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.

The Melancholy of Lana Del Rey

Source: Vogue Australia
Source: Vogue Australia

 I even enjoy dying in the character who is dying.

— Franz Kafka

Every time I close my eyes,
It’s like a dark paradise

There’s something apocalyptic about a Blood Moon. The sense of waste and transient beauty, light and life shedding away. The moon takes its thirty-year delayed menstruation; red cloud wisps over its shining face like clots of blood being pulled across a pool of silver. Somewhere out there, lovers are lying in lush paradise, staring up at this white eye opened by god; far away, drowned in stars. A voice swirls like smoke over soft, shimmery guitar. It’s the eclipse, sometime about now, then, yesterday, and I am or I was listening to Lana Del Rey.

Honeymoon, then going back to Dark Paradise. Insomnia in the space between night and day; between one universe and another, always afloat in claustrophobia. Returning to this song again and again, its repetition, invoking the familiar sadness and masochism that Lana dreamt up only a few years ago, you’re surrounded by an eternal world of neon palms, boulevards dripped in milky dusk, the sickly excess of tequila sunrise against soaring choruses and stripped-back lyrics. In a way, you fall or sink into Lana Del Rey’s music. Like Kubla Kahn, the eponymous Chinese emperor of Coleridge’s opium-provoked fragment poem, you are sucked dreamily into the sultry visual world of dark objects, consumer heaven, the young and beautiful place of honeydew where you are invited to drink ‘the milk of paradise’. Lana’s swooning melodies charm over time, drawing you into an atmosphere of narcotised darkness which evokes a silent movie – even as the interplay between sound and image is as crucial a set of semiotics as anything Roland Barthes might analyse. You could fall back into the darkness, be seduced by the languid timeless sigh which slides over memories, nostalgia for lost evenings, red dresses and cigarettes, lost girls pressed up against bad boys in clubs, feeling like their whole existence is just a vision, propelling their electric bodies on and on as if in tune to Freud’s death drive.

Much of Lana’s music is about desire: the kind of desire that doesn’t leave you cut-up on the kitchen floor in crude emotion (a la Natalie Imbruglia, ‘Torn’), but passes through that place in the heart of culture that falls into absence and darkness. The secret hollow of modernity. It makes sense that she sung the sultry standout track for Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 The Great Gatsby adaptation, ‘Young and Beautiful’. Del Rey’s America is so Art Deco, from the typeface of her new album, to her obsession with cars and jazz and girls called Carmen, the fragile magic of Hollywood glamour which often bleeds at the seams. Lana returns to that dull wound and picks at it, indifferently, till it’s fresh again – a more ethereal thing that transcends the rotting body of America’s culture. Sex, violence, money, power, charisma; they all blur together in Lana’s fixated, addictive lyrics. In her performance, she already knows the irrelevance of authenticity; it makes her internet-immune, a kind of perfect. Nobody can critique her, because she’s always one step ahead. Despite the success of Lady Gaga, who wears her gender performativity on her sleeve, American culture remains obsessed with the cult of authenticity. Lana has been attacked for ‘making up’ the stories portrayed in her songs, the easy-love lifestyle she presents; for having plastic surgery and performing under an alias that nods more to Hollywood mythology than the girl-next-door vibes of her real name, Elizabeth Grant. Remember James Frey, the ‘man who rewrote his life’ and was subsequently attacked by Oprah when she discovered he’d fabricated and exaggerated a hefty chunk of his memoir of drug addiction? Lana, like James Frey, like Hemingway, is interested in the interplay between real life and fantasy, performance and authenticity; importantly, however, she shows how real life is itself played out and realised through the lens of mediated fantasy. Her songs betray a Baudrillardian ecstasy of communication, simulacra and simulations, updated for an age where the past is showered with the longed-for shroud of Hollywood glamour, where the present is fragmented, split across the Internet (where Lana first made her success, sensation).

***

Isn’t it lovely when somebody makes albums that really feel like art? From Born to Die’s glamorous sadness draped in an American flag, to the monochrome somnolence of Ultraviolence (produced, appropriately, by Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys), each of Lana Del Rey’s records captures a persona, but one which shifts and gathers nuance in the filters of crooning choruses and soft guitars, the distinctive colour charts of an album cover. Born to Die: pastel blues and palm trees, red lips and smoky eyes; the glossy, time-travelling Americana of her short film Tropico (2013), whose flashy symbolism mixes purity with moral pollution, the Garden of Eden with unicorns and gangsters. Ultraviolence: black and white, the spare sex of sorrow. Her latest offering, Honeymoon, sinks deliciously a familiar aura of daydreams, heartache and a sense of mesmerising stasis captured in Lana’s recital of ‘Burnt Norton’ from T.S Eliot’s Four Quartets, which evokes an abstracted and absent conception of time, slipping away into endlessly echoing, impossible memory…

Footfalls echo in the memory. Sound effects; quiet sirens, the soft familiar crackle of static, reminding us of the temporal duration, the space of presence that opens up with each play of the song, then closes again in silence – but always there, always there waiting in possibility, for the next click, the next play. Down the passage which we did not take. 

