[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 staring, she 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 City, a 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.
To the best of my memory, I have only ever been on a sailing boat once. Or, I have only been happily in control of a sailing boat once (there was a time we had to try windsurfing in primary school, a time whose details have, thankfully, long been repressed). It was 2005, I was twelve years old, and had won a competition through the local youth club to go on a sailing trip to Oban. I don’t remember anything about what I must’ve learned regarding sailing, but I do recall a beautiful suite of seafaring terms: a special vocabulary which transformed previously mundane structural features into curious artefacts of mysterious potential: cleat, keel, stem, rudder, transform, tiller, clew, boom, shroud, telltale, jib, winch, deck and spreader. The man in charge was a hardened fisherman type; I don’t recall his name, but we called him the skipper. He was dismayed to learn I was a vegetarian, having packed little in the way of vegetables for our journey. I was happy to live off Ovaltine, jam rolls and digestives for the following days. It was such an odd combination of children—were we still children?—on that trip. No popular kids, but a few of the scarier misbehaviours (probably not okay to still call them neds), the freaks and geeks—then me, wherever I fit in. ‘Goth’, which in the case of my school was generally singular. Somehow, we all bonded rather than fought in the tiny space of that boat.
One boy, who would always be in fights, bullying and hunking his weight around, was so sweet to me. He saw I had eaten barely anything and gave me a whole bar of Cadbury Mint Chocolate, insisting I had all of it. It was such a kind gesture that I remember it still. Everyone was different at sea: softer, more honest. We were willing to admit our social vulnerabilities; there was no-one, no context, to perform for. A boy I’ll call L. opened up to me about his love for 2Pac, and when Coldplay came on the skipper’s stereo (it was their first truly mehhhh album, X&Y), we shared a little rant about how cheesy it was. We ate fruit out of tins, pulled scarves over our faces on deck and watched the coloured houses of Tobermory loom closer. The skipper let us all have a go at the tiller; he told us stories from previous trips, about how the weather had turned nasty and they’d had to pull themselves through miniature hurricanes. I found myself craving the wild mad weather, even as I was shivering in some inadequate waterproof jacket (I have a history of coming ill prepared to such outings). The skipper and I sort of oddly bonded, since I was usually the first one up in the group. He’d put the kettle on and we’d go out on deck to watch the sky. He’d point out things to look for in the cloud patterns, the colours that bloomed on the horizon. It’s this kind of practical knowledge that I thirst for. Chefs talking to me about how to sharpen knives, bake brownies; motorcyclists betraying the secrets to keeping your speed; engineers talking about formulas and team rivalries and how to build a bike wheel. I’m completely incapable of almost anything practical, so it’s always a magic alchemy to me. When people ask what I want to be when I grow up, I say shepherdess, even though I have little idea of what that entails, beyond reading the excellent The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks and occasionally listening to The Archers.I think I’d just be content to wander around hills.
Red sky at night, shepherd’s delight…
I awake to steady rainfall, first day of November. I have been thinking a lot about that sailing trip recently, mostly because I’ve been doing writing workshops in Greenock, and the nature of the place as a harbour town has everyone often turning back to boats and fishing topics. I talk to a chef at work about fishing, not because I’m all that interested in fish but because there’s something about its psychology that reminds me of times gone by. Once, I took myself out to Cardross on the train, following the road up to Ardmore to sit on the point which was a good spot for anglers. It was so quiet and still, the beaches strewn with lumps of quartz. I sat there for an hour or so, listening to the steady lap of the estuary, then slowly made my way home, tearing my skin on all the brambles. It had the feeling of a secret, overgrown place. A little out the way, a nest you could curl into: an almost island. I recall those tiny islands on the Swan Pond at Culzean Castle, where we used to leap across to. As a kid, I’d hide among the bamboos and rushes and feel entirely in my own little world. The pathways and grasses were lit with secret creatures, this 12th World I’d created—it was over a decade prior to Pokemon Go, but here I was in my augmented reality. I’d sit up on the top of the stairs reading for as late as possible, imagining that I was on top of a waterfall, and all before me was water cascading instead of carpet. I’d lie upside down and the ceiling became the first planes of a new universe. I’d wake up early and write it all down; but those pages are lost to whatever antique sale of the past stole my youth.
