Longing is spiritual and physical; it’s a certain surrender to the beyond, even as it opens strange cavities in the daily. The anorexic’s default existential condition is longing: a condition that is paradoxically indulgent. Longing to be thin, longing for self, dying for both. The world blurs before her eyes, objects take on that auratic sheen of desire. Later, putting myself through meal plans that involved slabs of Green & Black’s, full-fat milk and actual carbs, the dark sweet ooze of depression’s embrace gradually replaced my disordered eating. I wondered if melancholia was something you could prise off, like a skin; I saw its mise-en-abyme in every mirror, a curious, cruel infinitude.

In Aliens and Anorexia, Chris Kraus asks: ‘shouldn’t it be possible to leave the body? Is it wrong to even try?’. What do you do when food is abstracted entirely from appetite? What happens when life becomes a question of pouring yourself, gloop by gloop, into other forms? What is lost in the process?

I started a diary. I wrote with a rich black Indian ink I bought from an art supplies store. The woman at the counter ID’d me, saying she’d recently had teenagers come in to buy the stuff for home tattooing, then tried to blame her later when they all got blood poisoning. Different kinds of ink polluted our blood; I felt an odd solidarity with those kids, remembering the words others had scored on my skin for years. Tattooing yourself, perhaps, was a way of taking those names back. In any case, there was a sense that the ink was like oil, a reserve of energy I was drawing from the deep.

Recovery was trying to breathe underwater; resisting the urge of the quickening tide, striving for an island I couldn’t yet see.

(…What I miss most, maybe, is the driftwood intricacy, the beauty of the sternum in its gaunt, tripart sculpturing. Thinned to the bone, the body becomes elegiac somehow, an artefact of ebbing beauty…)

I think about beef and milk and I think about the bodies of cows and the way the light drips gold on their fields sometimes and how I’d like to curl up in some mossy grove and forget that all of this is happening. Sometimes I worry that my body is capable of making milk, making babies; its design is set up for this nourishing. Hélène Cixous insists women write ‘in white ink’ but I don’t want to be that plump and ripe, that giving. I want scarification, darkness, markings. I want Julia Kristeva’s black sun, an abyss that negates the smudge of identity.

I try to find loveliness in femininity, but my hands are full with hair barrettes, pencils, laxatives, lipstick—just so much material.

As Isabelle Meuret puts it, ‘starving in a world of plenty is a daring challenge’. Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. Recently, I logged onto my Facebook to find an old friend, a girl I’d known vaguely through an online recovery community, had died in hospital. Her heart just gave up in the night. People left consolatory messages on her wall; she was being written already into another existence. Another girl I used to know posts regular photos from her inpatient treatment. She’s very pretty but paper-thin, almost transparent in the flash of a camera. Tubes up her nose like she’s woven into the fabric of the institution, a flower with its sepals fading, drip-fed through stems that aren’t her own. She’s supposed to be at university. I think of Zelda Fitzgerald, of broken ballerinas. A third girl from the recovery forum covers herself in tattoos, challenging you to unlock the myriad stories of symbol. Someone I know in real life gets an orca tattoo in memory of her sea-loving grandfather; she says it helped to externalise the pain. My own body is a pool of inky potential; I cannot fathom its beginning and ending. I wish I could distil my experience into stamps of narrative, the way the tattoo-lovers did. I am always drawing on my face, only to wash the traces away. I must strive for something more permanent.

Recovery, Marya Hornbacher writes in her memoir Wasted,

comes in bits and pieces, and you stitch them together wherever they fit, and when you are done you hold yourself up and there are holes and you are a rag doll, invented, imperfect.
And yet you are all that you have, so you must be enough. There is no other way.

Every meal, every morsel that passes the lips, we tell ourselves: You are okay. You deserve this. Must everything be so earned? Still there is this girl underneath: the one that screams for her meagre dreams, her beautiful form; her starlight and skeletons, her sticks of celery. I try to bury her behind sheet after sheet of glass, lose her in shopfronts, the windows of cars and bathrooms; I daily crush out the bloat of her starched hyperbole, keeping the lines plain and simple. Watching others around me, I try to work out other ways of feeling full, of being free. There is an entry from 2009, scratched in a hand I barely recognise in the final page of a diary: ‘Maybe we are only the sum total of all our reflections’. I wonder what kind of sixteen-year-old wrote this, whether she is happy now and if that matters at all.