In the album sleeve, the white printed lyrics to ‘High By the Beach’ flicker and disappear in the yellow-gold light of a glossy photo depicting a tree-lined avenue. Lana Del Rey songs always paint little vignettes of stories, but her characters frequently disappear from view, their situations dreamlike, slanted towards death but never reaching conclusion. Like any avant-garde novel worth its salt, Lana Del Rey’s music often bears a slightly creepy, unsettling quality, a sense of never being quite finished, a sense of repetition, frustration and surrealist reality. While she can master a good pop tune, Lana never gives us that self-satisfied pomp and narrative closure of a Taylor Swift song; there is an almost uncanny quality to her musical arrangements: the drifting melodies, tinges of trip hop, strings, rippling snares and minimal beats. Literary references abound: from that iconic reading of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl in Tropico, to the album title Ultraviolence (alluding to the random acts of ‘ultra-violence which the teenage protagonist of Anthony Burgess’ dystopian novel A Clockwork Orange is addicted to) and all that sinister seduction of ‘Carmen’: ‘It’s alarming, honestly, how charming she can be’, in a nod to Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. In ‘Ride’ she references the sexual plight of Tennessee Williams’ Blanche DuBois, drifting through life by ‘relying on the kindness of strangers’; in a way, Blanche is a perfect Lana Del Rey heroine. Not only is she a ‘fallen woman’ but she is also an alcoholic, guzzling bourbon and symbolically-charged cherry soda (My pussy tastes like Pepsi-Cola, / My eyes are wide like cherry pies – ‘Cola’), and longs to die in a most extravagant way, conflicted by her desire for purity and her sexual appetite: first, she will eat an ‘unwashed grape’ (the poisoned fruit of Eden, the rotten core of carnal pleasure) then be ‘buried at sea sewn up in a clean white sack and dropped overboard—at noon—in the blaze of summer—and into an ocean as blue as my first lover’s eyes!’.

Southern belle; Vivien Leigh as Blanche DuBois in Eliza Kazan's film adapation of Streetcar
Southern belle; Vivien Leigh as Blanche DuBois in Eliza Kazan’s film adapation of Streetcar

***

My baby lives in shades of blue
Blue eyes and jazz and attitude

Well New Orleans – the setting of A Streetcar Named Desire – is a city rich enough in jazz and attitude, especially in the 1940s. In a way, all of Del Rey’s characters are caught up on the deathward drive of streetcars named desire, only her streetcars have morphed into getaway vehicles and limousines, or else the rides of suburban rockstars: I spend my whole life driving in cars with boys / Riding around town, drinking in the white noise. The white noise? The ever-present static reality of radio and television, life flickering on amidst its background hum and rush. It’s an edgier version of Lorde’s ‘400 Luxe’, a delicate, pulsing tribute to the romance of small-town time wasting on roads where the houses don’t change:

We’re never done with killing time
Can I kill it with you?
Till our veins run red and…blue
We come around here all the time
Got a lot to not do, let me kill it with you

You pick me up and take me home again
Head out the window again
We’re hollow like the bottles that we drain
You drape your wrist over the steering wheel
Moses can drive from here
We might be hollow, but we’re brave

On the subject of heroines, Lana is constantly critiqued for her portrayal of women; namely, her ensemble of doomed and lovelorn characters who lavish over their hopeless agony and fail to resist the anonymous bad boys which recur in her songs. Yet there is an irony to this critique, because critics seem to forget that it is a woman who is pulling the strings over all these puppets. Lana slips in and out of her roles as easily as she slips between haunting, orchestral notes. She is always in control, her voice brilliant as smoky quartz crystal, even as she sings about being out of control. There is a litheness to her performance that indicates the strength of her fiction: Lana is like a novelist, fabricating a shadow world which shows up the underbelly of American culture, from its Golden Age of 1950s glamour to the fractured present, where alcohol and club culture meet the melting pixel pot of the Internet. I wish I was dead already, she can say in a Guardian interview, incanting it like a spell, letting Twitter fall on its knees with spits and stirs of protest and loathing. Prostitutes, gangsters, trailer trash alcoholics. These people, these liminal figures on the margins of society – stereotypes, yes, but vivid ones nonetheless – are the lifeblood of Lana’s music and as she renders them, they have emotional depth, a soulless soul, unlike hiphop’s deadpan delivery of gangster vocabulary. As her voice swells to a pitch we realise that Lana has already dismissed something as ‘crude’ as identity politics, embracing instead the freedom land of the seventies, free because America, land of opportunity (for white women, at least) had then opened up a new lifestyle, a new kind of being. There is power in being a sad girl, nasal and depressed but somehow free, as in the paean to glamorous dishevelment, ‘Cruel World’ (from Ultraviolence):  I like my candy and your heroin, / And I’m so happy, so happy now you’re gone. / Put my little red party dress on, / Everybody knows that I’m a mess, I’m crazy … ‘Cause you’re young, you’re wild, you’re free, / You’re dancing circles around me. There’s that cliché of Americana: being young and wild and free – think of Bruce Springsteen’s celebration of wild youth – and again, Lana places her voice in the hullabaloo of this tornado of deathly ecstasy, making herself the static one in the centre, languishing over her candy and heroine while everyone else dances circles around her.