Now I am adult, less governed by diurnal rhythms. I find myself lost in the long bleed of night into day, up far too late in the bewildering recesses of the ocean online, the oceanic internet. Far corners where articles smudge their HEX numbers in true form down the page and I am rubbing my eyes to see beyond light. Time, perhaps, to rehash that old metaphor, surfing the web. Occasionally, some page would bring me crashing back down in the shallows; I’d wake up, ten minutes later, groggy on my keyboard. Press the refresh key. Instagram has me crossing continents at bewildering speed, lost in Moroccan markets, Mauritian beaches and Mexico City. In the depths of some nightclub then the heights of a Highland peak. So many fucking faces. Closeups of homemade cakes, delicious whisky. Memories. Oscillations I can hardly breathe in, watching my thumb make its onward scroll without my direction. The rhythms become flow, become repetition. I need an anchor. It’s been hours and hours and maybe I’m hungry.
On the boat, whose name I have sadly lost, we slept by gender in two separate cabin rooms. They were tiny, low-ceilinged, and we were just a handful of slugs pressed tight in our sleeping bags. It was better than a sleepover, because there was no pressure to stay up all night and we were all too exhausted from the sea air to talk much. I’d close my eyes and feel the steady rock of the boat’s hull as it bobbed on the water. There was a deep throb of something hitting against the walls outside, maybe a buoy or rope; it felt like a heartbeat. Sleeping in many strange places, the floors of friends’ flats and houses, in tents and on trains, I try to revisit that snug tight room where sleep was difficult to separate from consciousness itself. It was all of a darkness. Something Gaston Bachelard says in The Poetics of Space: ‘We comfort ourselves by reliving memories of protection. Something closed must retain our memories, while leaving them their original value as images.’ There was no mirror in that boat, so all I remember are smells and objects. No sign of my own pale and windswept face. Everything we ate was an old-fashioned brand; it made me think of rationing and traditional values. I wasn’t quite sure what that even meant.
I need an anchor. A place to dock in.
Governed by some primordial instinct, I go to make my dinner around the same time most nights—which happens to be one in the morning. The shipping forecast used to be the last thing on the radio, before a sea of white noise till dawn. When cutting veg, my fingers weak from another long day, I switch on the radio and there are the familiar intonations. I listen as I would a poem or a shopping list, a beautiful litany of place names, nouns, directives. I have no idea what any of it signifies. It’s been a double shift, perhaps, or an extreme stint in the library, a walk across the city. My mind is full of words and sounds, so many conversations. The debris of the day threatens to spill out as a siren’s cry, and how easily I could slump against the kitchen cupboards, wilt upon the floor. Make myself nothing but driftwood, no good turning till morning. But instead I chop veg, listen to the shipping forecast. It’s difficult to think you deserve food, even when your body’s burning for it and you haven’t eaten for hours. But there are so many other things to read or do! You need an anchor, a reason.
The general synopsis at midnight.
Many of my childhood lost afternoons, bleeding to evenings, were spent playing The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker on a GameCube I shared with my brother—avoiding the narrative quests and dungeons in favour of epic ventures across that cobalt ocean. What I wanted was that rousing sense of the wind’s spirit, the freedom to glide and find new islands. Whirlpools, tornados and Chtlulu-like creatures hurled me out to stranger lands. It was all so beautifully rendered, an expansive thalassic field of possibility; with each route I was fashioning some lovelorn story for my lonely hero. The ocean has always represented for me some point of erasure where reality dissolves into imagination. I think maybe it’s this perceptive meshing that we need to attune to in order to make sense of the vast scale effects of the Anthropocene. How else to grasp those resonant shockwaves of consequence, whose manifestations often transcend our human grasp of time and space?
Headache, Viking, southwesterly veering. The same refrain, moderate or good. When occasionally poor at times, do I picture the sailors with rain lashing their faces, rising through mist towards mainland? Is that even where they want to head? Rain at times, smooth or slight, variable 3 or 4. The dwelling conditionals; always between, never quite certain. The weather being this immense, elusive flux you can guess at, the way paint might guess at true colour. Cyclonic 4 or 5. In Fitzroy are there storms circling around the bay? Very few of these places could I point to on a map. I like the ambiguity, the fact of their being out there, starring the banks and shores and isles of Britain and beyond: Shannon, Fastnet, the Irish Sea. There’s a sense of being ancient, from Fair Isle to Faeroes.