The Dreamlike Nihilism of Bret Easton Ellis’ Less than Zero

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There’s something about Bret Easton Ellis. Whether it’s the alluring cool of a literary ‘Brat Pack’, the frisson implied by a 1980s enfant terrible or the fact that he published his first novel while still in college, aged 21 (the canny bastard), I find myself drawn to his presence both as a cultural persona and simply as a man of interesting writerly craft. I have been listening obsessively to his podcast for a few weeks now, engrossed in his attacks on the millennial ‘cult of likability’, on the pop cultural salivation over a tv ‘golden age’ and on the lack of context which accompanies the bandying around of quotes online (and the accompanying Twitterstorm). Part of it, I guess, is the perspective of a millennial (me) feeling they have something to learn from a Gen-Xer. Part of it is simply that Ellis does have his own particular brand of pop cultural and authorial genius. This article hopes to delve into this genius by looking at Ellis’ debut novel, Less than Zero, which I recently reread. 

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‘Fast Lane’ – Photo of Los Angeles by Neil Kremer

Turn up the TV. No one listening will suspect,
even your mother won’t detect it,
no your father won’t know.
They think that I’ve got no respect
but everything means less than zero

(Elvis Costello, ‘Less than Zero’).

See above the chorus from Elvis Costello’s song, ‘Less than Zero’, released in 1977 on the My Aim is True album. Costello has written that the song is about totalitarianism and fascism. What does it mean for Ellis to take this song as the title for his novel? – a novel which doesn’t exactly exude the anarchic spirit of 1970s punk, nor does it make any overt political critique. Nevertheless, Less than Zero is a political text on some level, in so far as it deals with the subject/self under late capitalism. Costello sings about something secret, an inner feeling that you can drown out with the static sound of television. What kind of secret is concealed here? The absolute flatness of existence, the alienating depression that creeps and inhabits your bones? I’ve got no respect. For what – the world? What do your parents matter in this life without boundaries, where morality thins to a flimsy image, where selfhood is nothing but the label on your trainers? This is a world of regression, degeneration, of falling from grace, redefining what the hell grace is. It’s the secret inner disgust for all that surrounds you. The sadness bursting in your brain, the endless lines of cocaine…

So goes the life of Clay, the protagonist from Bret Easton Ellis’ debut novel, Less than Zero. Published in 1985, it’s often lumped together with the likes of Tama Janowitz’s Slaves of New York and Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City as an exemplary work of the 1980s literary Brat Pack: writers who encapsulated the alienated experience of Generation X, often influenced by journalism and the movies as much as that elusive category of literature known as the Great American Novel. Less than Zero follows Clay’s return to his family home in Los Angeles after his first semester at college. Yes, it could be considered a Gen X Catcher in the Rye, where the apathetic perception of cultural phoniness plays out against a backdrop of sex, drugs and snuff films. However, while Salinger’s novel exposes the adult world as darkly sham and shallow, Ellis’ turns its attention to the synthetic lives of Clay and his fellow adolescents. Unlike a traditional bildungsroman, it lacks plot and narrative and that most perjured and celebrated of terms: humanist subjectivity. The question of character development in the novel is mostly a non-issue, as Clay ‘grows’ only in the sense of growing more detached from the world around him, more aware of his own indifference.

In a way, Clay is the perfect model of a disillusioned teenager, and Ellis nails the setting. Where better to lose all sense of self and reality than in LA, the city where dreams and visions are spun on film reel and everyone’s an actor, or at least the spawn of one. Clay and his friends live hollow lives, gorging themselves at the playgrounds of consumerism offered by the city: fancy bars and clubs, endless bottles of Perrier and expensive therapy. The novel more or less follows a repetitive structure, the narrative moving in a series of vignettes as Clay moves around, calls a friend from a payphone, drops by people’s houses, goes to a club, takes drugs, gets laid, hangs out by the pool, smokes a joint. Little else happens. It’s all in the accumulation.

I’m not saying this is an avant-garde novel, working through ‘accumulation and repetition’ in the way that Zadie Smith said of Tom McCarthy’s debut, Remainder (2005) in her famous NY Times essay, ‘Two Paths for the Novel’. Ellis is less interested in ripping apart the contemporary consumerist (and humanist) literary establishment than in using this establishment, its obsession with pulp (check out the noirish drug/snuff/pimp plot) and branding to unravel the vacuous experience of being young and glitteringly rich in the 1980s. Part of the novel’s point is questioning whether Clay ever really had a sense of selfhood or reality in the first place – whether such things exist at all. The wastefulness of contemporary culture trickles out of Ellis’ minimalist prose, which is just as effective as Joan Didion’s was in capturing the strange alienation of the mid-twentieth century. We are left longing for something more in the gaps between his sparse paragraphs, his dull and vacuous dialogue. This is all culture. This is all politics. Only, you wouldn’t know it from the novel itself.