05

***

‘I felt very still and empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo’ — Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar. 

Hiphop melancholia, narco-swing, vintage pop; whatever you wanna call it, Lana always kinda slips the net. Its her characters, her musical and metaphorical landscapes that draw you in. In a way, her songs are just as literary as any old poem.

Crying tears of gold, like lemonade. Here we are on ‘Ultraviolence’, drowning in violins and vats of sadness, relishing the salt taste and thinking of the ocean. The ocean haunts Honeymoon too. It’s there in the California blues, the ‘blue nail polish’ that’s her ‘favourite colour’ and ‘favourite tone of song’ in ‘The Blackest Day’, the sultry ice cream gleam of ‘Salvatore’ which glides in and out of languid Italian and consumable nouns (cacciatore, limousines), perhaps like a narcotised, Sinatra-style swing version of the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ ‘By the Way’ (the bit where they seem to throw a demented grocery list at you). Shady blue, summer rain, sparkling lights; it’s a beautiful snowflake of a song, catching its glitter in the strings and the la-da-da-da-daaaas which fall around you, soft and sad yet somehow delectable. The ocean is the darling of the suicidal American woman: it is the world’s womb, the waves that embrace desire, the space of endless multitude, escape from restrictive culture. In ‘Dark Paradise’, the singer is lying in the ocean singing your song – is this a meta statement, one persona talking back to the distant maker? All of Lana’s heroines are looking for that dark paradise; that refrain, But I wish I was dead. Think of Edna in Kate Chopin’s 1899 (later banned) novel of sexual awakening, The Awakening: Chopin’s impressionistic purple prose isn’t so far from the poetic melodrama of Lana’s lovelorn world: ‘The voice of the sea is seductive, never ceasing, whispering, clamouring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander in abysses of solitude’. Chopin’s onomatopoeic prose chimes with Lana’s frequent use of sound effects, from the Fourth of July fireworks which open ‘National Anthem’ to the glitchy blips of ‘Video Games’ and twinkling bird sounds of the Hollywood hills in ‘Is This Happiness’…Expressions of desire flicker with the imagined bliss of paradise.

Source: https://unlockingkeyes.files.wordpress.com

In the conclusion to The Awakening, Edna steps out into the ocean, never to return, remembering as the horizon catches her eyes the sounds and scents of her childhood: the simple ‘hum of bees’ and ‘musky odour of pinks’ which fill the air narcotically. Walking into the ocean as Lana’s heroine writhes on her bed and balcony, longing to just get high by the beach, longing for that preserved moment of perfect stasis, the endless waves, the endless boulevard leading to a distant horizon of fathomless dark glass, tall buildings rising up amidst pink flamingoes like surrealist paintings. Haze of smoke, daytime closing.

***

There is a passage from Don DeLillo’s debut novel, Americana (1971) which David Foster Wallace happened to underline in his copy of the book:

“David, I truly love you and hate you. I love you because you’re a beautiful thing and a good boy. You’re more innocent than a field mouse and I don’t believe you have any evil in you, if that’s possible. And I hate you because you’re sick. Illness at a certain point inspires pity. Beyond that point it becomes hateful. It becomes very much like a personal insult. One wishes to destroy the sickness by destroying the patient. You’re such a lovable cliché, my love, and I do hope you’re found the centre of your sin”.

A ‘lovable cliché’: the sort of thing Lana embraces, makes raw and coats in her voice of smoke and silk. The antithesis of beauty and disgust, love and hate; how our attempts to disinfect the one from the other are doomed to fail. Culture is a contradiction. In Americana, the protagonist David Bell is a TV executive who finds himself deeply apathetic, despite being attractive, sharp and popular with the ladies. He frequently articulates his experiences, his life at large, as if they were a film. He becomes obsessed with finding meaning, embarking on a Kerouac-esque quest at getting to the nitty-gritty of America’s heart of darkness, but this documentary gets messed up in his attempts to re-stage and re-enact events from his past. I guess it’s true that the novel is all about unattainable desire, whether this is desire for meaning, personal fulfilment or something more carnal – the search for the centre of your sin which could easily be a Lana lyric. What’s more, this pathological fixation of DeLillo’s David Bell to some extent parallels Del Rey’s obsession with the silver screen version of America; the photography of Honeymoon’s cover even resembles a sexier version of the Penguin cover for Americana:

51CoDBi3hlL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

Lanadelreycapa

While Del Rey’s female characters languish in their statically trapped daydreams of love and violence and Hollywood glamour, DeLillo’s version of Americana is largely embodied in the road myth and its cult of masculinity:

There is a motel in the heart of every man. Where the highway begins to dominate the landscape, beyond limits of a large and reduplicating city, near a major point of arrival and departure: this is most likely where it stands….Men hold this motel firmly in their hearts; here flows the dream of the confluence of travel and sex.