I went to a talk last week for Sonica Fest where a girl from Fair Isle talked about climate change, how her home island would probably one day be swallowed by the sea. I can’t help picturing a Cocteau Twins song when she says it. She dropped handmade bronze chains in different oceans so you could see the divergent levels of oxidation, relative to saline content. It was beautiful, this abstract material rendering of elemental time. The world rusts differently; we are all objects, exposed to variant weathers. Her name was Vivian Ross-Smith and she talked about ‘islandness’, a project which connects contemporary art practise with locality and tradition. The term for me also conjured some sense of the world as all these archipelagos, whose land mass is slowly being ravaged by warming waters. The pollutants we put in. Islandness betrays our vulnerability, the way we were as 12-year-olds at the mercy of the tides, the weather and our gruff skipper. I had little conception of what climate change was, but even then I didn’t set a division between humankind and nature.
Back on the boat, I traced my own moods in the swirls of those mysterious currents, dipping my fingers in the freezing North Sea. Who are we before puberty, pure in our childish palette of pastel moods? When I think about how that sea spreads out to become the Atlantic, so vast and impossibly deep, I grow a bit nauseous. Maybe that’s the sublime; an endless concatenation of seasickness, feeling your own weakness and smallness in the face of great space, matter, disaster. How easy you too could become debris.
Increasingly, that waltzing Cocteau Twins song feels more like an elegy, haunted by the shrill of soprano, those shoegaze guitars resounding like notes through a cataract. A line from Wordsworth’s ‘Tintern Abbey’* I always remember, ‘The sounding cataract / Haunted me like a passion’. Interplay between feeling and form, sound and vision. The ocean warming, the beat steady and mesmerising. Are we sleepwalking into the Anthropocene, over and over again, a lurid repetition compulsion? Why we keep burning up fossil fuels, emitting our plumes of carbon, senseless in the face of a terrible sensorium? I crave solid objects that show up the archives of history, those plastiglomerates of Frankenstein geology, the warped materials of the Earth’s slow and drawn-out hurting. Liz Fraser’s operatic howls are maybe the mourning of the land itself, begging to be swallowed by the sea. A saving? If originally we came from water, hatched out of amniotic sacks or evolved from subaquatic origins, then maybe we return to its oceanic expanse, its blue screen of death. When I’m anxious and needing to write furiously, write against the tides of exhaustion or time, I listen to Drexciya—Detroit-based techno that harks back to Plato’s mythology of Atlantis, via Paul Gilroy’s Black Atlantic. There’s this crazed evocation of diaspora, drowning, a mysterious race of merpeople. What evolves below water, what is spawning in the recesses of subculture; what resists the mainstream, the violent currents of everyday life. This subterranean city is a ‘sonic third space’. I can’t help but think of my own other planet, that 12th World separate yet attached to daily reality; somewhere distant but still impossibly intimate. That resonant intensity that drives you from sleep and into midnight discos of the mind, all pulsation of lights, wonder, horror.
There’s a sense that sound itself can be physically embracing. This is maybe how it crosses over into sonic third space, where embedded mythologies flourish in resonant affect. Where sound becomes tangible, making vibrational inscriptions of code upon the body like transient hieroglyphs of an assemblage’s trellising energy. In Tom McCarthy’s novel C (2010), the protagonist Serge is obsessed with hacking the radio to tune into the ether. Alongside the obvious supernatural connotations, there’s a more pressing suggestion that Serge is able to make his entire being become channel for sound. He lays on a ship as I once lay on a boat, listening to the warm stirs, the conversational blips and signals of objects:
The engine noise sounds in his chest. It seems to carry conversations from other parts of the vessel: the deck, perhaps, or possibly the dining room, or maybe even those of its past passengers, still humming through its metal girders, resonating in the enclosed air of its corridors and cabins, shafts and vents. Their cadences rise and fall with the ship’s motion, with such synchronicity that it seems to Serge that he’s rising and falling not so much above the ocean per sea as on and into them: the cadences themselves, their peaks and troughs…
McCarthy’s lyrical clauses accumulate this notion of sound as spreading, seeping into words and orifices, surfaces. Presences, absence. A lilting simultaneity between the movements and pulses of objects. Sound becomes material; is spatialised as cadence, lapping the edge of Serge’s senses with lapidary, enticing effect—always tinged, perhaps, with a lisping hint of danger. The sounds, after all, also evoke the dead. There’s a radio drama by Jonathan Mitchell, where the protagonist has developed a device which allows you to extract sound from wood. There’s the idea that wooden surfaces absorb sounds from their surroundings, and the time and quality of storage depends on the type of wood. It’s a brilliant sci-fi exploration of what would happen ethically if we could extract auditory archives from material surroundings—the problems and possibilities of surveillance, anamnesis and so on. Consequences for human and nonhuman identity, the boundaries between life and death, silence and noise.