No, the world of Less than Zero couldn’t be more insular. Its only connection to the world outside Los Angeles is through the brand names, the song lyrics and movie references which trail through the narrative as often as Clay’s car trails along the LA freeways. Yet if literature is about subjectivity, than the subjectivity explored in Less than Zero is irrevocably damaged, fractured and, if you’re a fan of Deleuze & Guattari, schizophrenic. It’s dispersed along the various signifiers that constitute culture. All of Clay’s perception is whittled down to tiny details: the catalogue of brand names, the repeated references to physical appearance (always tan, always blonde) and the drinks that people are cradling, the glamorous food pushed uselessly round a plate. It’s a highly cinematic narrative, which sometimes resembles a screenplay. Sections of prose often begin with brief indications of time and space, the opening words in bold to quickly situate the reader in a social setting, neglecting any poetic descriptions to set the scene in favour of blunt ‘headlines’: ‘It’s a Saturday night’; ‘At Kim’s new house’ ; ‘It’s Christmas morning’; My house lies on Mulholland’.

Perhaps, indeed, it’s not all that far (stylistically) from Made in Chelsea; except take away the tv show’s sparkling jouissance (its soaring indie pop and glorious Instagram-worthy visual filtering) and replace it with the endless merging of barren surfaces which make up Ellis’ novel. Replace the easily sweet pleasures of Made in Chelsea’s gin bars and contorted gossip and romance plots with sleazy LA mansions, snuff films, heroin and bodily dismemberment…While the lack of affect in Made in Chelsea contributes to a kind of narcotic addictiveness, in Ellis’ novel it creates a sheen of unsettling detachment.

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People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles.’ So goes the opening line of Less than Zero. It was only when I first picked up this book, about three years ago, that I realised the connection to Bloc Party’s ‘Song for Clay (Disappear Here)’. The song, an homage of sorts to Ellis’ novel, repeats several phrases, including ‘complete disdain’, ‘live the dream’ and ‘won’t save you’. It’s a song which builds slow and sparse and then suddenly thunders with a sharp guitar riff and pounding drums. It’s sort of the experience of reading Ellis’ novel: the headache, the endless migraine of details, the food and coke and insomniac joints in the early morning. People are afraid to emerge on freeways. What does it mean? Why does it repeat in the text like some fragment from a litany? I guess you could say it’s about the fear of opening yourself to someone else, of sharing problems, being personal and ‘genuine’. You know, take this interchange between Clay and his on/off girlfriend, Blair:

“Clay?” she whispers loudly.

I stop but don’t turn around. “Yeah?”

“Nothing.”

What the hell is genuine though? Even in the privacy of his narration, Clay struggles to admit any emotional depth. His focus is always on cool detail:

I’m sitting in the main room at Chasen’s with my parents and sisters and it’s late, nine-thirty or ten, on Christmas Eve. Instead of eating anything, I look down at my plate and move the fork across it, back and forth, and become totally fixated on the fork cutting a path between the peas. My father startles me by pouring some more champagne into my glass. My sisters look bored and tan and talk about anorexic friends and some Calvin Klein model and they look older than I remember them looking, even more so when they hold their glasses up by the stem and drink the champagne slowly; they tell me a couple of jokes that I don’t get and tell my father what they want for Christmas.

It’s the immediate present tense. It’s (in)tensely detailed. The sentences drag with repetition, long and slow, heavy and stoned. Clay replaces what would typically occur in such a scene with the mundane reality, pulling out the grotesque from the shiny film of appearance. Sure, to an outsider, Clay and his family would seem like any good looking LA clan out for a fancy meal. Yet it’s immediately clear that Clay feels very distant: not just from the image but from the family themselves. His fixation on cutting a path between his peas is a bit like the cars which won’t merge on the freeway: another symbol of separation, of dividing lines. The self in its shell, stunted. He splits the peas up into meaningless scattered matter. The novel is full of meaningless scattered matter, the endless push and pull of desire, ‘back and forth’. Anorexia is mentioned several times in the novel (Blair’s friend Muriel is hospitalised for it) and the consumption of food and drink is of course central to much of the action (settings; family lunches, dinners, expensive bars). Anorexia, you could argue, is the simultaneous consumption of culture (absorbing absolutely and indeed making literal the beauty of the image, thinness and surface) but also its rejection (literally refusing to consume, to accept the consuming impulse). It provides another symbol of the contradictory imperatives of postmodern culture.