This kind of commentary permeates the book, often arriving at a kind of religious, anthropological rapture which lacks the self-consciousness of DeLillo’s later novel White Noise, but provides a rambling cultural landmark that paves the way towards the sort of position Del Rey occupies in the mainstream. The Beats, protesting consumerism even as they gorged on apple pie; Bret Easton Ellis, with his deeply despairing coterie of psychopathic, serial-killer yuppies and sexually-violent, chronically-bored L.A teenagers; Lana Del Rey, voicing the glorious wastage of our postmodern wasteland, our beaten bodies and minds, voicing her vision through scenes of sun-drenched nostalgia which evoke a beautiful and terrible America, made glossy and pure through stars and stripes, a delicate riff; drifts of strings, jazz, Instagram filters. That golden period where love suffuses with the candy-flavoured stuff of daydreams, movies: Honeymoon. The whole album renders a narrow reality of the past and present: it’s pastel-shaded afternoons lost to the call of the ocean, sad ballads of frustrated love (I lost myself when I lost you), electro blues; it’s The Blackest Day, with Billie Holliday, palm trees and prescription pills, throwing up the lilac and cinnamon-scented ash of society’s ills – emotional debris, disconnection, slowing tempos, the hullabaloo of static thrills.

Screen cap from Tropico (2013). Source: popoptiq.com
Screen cap from Tropico (2013). Source: popoptiq.com

American Psycho: Sex, Violence, Technology and Society

Image source: http://images6.fanpop.com/image/photos/33100000/Fit-In-american-psycho-33196259-600-889.png
Image source: http://images6.fanpop.com/image/photos/33100000/Fit-In-american-psycho-33196259-600-889.png

I have just read a book that has all at once captivated, disgusted and intrigued me; a book that has left me strangely both emotionally drained and intellectually stimulated. Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho plunges the reader into a world of late 1980s ‘yuppie-ism’: the world of Wall Street, hyper-consumption, misogyny, racism, inane pop culture, television, sex…and violence. Written from the first person perspective of its protagonist (although somehow I find the term protagonist with its heroic connotations inadequate), Patrick Bateman, the novel has an unusual cyclical structure that plays out as a repetitive narrative of visits to classy restaurants, mundane descriptions of the latest consumer goods, chapters that read like music reviews and then the most controversial element: the horrifically graphic scenes of sexual violence and psychopathic slaughtering that got the book banned by its initially intended publishers.

Yet I don’t believe that Ellis includes these gruesome chapters just as a twisted indulgence, a pornography of violence. As I will discuss, they play a part in Ellis’ searing, often satirical portrayal of the Reagan era in America: a critique of neo-liberal values, consumerism and technology that is arguably more pertinent today than it was twenty years ago. The heartlessness, depravity and monotony of this culture and the novel itself is summed up in the opening line: ‘abandon all hope ye who enter here’, which is ‘scrawled in blood red lettering’ on the side of a building. This quote is an intertextual reference to Dante, who in his Divine Comedy suggested that this was the written passage that appeared in the entrance to Hell. When you pick up American Psycho and read the first lines, which immerse the reader immediately in the divided cityscape of 1980s New York – a world of graffiti, advertisements and pop culture – you cross over a threshold, you cross over into a tightly-confined mind that experiences its own corruption in a fictional universe that is all too like our own. What is interesting about the novel is on the one hand its hypothetical exploration of the thoughts of a psychopath, but also its trenchant critique of a society obsessed with surfaces, purchases and the perpetual presence of the flickering flow of television; a society plummeting towards absurdity and the eradication of all meaning – at all levels from the individual mind to the collective conscience.

Despite being the novel’s narrator, Bateman reveals little about himself other than his routines, his clothes and his opinionated taste in music. He indulges in lengthy passages detailing his workouts, his use of face masks, his appearance, eating habits, sexual interests; but the novel provides little in the way of solid character description. The narrative is therefore intensely claustrophobic, as we are restricted to Bateman’s narrow, white, narcissistic upper-class view. Moreover we know nothing of the Bateman behind the suit and Ray-Bans; we don’t know about his childhood, his relationship with his parents is only briefly suggested in a single flash of a chapter, and although it is the source of so much expendable income, we never find out what he actually does at work, other than order his secretary to make him dinner reservations. This latter point is especially interesting within the context of contemporary culture, where people are becoming ever-more critical of what these high-flying guys in banking and finance actually do; as bonuses and salaries remain sky-high in spite of the recession, there is increasing concern with regards tothe elaborate and obscure games that these ‘yuppies’ spend their time with – playing with money, justifying their existence. Ellis clearly does not seek to redeem the Wall Street yuppie, but instead caricatures his position and the career in general – which for me culminates most humorously in a chapter where Bateman and his coworkers engage in a highly-charged comparison of the stylishness of their respective business cards, that reads like a competition between prehistoric men flexing their muscles or showing off their hunting skills.