Do the walls hear everything? I think of rotting driftwood, how porous and light it is. How its every indent, line and scar marks some story of the tides, the stones and the sea. Robinson Crusoe, chipping the days away as notches on wood. I think of the hull of that boat, perhaps coated in plastic, sticky with flies and algae.
On the last day of our sailing trip, we were sitting round the table of the cabin, docked in Oban harbour, reading the papers and having a cup of tea. Our youth club leader got a text from a friend back home. She was informing us of the London 7/7 bombings. This was a time prior to having internet on our phones. We weren’t so wirelessly in tune with everything everywhere always. But that little signal, a couple words blipped through the ether, brought the sudden weight of the world crashing back down upon our maritime eden. I had family in London who escaped the attack by the skin of their teeth, a fortuitous decision to take that day a different route. How everything was at once the dread of hypotheticals. I did not understand the vast arterial networks of terror that governed the planet; these things happened in flashbulb moments, their ripple effects making what teachers called history. Somehow it didn’t seem real. Bombs went off all the time on tv; I grew up with the War in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those televised wars were the ambient backdrop to everything on the news. Later, my friends would wile away their teens shooting each other on Call of Duty. It was all logistics, statistics, the spectacle of bodies and explosions. Nobody explained it. We were distracted by MSN Messenger, then those boys with their controllers tuning in and out of conversation, signing online then drifting away into present-absence. X-Box (Live). Signifier: busy. It was good to be away from the telly in the relative quiet of the boat, startled instead by foghorns and seagulls. But even then, we remained connected.
The Shipping Forecast has been issued, uninterrupted, since 1867. Its collation of meteorological data provides a map of sorts, a talismanic chart of patterns and movements, currents, pressures, temperatures—something that helps millions of sailors out at sea. I look at such visual charts and truly it boggles me. I prefer grasping such data as sound, delivered in the hypnotic lilt of that voice: its clear diction and poetic pace, calling me home. I think of the west coast, the bluish slate-grey of the sea. Becoming variable, then becoming southerly, rain or showers, moderate or good. Always between things’ becoming, becoming. There’s the pitch-black womb of a cabin again, the childlike promise of dreams and sleep, a genuine rest I’ve forgotten entirely. Listening makes it okay to be again, buoyed up halfway between where I am and where I’ve been. A constellation of elsewheres to placate insomnia’s paranoia; to be in winter’s dark heart or the long nights of summer, endlessly tuning to atmosphere, cyclonic later, slowly veering from the way. My present tense is always eluding, like ‘In Limbo’ with Thom Yorke’s seaward crooning, the morse code of emotion in whirlpool arpeggios, closing and bleeping and droning on a wave far away, the spiralling weather, the fantasy…Another message I can’t read.
*Full title, of course, being ‘Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour, July 13, 1798’.
Dark Ecology and Haunted Technology in Stranger Things
(warning: this essay lacks coherence; think of it more as a wandering, a haunting of deranged, half-baked ideas)
In our time, the soul has been progressively more materialised. That the soul should now be thought to be, no longer purely immaterial, but constituted from a range of different forms of exotic or tenuous matter is a proof of the necessity of physics for any metaphysics
(Steven Connor, ‘Her Light Materials’).
In her book Phantasmagoria, Marina Warner explores the way in which, from the seventeenth century onwards, we have increasingly relied upon various forms of matter in order to discursively figure the soul: visual apparatuses, natural elements, shadows, reflections, wax and technology are just some of the material modes by which the soul is embodied in the ‘modern’ era. This emphasis on things and substances as they bear forth not only selfhood but also the spiritual manifestation of self is crucial to an ecological understanding of humanity’s vision of itself in a post-industrial age where such substances, through our own actions, have contaminated the earth: the Anthropocene means that our physical activities as humans are literally embedded, embodied and sedimented into the Earth’s geology, ecosystems, climate. In a sense, the human soul, its debris of thingness – whether vaporous or material – is already encrusted within what we can now only tenuously call the environment. For doesn’t an environment presuppose a foreground and background, a subject who inhabits the object(ive) world? What happens when we are the object world? How do we confront the sudden otherness of ourselves, the realisation that we are the earth, and not in some hippie-dippie holism (let’s all hold hands with the animals) but in a frighteningly confrontational reality of material coexistence?