So we have branding, so we have mental illness, disturbed appetites, boredom and beauty and the annual climax of consumerism: Christmas. So far so adolescent bildungsroman. Yet unlike Esther Greenwood in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (1963), Clay is quite content to sit around in a hullabaloo, watching the world swirl meaninglessly on by around him:  ‘No one talks about anything much and no one seems to mind, at least I don’t’. The fact that he has to qualify ‘no one’ to refer mainly to himself indicates how easily the micro reflects the macro, the self reflects the culture. Clay feels like his experience of boredom and alienation is pretty much endemic, therefore uninteresting. Ellis doesn’t exactly depict a special snowflake, a depressive uniquely at odds with his society. Sure, there are times where Clay feels particularly ill at ease with what goes on around him (he sometimes leaves the room when his friends’ sex games and suchlike get too unsavoury), but never makes an effort to stop what’s going on.

One way of looking at this aspect of Clay’s personality is by comparing him to Patrick Bateman, the serial-killer protagonist who narrates Ellis’ later novel, American Psycho. While Bateman is an active assailant, Clay is relatively passive. Stuff happens to him; he drifts through life. He never has much of an opinion, openly admits to not enjoying anything. Why does this make him interesting? Maybe he resonates the dullness of culture in such a way as to provide incisions that cut apart the surface sheen of everyday LA life…

Yet we cannot easily develop a ‘cool’ relation to Clay’s narration in the way that we can in American Psycho. The sheer volume of violence and repetition of brand names and daily routines that make up American Psycho’s narrative perhaps forces us to become desensitised to Bateman’s narrative, even to the point of distrusting its ‘veracity’. Is this an effect of Ellis’ intoxicating cataloguing or a defence mechanism to deal with the acts of extreme violence the narrator describes? Either way, there is a lacing of satire in American Psycho, a cynicism perhaps, which is far less, if at all present in Less than Zero. Indeed, amidst the bored, sparse descriptions of similar social encounters, there are moments of genuine poignancy which peek through the narrative. We get these mostly in the italicised ‘flashbacks’ where Clay relates stories about his childhood, about his holiday with Blair in Palm Springs; where he recalls these things with a flatness of affect, yet the sadness of these scenes sheds a kind of melancholy over the rest of the novel, which would otherwise mostly lack in emotion. About halfway through, Clay recalls a time when he thought he saw a child burning alive in a car crash, and how afterwards he started obsessively collecting newspaper clippings about violent accidents and crimes:

And I remember that at that time I started collecting all these newspaper clippings one about some twelve-year-old kid who accidentally shot his brother in Chino; another about a guy in Indio who nailed his kid to a wall, or a door, I can’t remember, and then shot him, point-blank in the face, and one about a fire at a home for the elderly that killed twenty and one about a housewife who while driving her children home from school flew off this eighty-foot embankment near San Diego, instantly killing herself and the three kids and one about a man who calmly and purposefully ran over his ex-wife somewhere near Reno, paralysing her below the neck. I collected a lot of clippings during that time because, I guess, there were a lot to be collected.

Clay’s involvement with the violent world of LA youth, then, has a root. It’s cultural, it’s endemic. Violence is rife in the media, spreading through the collective Gen X psyche. They grew up realising that they wouldn’t necessary be better off than their parents; that the economy did not owe them the same opportunities it did previous post-war generations. They grew up into a world of job insecurity, of decentred, fragmented wars. They grew up against the backdrop of the War on Drugs and the War on Terror, though perhaps millennials are more affected by the latter. In short, a globalised world of messy, liquid or late modernity (depending on whether you prefer your Bauman or your Giddens).

In the above passage, Ellis’ prose garners an almost incantatory sense of endless, meaningless violence being related through the media. All the place names he describes end in the same vowel sound (‘o’), creating an accumulating effect of repetition that desensitises us to the specificity of crime and instead forges a sense of its ubiquity. There is no emotional reaction which accompanies these stories; Clay merely describes them in a matter-of-fact tone. This emotional sparseness (characteristic of the entire novel) leaves an even more chilling sense of our culture’s paradoxical obsession with and indifference to violence. Ellis sums this up neatly with the tautological final sentence: ‘I collected a lot of clippings during that time because, I guess, there were a lot to be collected.’ No personal, subjective or cultural explanation is given for Clay’s interest in collecting the clippings; the habit becomes one of recursive, self-justifying meaninglessness. The explanation pans out onto Ellis’ novel as a whole, which also constitutes a kind of collection of clippings: vignettes from Clay’s brief stay back in LA, the cataloguing of brands, names, places; scenes of darkness and violence, the lack of a strong narrative thread to connect them.