This leads into the question of masculinity and self in the novel. In a world where the most socially-esteemed jobs require what might be considered traditionally ‘emasculated’ behaviour – Bateman, it seems, is a proto-metrosexual – how do men assert their masculine identities, especially with the increasing challenge of the rising status of women? Bateman’s gendered self is ambiguous: on the one hand he is obsessed with his physical appearance – going for regular manicures, massages, constantly working out and asking if his hair looks good – and on the other asserting patriarchal dominance by literally killing, and in some cases torturing, those that either threaten his position (e.g. his colleague Paul Owen who has the superior business card) or those that he is different from and wishes to demonstrate are beneath him: women (especially models and prostitutes), beggars and homosexuals. This creates a bizarre, twisted sense of capitalism gone mad, of the ‘dog-eat-dog’ ideology of everyman for himself, of free market competition gone out of control. The individual, in his quest for success, seeks a greedy taste of the ‘Swordfish meatloaf with kiwi mustard’; that is, the excess and the addictiveness of the American Dream.

The novel thus remains engaged with material inequality, even though its focus is on one end of the scale – the high-flying lifestyle of yuppie clubs and restaurants. Throughout the book, Bateman and his friends taunt the plethora of beggars that haunt the streets of New York, holding out bills of money only to snatch them away in front of their starving eyes. At one point, Bateman even shoots a busker, just because he can; because he has the urge to kill and feels the man’s life is worthless. Yet there is an ironic discrepancy between Bateman’s behaviour and the outward image he projects of someone in tune with social problems. Early in the novel, Bateman delivers a speech that reads like the words of a politician: ‘we have to end apartheid for one. And slow down the nuclear arms race, stop terrorism and world hunger…strengthen laws to crack down on crime and illegal drugs’. All this from a man who personally terrorises the poor and vulnerable, regularly takes cocaine and is quite happy to waste money on often-uneaten restaurant food whilst trampling all over street beggars. Perhaps, therefore, Ellis meant to parody the hypocrisy of governments that proclaim their acknowledgement of socioeconomic problems but do nothing or little to actually tackle them. The irony of Bateman’s ‘identity’, then, is the way in which his words do not distinguish him but blur him further into convention, as he constructs his self by appropriating the words and values of others – particularly his hero Donald Trump (which says a lot about yuppie conscience). Indeed, this is humorously parodied in the fact that all food and tastes are judged not by individual experience but by reviews characters have read in glossy magazines.

So in spite of Bateman’s carefully constructed external self as a socially-conscious businessman, his identity remains a space of vacuum. Everything around him – his friends, his values, his lifestyle – is utterly superficial, and it turns out that he is too:

‘…there is an idea of a Patrick Bateman, some kind of abstraction, but there is no real me, only an entity, something illusory, and though I can hide my cold gaze and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping yours and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are probably comparable: I simply am not there […] My self is fabricated, an aberration. I am a non-contingent human being. My personality is sketchy and unformed, my heartlessness goes deep and is persistent.’

When it was first published in 1991, American Psycho was accused, among many things, of being a poorly-written, immoral book, but I believe these early critiques were based on strong misreadings. The above passage, with its incisive insight into the thoughts of someone staring into the abyss of his own personality, its chillingly controlled and intoxicating prose, shatters any accusation that Bret Easton Ellis is a bad writer. It opens up the concern of many ‘Generation X’ writers: the paradox of identity in the late twentieth century. In a world where identities become more important, as each person seeks to distinguish themselves within the ocean of material things, selfhood in fact seems to dissolve, fragment, disintegrate under the weight of excessive choice and infinite expectations. Bateman reflects that ‘there is no real me’ in spite of the solid flesh, the personality moulded out of a particular consumer lifestyle, the ‘illusory’ mask of self presented in the fashionable clothes, the haircut, the voguish business card. American Psycho challenges many conventions of the novel, and one is character development: Bateman may become more reflective as the narrative ‘progresses’ but he does not undergo transformation or redemption. He remains all surface, with no core sense of morality and self beneath the veneer of his existential acts – he ‘simply [is] not there’.