What is striking about Netflix’s Stranger Things is exactly its emphasis on strange things. The suffix draws attention to what we mean by things: who or what are we comparing the stranger things to? Ourselves? The creatures we coexist with, the ones we have already charted, taxonomised, ordered and made familiar through Enlightenment science, zoology and philosophy? How many horror films have we seen where that which is monstrous is not other to us but somehow represents the other within us? As Virginia Woolf said of Henry James’ ghosts: ‘They have their origin within us. They are present whenever the significant overflows our powers of expressing it; whenever the ordinary appears ringed with the strange’ (1921). When what we take as given, as natural or normal–is revealed as inherently disturbed–the boundaries of meaning violently ruptured or haunted, there incurs a fundamental split in what we take to be reality itself. We are forced to question our place in the ‘world’ not just as a human but as a physical subject tout court.
The horror genre is notorious for its representation of creatures who challenge our definition of the natural. Timothy Morton says of John Carpenter’s film The Thing: ‘the supposedly horrific alien is none other than the reproductive, simulative process of nature itself’; the Thing is always shifting its guises, ‘destined never to be itself’ (182). This is the dark allure of the popular horror trope of the viral: that which is always shifting, transforming, responding ‘automatically’ (as in Darwinian) to the conditions of its environment. Think of zombie movies, then also the likes of 28 Days Later, I Am Legend and so on—all are obsessed with the idea of infection, the notion that apocalypse will come because the purity of the human soul and body will be corrupted by some alien force.
However, what terrifies about the virus is the realisation that it is inherent in ‘nature’; as Morton argues, what is ‘monstrous’ about evolution, about the growth of plants and other lifeforms, is that DNA itself is viral: [a]ll organisms are monsters insofar as they are chimeras, made from pieces of other creatures’ (2010: 66). Like Victor Frankenstein’s Creature in Mary Shelley’s novel, all lifeforms are hybridised, made from scraps of other beings; though here the product not of Frankenstein’s experiments in vitalism but of evolution’s functional contamination. As with Derrida’s revelation that language, meaning and being have no presence, but only Différance, Darwin’s theory of evolution, as Morton shows, is similarly predicated on slipperiness, fuzziness, contamination. At the core of existence is not essence, but différance, with all its implications of instability, aporia and fragile, mutually infected binaries. Mutation, in a strong sense, is inherent to ‘nature’ – and by no means are humans excluded from this ‘nature’. Not only do we enmesh with the object world in a corporeal sense (our bodies are not bounded but always escape, fragment – the dust of our skin and hair inhabits the atmosphere) but also in the discursive sense, in the way that Warner has traced: in the literary and aesthetic figuring of the soul as a material thing.
Episode Four of Stranger Things is appropriately named ‘The Body’. Looking down at the corpse of her missing child (Will), Joyce (played by that chimera of the Gothic heroine, Winona Ryder) screams, ‘I don’t know what you think that thing in there is, but that is not my son’. What she feels is not grief, but something ‘different’: she is rubbing up against the fragile boundaries of the symbolic order, feeling the metaphysical structures of the world quiver uncannily around her. Later in the episode, we see her other son, Jonathan, weeping in his room to Joy Division’s ‘Atmosphere’. The lyrics enact an uncanny duality of dialogue: the imperative to ‘walk in silence’ is retracted immediately with ‘don’t walk away, in silence’: the whole song, with its slow, shimmering synths and shuddering drums enacts a play between presence and absence, the corporeal and incorporeal: ‘Naked to see / Walking on air / Hunting by the rivers’. Like The Cure’s ‘A Forest’, there is a maddening sense of pursuit, the lost object dissolving into silence while the mournful subject can only wander through the song in his melancholia, pursuing ‘through the streets’ but only to abandon ‘every corner […] too soon’. There is no closure, only this ‘atmosphere’ of absence sprinkled with the ghostly possibilities of presence elusive.