Yet the kind of cultural and existential emptiness implied by such passages does not preclude the presence of some poignancy to Clay’s narrative. Sure, there’s a lot of violence, a lot of banality; but there are also moments which almost reach the level of personal reflection. We can compare this to American Psycho’s comparatively cold satire and lack of character ‘depth’ by looking at two very parallel scenes in each book. In these scenes, Clay and Bateman go to visit their mothers, who each ask them what they want for Christmas.

American Psycho: 

My mother and I are sitting in her private room at Sandstone, where she is now a permanent resident. Heavily sedated, she has her sunglasses on and keeps touching her hair and I keep looking at my hands, pretty sure that they’re shaking. She tries to smile when she asks what I want for Christmas. I’m not surprised at how much effort it takes to raise my head and look at her.

Less than Zero: 

My mother and I are sitting in a restaurant on Melrose, and she’s drinking white wine and still has her sunglasses on and she keeps touching her hair and I keep looking at my hands, pretty sure that they’re shaking. She tries to smile when she asks me what I want for Christmas. I’m surprised at how much effort it takes to raise my head up and look at her.

Aside from a few situational details (Bateman’s mother is in a residential home, Clay’s meets her son in a fancy LA restaurant), these passages are virtually identical. Except, perhaps, for one crucial line. In American Psycho, Bateman is not surprised by ‘how much effort it takes to raise my head and look at her [his mother]’, whereas in Less than Zero, Clay is ‘surprised’ by the effort. Thus while Bateman fits some kind of definition of psychopathy, utterly indifferent and lacking empathy for his mother, Clay is surprised at his own indifference, his struggle to display some kind of emotion or human connection. To merge on the familial freeway (to use a horrible phrase!). As readers, we can empathise with Clay far more than with Bateman, who locks us out with his construction of a cold and clinical world (see more about this here – an article I wrote a few years ago). Less than Zero is a novel more obviously filled with human pain, perhaps, than Ellis’ later novel, where the pain is certainly there, only more coded, buried inside violence, surface and image in an even more complex way.

Take, for example, the passages towards the end of the novel where Clay revisits his old school:

I used to pass the school often. Every time I drove my sisters to their school, I would always make sure to drive past and I would watch sight of small children getting onto yellow buses with black trim and teachers laughing to each other in the parking lot before classes. I don’t think that anyone else who went to the school drives by or gets out and looks around, since I’ve never seen anyone I remember. one day I saw a boy I had gone to the school with, maybe first grade, standing by the fence, alone, fingers gripping the steel wire and staring off into the distance and I told myself that the guy but live close by or something and that was why he was standing alone, like me.

We can imagine Clay glancing at this other boy, still trying to justify his presence there by means other than a shared moment of sentimentality. The only reason they have visited, Clay tries to say, is purely down to physical proximity. A meaningless walk. LA, then, is made up of intersections, connections and disconnections. Freeways that nobody merges on. You don’t just wander and end up somewhere significant, you drive places. The two could be friends, could’ve been friends, but Clay can only gaze at him from afar, as the boy too gazes on, seemingly at nothing. At distance. The core of the novel: absence. Always caught between meaning, between human connection, lost in the swamp of cultural signifiers that supersede any ‘deep’ emotion.

Clay’s attention to little fragments of visual memory here give us a sense of his warped nostalgia for childhood. His younger sisters are never described as having the innocence that Clay has lost: they steal his cocaine, idly watch porn and greedily snatch cheques from Daddy on Christmas Day. There’s the sweet yellow school bus, the laughing teachers, the familiarity of routine. Those rose-tinted things. You don’t get that kind of sentiment in American Psycho. It’s emotionally painful to read because this passage is sort of an interlude in the midst of the noir plot elements (Clay trying to get his money back from Julian, who is being brutally pimped; the rape of a pre-pubescent girl, foreshadowed by a horrible porno tape). It’s a burst of curious innocence amongst the ugly detritus of Gen X’s consumer lifestyle. Yet the classroom sweetness of yellow has become something altogether too bright, too painful for Clay to deal with. In an early scene in the novel, Clay describes the walls of a diner, Fatburger, as: ‘painted a very bright, almost painful yellow’. The colour of happy childhood has soured. It’s the colour of the Valium pills by his bedside. There’s the ‘grotesquely yellow’ moon that hangs ominously in the sky as Clay looks out over the business district, woozy from too many gin and tonics. As Clay returns to his former school, it soon becomes the yellowing of age, of moral decay:

I go to another bungalow and the door’s open and I walk in. The day’s homework is written on the blackboard and I read it carefully and then walk to the lockers but can’t find mine. I can’t remember which one it was. I go into the boy’s bathroom and squeeze a soap dispenser. I pick up a yellowed magazine in the auditorium and strike a few notes on a piano. I had played the piano, the same piano, at a Christmas recital in second grade and I strike a few more chords from the song I played and they ring out through the empty auditorium and echo. I panic for some reason and leave the room. Two boys are playing handball outside and leave the room. Two boys are playing handball outside. A game I forgot existed. I walk away from the school without looking back and get into my car and drive away.