This reminded me of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, written a hundred years before American Psycho at the fin-de-siècle of the nineteenth-century. Like the ‘yuppies’ of Wall Street, Dorian and his friend Henry Wotton not only challenge traditional masculinity, as appearance-obsessed ‘dandies’ (the late Victorian metrosexual), but they are also excessively idle and spend their privileged lives like Bateman and his colleagues, indulging in sensual pleasures, conspicuous consumption and attending the finest venues of society. Narcissism and art are thematically central, just as narcissism and pop culture are to American Psycho. The fable-like plot of Dorian Gray turns on a Faustian bargain Dorian makes with the devil, whereby he barters his soul in exchange for eternal youth, so that his portrait grows old and twisted while he remains all surface, forever flawless and smooth. Dorian’s narcissism and pursuit of pleasure leads him into a spiral of moral corruption, visits to opium dens, murder and sexual depravities which, while completely removed from the Ellis’ gore, were nonetheless shocking at the time.

Each novel has lengthy passages cataloguing the material objects that consume the lives of its protagonist, emphasising the vacuity of their identities beneath the sheen of their flawless appearance. Yet Wilde, unlike Ellis, gives his novel closure: he provides some moral consequence to this hedonistic lifestyle, rather than as Ellis does allowing the reigning continuity of surface he gives some ethical depth. While American Psycho’s plot is an endless repetition of music reviews, restaurant, concert and club visits and violence, from which emerges no character development or moral conclusion, Dorian Gray traces the deterioration of a character whose initial purity is corrupted by a range of identifiable sources including art (notably, a ‘poisonous book’ thought to be J. K. Husyman’s A Rebours) and the influence of those around him. Dorian Gray ends with final punishment as Dorian tries to destroy the painting but in doing so reverses the mysterious spell, so that he acquires all the ugliness of his sins and the picture is restored to its original purity. Perhaps this structural difference can be attributed to the distinctive literary contexts of each book: while Wilde was writing in and to some extent subverting Victorian realism, Ellis is embedded within a more postmodern tradition that is sceptical about there being a moral centre to which texts can turn to, and is instead interested in showing how the boundaries of morality and self are not only fluid but at times seemingly invisible.

Indeed, what is particularly intriguing about Bateman’s monologue is the statement: ‘my self is fabricated, an aberration’ (my emphasis). Bateman spends his entire time striving to fabricate a self that fits in with the expected and respected norm embodied by the clone-like yuppies (indeed, because of their similar clothes and haircut they often mistake each others’ identities and this largely goes unquestioned in the narrative) and yet Bateman himself is an ‘aberration’ of this mundane normality. He’s an anomaly, defined by his psychopathic serial killer tendencies. Yet by linking the two – conformity and deviance – the text suggests that perhaps Bateman’s psychopathy is a product of society; it is not just a personal pathology but deeply embedded within the frustrating, depthless culture in which he finds himself skidding along with no hope of even drowning in. There is no way of drowning in a postmodern, or what Baudrillard calls a ‘hyper-real’ world where everything is interchangeable and signs refer to nothing but an endless stream of more signs – a choking bombardment of advertisements, appearances and vacuous conversation. Murder, rape and drugs provide some alternate reality, something real and solid and potent, that produce actual effects and allow Bateman to distinguish himself in some dark, significant way, even just as an ‘aberration’. It’s a chilling thought.

Although the novel never punishes its serial killer – Bateman is never caught, even though he drags a body-bag through the street, is helicopter-searched by police and leaves rotten body parts stewing in his apartment – the absence of a moral framework actually adds to the richness of the text. In his essay ‘From Work to Text’ Roland Barthes argues that the ‘writerly’ text offers up a plurality of readings rather than containing a single concrete meaning. It is in a sense an ‘event’, a surface (particularly relevant to American Psycho!) which engages the reader in a ‘practical collaboration’. This is achieved by the proliferate meanings offered up by the text: the intertextual references (abundant in Ellis’ novel, from Dante to Satre to Whitney Houston) and the elaborate web of signification spun in the writing, which encourages the reader to weave a fabric of meaning from the complexity of clues scattered throughout the prose. The pleasure of the text is our freedom to skip over passages, and to pay more attention to others. To endlessly reread and gain new insight, to create new meaning from. I find myself skim-reading the endless monologues about the latest technology, and often skipping entirely the really graphic parts; but this is not necessarily a bad thing, it merely prompts me to reflect on my role as reader in playing a role in constructing meaning in the text. It isn’t just there, but I actively make it depending on what I want to get from it.

Ellis also engages the reader in the ‘free play’ of meaning by leaving significant gaps in his text; the most notable of these gaps is the question of the unreliable narrator. Wayne C. Booth defines the narrator as ‘reliable when he speaks for or acts in accordance with the norms of the work (which is to say, the implied author’s norms, unreliable when he does not’. The subtle but at times overt irony that plays out in American Psycho, from Bateman’s extreme sexual and violent conquests and the ease in which he gets away with them to the literary language itself, is essential to raising questions about Bateman’s reliability. The tone he uses to describe the monotony of having to make reservations and his matter-of-fact description of his gym is the same tone used in his description of the scenes of grotesque and sadistic torture, necrophilia and cannibalism. Not only does this suggest that Bateman has been desensitized to pornography and violence but it also blends the normal and the abnormal together into a disturbingly hyperreal narrative of contemporary life. A life where rape and murder deserve no more expressive prose than a trip to ‘return some video tapes’. The prosaic language used to describe these scenes evacuates all possibility of the erotic or suspense that characterises porn or horror and instead foregrounds the acts themselves as real, painful and distorted occurrences – which in turn leave us with a sickening sense of our own voyeurism, raising wider questions about society’s enjoyment of such explicit forms of cultural entertainment. This notion of voyeurism is also highlighted by the repeated occurrence of such scenes (often signified by the foreboding chapter heading ‘Girls’ which I came to dread), creating a circular narrative which emphasises the text’s sense of claustrophobia and entrapment and recreating the inescapability of the distastefully explicit within modern culture.