With Will’s ersatz body we confront the indeterminate state between life and death, the physical remains which should suggest closure and yet speak of something silent, unsayable. What is this strange body cast up before her? Surely not the son, who she is sure is not dead yet, who she has heard calling for her through the telephone…Later, when Hopper, the police chief, takes a knife to the chest of the corpse, he sees it to be synthetic, stuffed like a pillow. Matter contained in matter; this time, not human matter, but simple object matter. We are suddenly pointed to a deeper conspiracy (the Department of Energy and the MK Ultra experiments), but at the same time the suspense of Hopper’s puncturing is playing upon our abject reaction to the corpse as that which contains within it both life and death. What disgusts us in the carving of cadavers is the fact that it is even possible; the tear of the body representing the tear of all we have taken for granted in our usual embodied lives as similar beings, wrapped up in what we thought was the same fabric of reality.
What is uncanny about a human corpse? It reminds us of the presence of death within everyday existence, it shows us, in visceral, stinking, mattering manner, ‘what I permanently thrust aside in order to live’ – it is ‘death infecting life’ (Kristeva 1982: 3). Stranger Things is obsessed with appearance and reality, with the hidden networks of existence which haunt the outward façade of daily life in small-town Indiana. As the title suggests, part of this interplay of appearance and reality is the necessary strangeness of things: not just the gory, pulp-horror monsters that haunt our nightmares but the strangeness of all we take for granted as normal—the family home, the general ‘good’ of the government’s intentions and the rule of the law; the clear boundary between life and death, presence and absence, self and other. We might think of Jeffrey Beaumont in Blue Velvet (1986), bending down in the lush green grass of a suburban garden to lift that grotesque, insect-swarmed severed ear from the ground: the sudden onrush of magnified sound that signals our entrance into the underworld, the seedy, violent and parallel reality which exists aside our everyday lives. This essay will attempt an exploration of sorts into Stranger Thing’s heart of darkness: its uncanny depiction of the interrelations between bodies, technologies and nature, the living and the dead.
My central focus will concern how ethereal, inter-worldly transmission is figured through technology and also how its representation of abjection and the viscous, sticky enmeshment of the Upside-Down contributes to a renewed understanding of what constitutessuch taken-for-granted things as nature, environment, world. I will argue that the show’s obsession with death as an ontological condition and its depiction of both communication and rupture is not just a parable of Cold War paranoia over the presence of the (Communist) Other within, but also challenges the ethics and poetics of how we approach the non-human Other in the context of late capitalism, i.e. ecological crisis and technological modernity.
One of the most terrifying aspects of the Monster/Creature/Demogorgon is its lack of a face; the fact that it cannot return the gaze of its onlookers, who can only look into the void of its flesh and see substance, reminding them that they too are substance—that the boundary between the human and monstrous is decidedly fragile. The Dementors in Harry Potter are similarly frightening because they lack eyes: where the eyes should be, the sockets are covered over with scabby, corpse-like skin. In Neil Gaiman’s children’s novella, Coraline, in the parallel, looking-glass world that Coraline finds ‘through the door’, her Other Mother and Other Father seem physically identical to their originals, except that their eyes have been replaced with black buttons. Freud famously outlined his theory of the uncanny through a close reading of E. T. A. Hoffman’s ‘The Sandman’ (1816), a dark Germanic fable about a creature who visits children and tears out their eyes. Freud very cleverly links the fear of blindness back to castration anxiety, but for my purposes, the uncanniness of losing one’s sight is partly due to perception itself. If our eyes are associated with discerning the real world of impressions around us, how can we without them tell if we are living in reality?
Moreover, when we encounter creatures without eyes, what are we to make of their consciousness? If eyes are ‘windows to the soul’ as the saying goes, can there be a soul without eyes? Coexistence can happen on an intelligible level if the animal can return our gaze: Derrida, in ‘The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow)’, has written about his experience of being looked at and looking back at the animal, namely, his cat staring in confusion at his naked body; and we have all had a moment of silent exchange with a stranger’s pet, eyes meeting by chance perhaps but lingering…and in that lingering is the suggestion of an understanding between species, the troubling of notions of inside/outside, human/nonhuman.
Yet how do we interact with a creature who cannot return the gaze? A thing without facial features is ontologically unstable somehow, unable to establish presence through meaningful expression: ‘the phantasm is the sign of that visible incorporeality. The image I see returns as both the spectral figure of myself as other, and yet also it figures in its return the immanence of my disappearance’ (Dick and Wolfreys 2015: 139). Could we relate this ‘visible incorporeality’ to the Creature of Stranger Things? It is certainly figured as corporeal, as Nancy and Jonathan embark on a hunting mission to slay it like any old dragon or wildebeest, but then again, it is not of our world – it comes from the other place, the Upside-Down. Seeing the Creature, the characters are faced with its impossibility, which in turn incurs an ontological rupture whereby they themselves witness the flashing vanishing of matter. Barb’s sudden disappearance, for instance: the play of sensory impressions that distorts all sense of space and time in the woods.