Clay retraces his childhood steps, literally. He’s like a ghost, haunting the corridors of his youth, idly attempting to recreate the simple universe he once inhabited, squeezing the soap dispenser, reading the day’s homework from the blackboard. However he literally cannot locate/identify his former self, as he fails to find his old locker. Throughout the novel, we are given very little indication of Clay’s interests; he never even talks about what subject he studies out in New Hampshire. Yet here we have a snippet of something he once did: playing piano. There is something slightly uncanny about the older Clay standing at the same piano and striking a few notes, as if he were trying to summon up that younger self, the fragile doppelgänger. He even remembers the same chords. Funny how he remembers the music but not the game of handball. The fact that Clay panics is telling: he is literally allergic to his feelings, unable to deal with the sudden pain that comes from memory, from realising the loss brought on by time. His alienation is complete as he drives away, escaping his feelings as readily as all the times before, where he snorts coke to deal with a problematic or potentially emotional situation. The narrative also trails off, moving to another scene, another jump cut. There is nothing left to say, no coherence, no self-development.

This lack of narrative and self development or ‘growth’ is exemplified in Clay’s personal lack of futurity. Towards the novel’s end, Clay meets Blair for a drink and they skirt around the issue of their relationship. In a way, Blair sums up what we have come to learn of Clay: ‘You’re a beautiful boy, Clay, but that’s about it’. Yet we are left yearning for something more than beautiful surface. Sure, Clay as the narrator has given us many beautiful surfaces, but he has also exposed the rot beneath the surface, the absolute black nothing inside each person. Blair asks him up front: ‘“What do you care about? What makes you happy?”’ and his reply is explicitly telling: ‘“Nothing. Nothing makes me happy. I like nothing. […] 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.”’ This is something we don’t really get in American Psycho. Clay actually admits his feelings, or lack of, and the way it’s expressed doesn’t come across as cold or psychopathic, but human and genuinely sad, a classic case of depression. We get this sort of emotional ‘revelation’ towards the end, after Ellis has carefully laid out the social context of Clay’s psychological and emotional numbness. Unable to think about the future, Clay seems to put off its existence, or anything that might change things as ‘another thing to worry about’. He cannot think positively, cannot be active in his likes or interests.

The question of futurity and passivity is also interesting in American Psycho, as an insight into what Bateman values in his killings. There’s a classically disturbing scene where seemingly at random Bateman fatally injures a young child at a zoo. His reflections follow thus:

Though I am satisfied at first by my actions, I’m suddenly jolted with a mournful despair at how useless, how extraordinarily painless, it is to take a child’s life. This thing before me, small and twisted and bloody, has no real history, no worthwhile past, nothing is really lost. It’s so much worse (and more pleasurable) taking the life of someone who has hit his or her prime, who has the beginnings of a full history, a spouse, a network of friends, a career, whose death will upset far more people whose capacity for grief is limitless than a child’s would, perhaps ruin many more lives than just the meaningless, puny death of this boy.

This view is obviously at odds with the overriding sentimentality and regret publicly voiced in the wake of a child’s death. We put great meaning on the futurity of the child, its association with a new life, with possibilities and an open future, a pure blank slate. Lee Edelman, in No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive, has written on how the child is held up as a glorified symbol of the future, of the onward march of heteronormative culture. We are ideologically forced to take the side of the child and the future because ‘the child remains the perpetual horizon of every acknowledged politics, the fantastic beneficiary of every political intervention.’ Edelman asks what it would mean not to be ‘fighting for the children’, and in a way, Ellis’ novel points towards this. Bateman doesn’t care about what the child stands for as a symbol of pure innocence and possibility to come, of what Edelman calls ‘reproductive futurism’. The queer, Edelman argues, is always pitted against this social conscience of reproductive futurism, as contrastingly selfish, narcissistic, antisocial and backward-looking – in short, the opposite of a collective drive towards development, progress and the future. Bateman, while hardly a queer hero by any means, interrupts the privileged ideology of futurity.