Moreover, in relation to unreliable narration, the absurdity of Bateman’s rampant and seemingly meaningless killing sprees raises the question of whether what Bateman does is actually occurring, or whether it is an extended fantasy he projects as a way of indulging in his feeling of vacuity and ‘heartlessness’ within a featureless life of mind-numbing consumption. Is he merely fabricating his own alter-existence that plays out just like the pornographic films he rents from the video-store? The text provides little evidence to confirm or deny Bateman’s reliability, and this is what is so seductive about American Psycho: the fact that we as readers are left to judge the veracity of Bateman’s narration, which in turn leaves us within a complex moral vacuum. Unlike other books about serial killers, American Psycho doesn’t contain a detailed narrative explaining the root causes of Bateman’s pathology – abuse in childhood, a defined psychiatric condition etc. Bateman pops valium, Halcion and various other ‘pop’ drugs but he is not on medication for paranoid schizophrenia, multiple personality disorder or the like; the blame for his condition is thus found within a complexity of societal factors rather than an easy psychological diagnosis. The exact cause is left for the reader to decide: we have to map out Bateman’s life – his pleasures, his friends, his behaviour – in order to make judgements about the myriad origins of his psychopathy.

Another area of contemporary society which Ellis explores critically in American Psycho is technology; specifically, television and the telephone. The telephone was invented to improve communication, but in the novel it is the site of communication breakdown. For example, when Bateman and his coworkers make a conference call to decide their evening plans, the conversation breaks down into meaningless and often disconnected statements. There is nothing efficient about this communication. Moreover, the telephone presents an uncanny means of correspondence, since it removes the face and replaces it with the voice. This makes the person at the end of the line both familiar and unfamiliar, which raises interesting questions in terms of the fluidity and fragmentation of self depicted in American Psycho. At what could be argued is the novel’s most intense point, whereby Bateman has been on a killing spree, is chased by police and is now hiding in his office, he makes a call to his lawyer and leaves a message detailing all the murders he is committed. Yet when he meets his lawyer the next day, the lawyer not only refuses to believe the answer-phone message but he actually thinks Bateman is someone else – he thinks that the message was a joke played by someone else at Bateman’s expense. Telephone technology has not increased the potential for meaningful and intimate human interaction but merely created further distance, and in doing so distorted what is real and disconnected the ‘I’ that is speaking.

In terms of television, the book is rich with critical analysis. The debate about TV images and their influence on human behaviour goes all the way back to Plato. In The Republic, Plato puts forward the analogy of a cave in which prisoners have been chained since childhood so that all they can do is stare at the shadows on the wall which create shapes and sound; this is the only reality they know of, yet it is a reality constituted merely by the shadows of things, not the things themselves. If one prisoner escapes and sees REALITY itself, it will seem less real than the shadows. Like the prisoners of the cave, most people in contemporary society are in a sense ‘chained’ to the all-pervasive presence of television, which has become the source of much of our knowledge: the ‘shadow’ images of television are used to shape our morality, ideals, values etc – our whole perception of the world. Television, moreover, provides a perpetual ‘flow’ of time, squashing the past and present together in an ‘extended present’, which gives a rhythm and routine to our daily lives. Bateman’s life is partially constructed around his watching of the morning The Patty Winters Show, Late Night With David Letterman and endlessly re-watched video tapes such as the thriller Body Double in which a girl is murdered by a handheld drill.

When television images are extreme ones of hardcore pornography or violence, questions are raised about how far they can be blamed for real life violent behaviour. Perhaps Bateman can so easily murder without remorse because his acts of violence seem less real than the highly stylised images he consumes on a daily basis. This is a real life concern: the murder of James Bulger by two young boys in 1993 was blamed by some on the film Child’s Play 3, leading to calls for a ban on the film. Anthony Burgess’ novel also explores this link between video images and violence in A Clockwork Orange, where classical Pavlovian conditioning is used to re-calibrate the protagonists’ perception of violence: Alex is strapped to a chair, injected with a nausea-inducing drug and forced to watch violent films so that he learns to associate cruelty with sickness. Yet eventually, this ‘Ludovico technique’ is reversed and once again he is back to the same old daydreams of bloodlust; it is only through a process of experience and growing up that Alex comes to leave his days of brutality behind. Thus rather than allowing for a simple causal effect between images and action, Burgess overall complicates the relationship between television and violence.