Significantly, the Creature is not the only ‘monster’ that haunts Stranger Things. Throughout the show, El is in a sense a ‘monstrous’ figure. Her origins are unknown. Stripped of hair, with a boyish figure, she maintains an androgynous appearance; the boys’ attempts to prettify her with a wig and makeup enact a bizarre transformation which only serves to heighten her strangeness, as she appears more doll-like, the sudden deliberation of her actions running uncannily counter to her appearance, which would be that of an automaton if she were a living doll (or indeed, the escaped hospital patient possibility suggested by her bald scalp and hospital gown). Her fate, like Safie in Frankenstein (who provides a parallel figure of exile for the Creature, welcomed with hospitality while he is crudely expelled from the De Lacey home) seems inextricably tied up with that of the Creature: in the final episode, its vanishing at the command of her telekinesis simultaneously enacts her own vanishing from the concrete world of the boys and the classroom. It might’ve been interesting to make the Creature a more sympathetic life form, rather than a screaming reaction of base violence which actively preys on humans, just to give some extra ambiguity to the order of things; but even so, it’s still possible to have some sympathy for the Demogorgon (and not just because it seems the live manifestation of a beloved strategy game)—after all, it represents ‘nature’ in all its savage instincts, linking back to what I was saying earlier about monstrosity and evolution.
In order to defeat the Creature, to seek out Will in the Upside-Down, El has to recreate the sensory deprivation experiments which were conducted upon her in the Department of Energy lab. Floating in the water, she appears Christ-like, as if her soul must endure the rituals of crucifixion in order to bring back Will from the Upside-Down (symbolic immersion?). Like Nancy, she is deathly thin, her physical presence pale against the strong personalities of the male characters. Her corporeal existence is almost shimmering: she is slow at first, learning words and meanings, piecing things together. Not only does this emphasise the shock of her telekinetic powers, but also it sediments the show’s strange interplay between the ethereal and material.
Stranger Thing’s preoccupation with eating is one manifestation of this. It’s all very Freudian. Jonathan makes eggs for his mother and tries to get her to eat. Arguments occur round the family dinner table. In the Upside-Down, Nancy sees the Creature feeding on a deer and realises its attraction to spilt blood. The cadaverous El is always ravenous and is frequently seen eating. In fact, at one point she blithely steals frozen waffles from a supermarket and devours them in the woods. Food is a prominent symbol in fairytales. Food, of course, is closely related to abjection. Fundamentally, the digestion and excretion of food reminds us that we are part of an enmeshment of material things; unfortunately, we cannot transcend the flesh prison which sustains our beautiful souls…Kristeva’s description of the abject reaction of food disgust is worth quoting in full, as her sentences gather a certain pace that mimics the physical spasms of reaction, the desire to expel the self in the experience of disgust from the food object which reminds us that we too are bodies, layered and soft and mortal:
Food loathing is perhaps the most elementary and most archaic form of abjection. When the eyes see or the lips touch that skin on the surface of milk—harmless, thin as a sheet of cigarette paper, pitiful as a nail paring—I experience a gagging sensation and, still farther down, spasms in the stomach, the belly; and all the organs shrivel up the body, provoke tears and bile, increase heartbeat, cause forehead and hands to perspire. Along with sight-clouding dizziness, nausea makes me balk at that milk cream, separates me from the mother and father who proffer it. “I” want none of that element, sign of their desire; “I” do not want to listen, “I” do not assimilate it, “I” expel it. But since the food is not an “other” for “me,” who am only in their desire, I expel myself. I spit myself out, I abject myself within the same motion through which “I” claim to establish myself. That detail, perhaps an insignificant one, but one that they ferret out, emphasise, evaluate, that trifle turns me inside out, guts sprawling; it is thus that they see that “I” am in the process of becoming an other at the expense of my own death. During that course in which “I” become, I give birth to myself amid the violence of sobs, of vomit.