Indeed, he questions the value of the child because he lacks history. Without a record of decisions, mistakes, actions and memories, the child is reduced to pure matter, ‘small and twisted and bloody’ – he is animal, inhuman. This could obviously be taken as a moment of the novel’s token existentialism, the fact that, as Sartre put it, existence precedes essence: there is no inherent self, but only the values and meaning the human has created for herself through actions. It is also, however, a crucial component of the novel’s critique of various ideologies underpinning the yuppie world of consumerism which Bateman inhabits. Suddenly, a life can be described as worthless, ‘puny’. Bateman takes far greater pleasure in ravishing lives whose deaths entail a broader sweep of social impact. It’s as if he takes pleasure in destroying narratives, the networks of associations a person acquires through life. In doing so, he creates meaning: by destroying, Bateman has the pleasure of interrupting the consistency of social worlds, asserting his power. It’s the venture capitalist gone mad, staking his claim in all sorts of places, schemes and, well let’s face it, bodies.

So I guess I’d argue that part of Clay’s central pain is this disconnect with the future, his queer relationship to temporality. The sense that he’s drifting, which is pretty much now a ubiquitous social phenomenon among young adults, both from Gen X and millennials living in a post-recession world. When Clay’s friends ask each other what they’ve been up to, where they’ve been, the answers are always flat and vague: ‘“Not too much”’, ‘“I don’t know”’, ‘“Like hanging around”’, ‘“Shopping”’. Sometimes they simply repeat the question back to the questioner. One of the phrases that repeats a lot throughout the text is ‘Disappear Here’, which Clay reads off a roadside billboard. In a way, the phrase represents the limit point, the blind spot, the aporia into which meaning is deferred, the space of emotion where Clay cannot go. On a sunny Friday after Christmas, Clay hangs around the beach club, waiting for his friends: ‘I sit on a bench and wait for them, staring out at the expanse of sand that meets the water, where the land ends. Disappear here.’ It’s as if the phrase is dragged up in avoidance of interior reflection; its repetition supplements the kind of psychological detail that would appear in a classic realist or bildungsroman novel. The self has dissolved into the sign: the world of surfaces, of signs referring only to signs described by Baudrillard in Simulacra and Simulations, but also literally the billboard sign, the symbol of capitalism’s flattening of the self. Not unlike the billboard advertising Eckleberg’s eyes in The Great Gatsby. Disappear here: you pour your own meaning into the sign; sign after sign constitutes self. What is it that the eyes see?

And indeed there’s something uncanny about this. Clay’s repetition of disappear here throughout the novel only adds to its temporal sense of an unending present, with the run-on sentences and disjointed dialogue creating the impression of not only a stunted self, but also a stunted world. The more you repeat something, the more it becomes meaningless. The characters’ lives stop and start: plots about drugs and sex climax brutally then fizzle to nothing. As the narrative draws to an end, it doesn’t move towards closure, but leaves the reader with an empty feeling of being lost in the world of LA. Ellis really amps up the gothic elements which have been woven in and out of the text so far. Take, for example, Clay’s description of the Ellis Costello poster at the beginning:

It’s the promotional poster for an old Elvis Costello record. Elvis looks past me, with this wry, ironic smile on his lips, staring out the window. The word “Trust” hovering over his head, and his sunglasses, one lens red, the other blue, pushed down past the ridge of his nose so that you can see his eyes, which are slightly off centre. The eyes don’t look at me, though. They only look at whoever’s standing by the window[…].

The Costello poster substitutes for the spooky portrait which hangs traditionally in a gothic heroine’s bedroom. Presumably, Clay once had an interest in this poster, bought it for a reason – but now it seems eerie. The homely has become unhomely. Clay refers to the hypothetical subject ‘standing by the window’, the ghost who meets the gaze. Clay admits to being too exhausted to even be that subject, to even be the observed – ‘I’m too tired to get up and stand by the window’ – perhaps this is an early hint at his drive (conscious or otherwise) towards disappearing altogether. The elements of gothic which colour some of Clay’s narration give an expressionist tinge to his descriptions, externalising some of the inner fear and turmoil, the hollow sense of fear and emptiness at returning to a place that is no longer home, even when Clay gets his tan and starts to fit in. At a party in Malibu later on in the novel, Clay observes:

There are mostly young boys in the house and they seem to be in every room and they all look the same: thin, tan bodies, short blond hair, blank look in the blue eyes, same empty toneless voices, and then I start to wonder if I look exactly like them.