A more recent play by Martin McDonagh, The Pillowman, is also a useful text for grappling with the link between art and violence. The play’s storyteller, Katurian, claims that ‘the only duty of a storyteller is to tell a story’, yet his stories become implicated in criminality as they have influenced others to commit crimes that copy the sinister plots of his fables (which involve swallowing apple-men containing razor blades and child crucifixion). It’s an infinitely dark and at times sorrowful play, but also it’s very funny: it raises a myriad of questions about authorial responsibility but rather than answering them The Pillowman blasts all moral closure with nihilistic conclusions, green pigs and its at times absurd, circular dialogue. It is a very clever, layered, metafictional commentary on the relationship between art, suffering and violence and I highly recommend it.

So to what extent is Bateman’s behaviour the product of the films he watches, or the TV shows which range in topics from ‘Toddler Murderers’ to ‘a man who set his daughter on fire while she was giving birth’? Again, the text offers no straightforward answers, and indeed it is possible that the orgiastic violence he indulges in isn’t real at all but merely fantasies extended from the flickering images he sees on television. This is an intriguing idea, especially going back to Plato’s notion that the man who leaves the cave will find reality less real than the shadows; the text leaves the question of what is ‘real’ in the novel, and even – what are the implications for the violence of American Psycho itself? It may be classified as fiction, but feminist group NOW attacked the novel upon publication as ‘a how-to novel on the torture and dismemberment of women’. Will some readers read Ellis’ text naively? Can it be blamed for furthering society’s desensitizing towards violence through its graphic scenes?

I think what redeems American Psycho in this respect is its self-conscious irony. Yes, it is horrifically graphic, but it does so for a purpose: to deconstruct and expose the way in which slasher movies, porn and the like have become part of popular culture, and to restore a shocking element to these forms of entertainment which have become so stylised and normalised. Additionally, like The Pillowman, Ellis’ book is also inherently funny. There are random standout lines such as the comment ‘”I bet Bono has a small dick,”’’ when Bateman and his friends go to a U2 concert, and also the narrative contains many running jokes, such as Bateman’s compulsive need to ‘return some video tapes’, and several repeated miscommunications such as when Bateman says he works in ‘murders and executions’ but this is interpreted as ‘mergers and acquisitions’, thus blending together ironically Bateman’s mundane day-job with his vicious night-job. There are also surprising parts of the book which seem human, such as when Bateman visits his mother in her care-home and all he can do is look at himself vainly in the mirror that he’s ‘insisted’ on having there and think about are the expensive things she’s wearing (bought by him). When Bateman asks his mother what she wants, her reply: ‘“I don’t know. I just want to have a nice Christmas”’ is tearfully poignant in that it summarises the inability of consumption to fill the gap in their relationship, to fulfill the mother’s spiritual need to enjoy Christmas, a traditionally family-orientated event. The maternal relationship is hinted as strained and distant as all mother and son can say to one another is ‘“you look unhappy”’ and talk ‘“uselessly”’ of a recent party. This breakdown in communication is actually full of pathos and presents a refreshing break in the text, but one that opens up another possible, yet unexplored, avenue of explanation for Bateman’s insanity.

In sum, the text offers no answers. Bateman’s violence we must explain ourselves by piecing together the various sources in the text – from television to consumerism to a societal crisis of masculinity. Ellis doesn’t pretend to moralise, and his book ends with the ambiguous reference to Sartre’s play No Exit, as Bateman stares at a red-lettered sign on the door of a bar saying ‘this is not an exit’. The text thus begins and ends with a textual allusion to hell, but hell itself is not contained within the novel – the end is not an exit from the tortuously mundane, unequal and cruel world Bateman exists in – it is firmly our own world, from which there is no exit. This is an unsettling and nihilistic vision, but one in which unfortunately resonates as violence, consumption, immoral bankers, social inequality, identity crises and televisual domination are all swarming features of life in the twenty-first century; perhaps even more so than back in the late 1980s where the novel is set. The musical backdrop may have changed, but largely, the culture has not. And this relevance factor is why I recommend American Psycho.

 

Bibliography

Barthes, R. ‘From Work to Text’.

Burgess, A. A Clockwork Orange.

Dante, A. Divine Comedy.

Ellis, B. E. American Psycho.

McDonagh, M. The Pillowman.

Plato, The Republic.

Satre, J. P. No Exit.

Wilde, O. The Picture of Dorian Gray.

http://www.nytimes.com/1990/12/06/books/now-chapter-seeks-boycott-of-psycho-novel.html

http://theater.nytimes.com/2005/05/06/theater/newsandfeatures/06note.html?position=&_r=0&adxnnl=1&pagewanted=print&adxnnlx=1370079884-9qmE05+JL/NXsusA29JsyA