Is fitting in the same as disappearing? The boys appear strangely inhuman, little more than mannequins; uncannily voiced with the same dull monotone. It’s Clay’s sudden identification and self-realisation that startles here. Looking at the boys is like looking in the mirror and seeing many horrible doppelgängers surround you. There’s an opportunity for him to freak out about it, but instead he ‘tr[ies] to forget about it and get[s] a drink’. In short, he dissolves even deeper into the thick glaze of surfaces, spreads himself thinner as an image. When Clay first observes his bedroom poster, he’s feverish and ill, like the heroine in a gothic novel. We may not have the moors of Yorkshire, a la Wuthering Heights, but we do have the desert, the Hollywood hills and the accompanying coyotes.

As the novel starts to close, we get some spooky vignettes. Clay relates how his sister’s kitten disappears, leaving behind only ‘pieces of matted fur and dried blood’. He talks about the coyotes which sometimes come down from the hills:

On some nights when the moon’s full and the sky’s clear, I look outside and I can see shapes moving through the streets, through the canyons. I used to mistake them for large, misshaped dogs. It was only later I realised they were coyotes. On some nights, late, I’ve been driving across Mulholland and have had to swerve and stop suddenly and in the glare of the headlights I’ve seen coyotes running slowly through the fog with red rags in their mouths and it’s only when I come home that I realise that the red rag is a cat. It’s something one must live with if you live in the hills.

That final sentence almost seems un-Claylike in its resonating wisdom. It suggests the tone of a social commentator, reflecting on the environmental conditions of LA and lending a metaphorical weight to his words. The brutally devouring coyotes thrive on instinct; the youths of LA pursue physical gratification out of sheer boredom. How easily for the ‘red rag’ to become a slaughtered domestic pet. There is a surrealist vibe to this transformation of objects. In American Psycho, the transformation of the child into something ‘twisted and bloody’ is more classic horror, whereas there is a perhaps darker, eerier atmosphere to Less than Zero. The sense of emptiness, the canyons at night and the fog. Clay’s description has a slow-motion feel to it, drawing the reader into his stoned-out world. These frequent killings, we are reminded, keep happening against the backdrop of Clay’s friends, endlessly circling the freeways, making calls, popping corks, snorting coke.

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Sunset over LA — photo by Neon Tommy

Clay himself, as I have already suggested, is a kind of ghost. He recalls the previous Christmas in Palm Springs, sweating in bed and struggling to sleep. The vaporous heat seems to cloy his mind, cloy the narrative. Think of the many references to the palms in Less than Zero: their shadows, their fragmented remains after storms and car crashes, their wildly shaking branches. It’s creepy and atmospheric in the way the swaying pines and Douglas Firs are in Twin Peaks. There’s the omnipresence of MTV, its serial carnival of flashing images, the humming numbness of Valium. Clay describing the ‘strange sounds and lights next door’, ‘visions of driving through town and feeling the hot winds on [his] shoulder and watching the heat rise up out of the desert’. In all the emphasis on Ellis’ interest in sex, drugs and violence, it’s easy to forget the importance of atmosphere. You can tell that the novel is influenced by film, self-consciously soundtracking itself (Squeeze, INXS, U2, the Psychedelic Furs), laying out scenes, drawing us in with its snippets of visual detail. The heat is stifling and everyone is sleepless, wired or stoned. The novel slowly moves towards Clay’s return to New Hampshire, like a fade to black at the end of a film: the final sections each start with some temporal marker in relation to his actual leaving: ‘The last week’, ‘Before I leave’, ‘Blair calls me the night before I leave’, ‘When I left’. In leaving, Clay seems to dissolve. His narrative closes with reference to a song called ‘Los Angeles’. A kind of montage of memories, of visual images stolen from another cultural source. Clay feeds on these images after leaving. The temporality is important. Has he broken into some other dimension, or is this a reference to how memory burns right through you (even memories that aren’t your own, memories from visual media – images and film)? My impression (and I have not yet read the sequel, Imperial Bedrooms), is that Clay is not moving into a new, open future; necessarily he still defines everything in relation to the past, to the dream world of LA, its perpetual, glittering, trashy present:

There was a song I heard when I was in Los Angeles by a local group. The song was called ‘Los Angeles’ and the words and images were so harsh and bitter that the song would reverberate in my mind for days. The images, I later found out, were personal and no one I knew shared them. 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. Images of people, teenagers my own age, looking up from the asphalt and being blinded by the sun. 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.

After I left. After I left. The insistence on the posterior. The sense of grotesque sublimity, the reference point of LA contained in these almost unspeakable images of ‘people being driven mad by living in the city’. They ate their own children. Isn’t this the ultimate violation of linear temporality: literally consuming symbols of the future, one’s own legacy? Hypercapitalism, perhaps, creates its own kind of queerness.