(Kristeva 1982: 2-3)
The inside-out unsheathing of the body and its skin (the skin of flesh, the flesh of food) mirrors the Upside-Down Alice in Wonderland reversal and parallel convergence of realities. There is always a reversal, another possible surface. The mutation. Nothing is stable but always in movement. The spasms here mirror the shrieking of the self in the grip of grief: in Twin Peaks, Laura Palmer’s mother shrieking in hysteria; in Stranger Things, Joyce Byers rattling with terror as she storms around her own home, trying to find her lost son. The psychosexual implications of Kristeva’s passage are also relevant to Stranger Things because, let’s face it, there is something womblike and vaginal about the viscous, flora-infested environment of the Upside-Down, its gross and mollusc-like mucus and glistening ectoplasm. It’s perhaps no coincidence that Nancy loses her virginity the same night that her best friend Barb is sucked into that orifice-like portal of the monstrous feminine, the gooey nether-zone where she will find herself woven into the lining, her body penetrated by the infestations of disgusting slug and snake-like creatures. Like Cinderella, Barb pricks her finger (though on a crunched beer can, not a spindle) and is doomed to some sort of eternal sleep.
At one point in the show, one of the lab workers enters the portal in the Department of Energy and despite clinging to a rope, is irrevocably drawn into the depths, never to see the light of day again as the mouth of the portal closes. There’s the whole vagina dentata (religious myth of the toothed vagina) psychoanalytic strand here which would be interesting to pursue, especially as the implications of castration anxiety connect back to the Creature’s missing eyes/face. As in Twin Peaks, the portal to the other world (Black Lodge) will only open under certain conditions. With Kristeva’s passage on the skin of milk, we can think about how the entrance to the Upside-Down is itself an instance of abjection: the expelling of bodies and matter between worlds. The inside is clearly toxic as the lab workers don protective suits to enter; there is even a suggestion of the post-nuclear landscape in the way that an ash-like matter floats in the atmosphere, again fitting in with the monstrous nature/alien space theme.
As Nancy tumbles out from the forest portal (housed inside a tree), sticky with all the weird stuff that comes off the world’s ‘lining’, she is quivering with terror in a manner reminiscent of Kristeva in the rejection of the milk. Freud theorised that young boys were scared of their mothers due to the fear she would castrate them, and maybe there’s a reading that the whole show is some phantasmagoric, dreamlike manifestation of the terror of the overbearing ‘hysteric’ mother (Joyce). The winding strands of plant-like matter, snake-like and strange, are reminiscent too of Medusa’s head. Freud has a whole essay, ‘Medusa’s Head’ (1922), on the possibility/implications of Medusa’s head taking ‘the place of a representation of female genitals, or rather if it isolates their horrifying effects from their pleasure-giving ones is familiar in other connections as an apotropaic act’—namely, the commitment of evil. Interesting how Stranger Things teases with the gendering here: the male-dominated U.S. Government vs. monstrous feminine nature – which is more evil? Science or the (super)natural? I think the Alien films are probably the most obvious Stranger Things intertext here, but the very fact that the show wears its myriad influences on its sleeve creates a web-like structure of inference that opens itself up to multiple readings that cut across the cultural timelines of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, spreading out monstrously, contaminating discourses both pop cultural and scientific.
The show plays constantly with this weirdly distorted womb/plant/viscous/genitals imagery and I can’t help but think perhaps it represents some kind of monstrous mother nature, the vengeance of the earth against the interfering experiments with time-space enacted by the US Government and its Department of Energy…Hyperobjects like global warming, plutonium and oil slicks are defined partly by their viscosity: ‘the more you know about a hyperobject, the more entangled with it you realise you already are’ (Morton 2010a). The more we as viewers learn about the strange world of the Upside-Down, the more we see it in our own reality. Monstrous, oozing nature. Ourselves in the mirror: the strange stranger – the notion that the closer we get to other life forms, the weirder they become (Morton 2010b: 17).The constant recurrence of floods and hurricanes and melting ice caps, irrevocably now understood as the consequences of global warming: they acquire an almost anthropomorphised monstrosity.
At the end of the series, Will, restored to apparent ‘reality’ (signified by that most traditional of temporal markers, perhaps the most important date in the calendar, Christmas Day), coughs up a slug-like creature and once again glimpses the Upside-Down again, flashing through the palimpsest surface of the normal world, reminding us of the imprint of the ecological uncanny, the presence of the strange, nonhuman other, within ourselves. I am struck with a line from Coleridge’s poem, ‘The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere’ (1798), where, after facing the nightmare wrath of the storms following his shooting of the albatross (the fatal crime against ‘nature’), the mariner glimpses the gross multitudes of sea-snakes in the ocean below his boat, shimmering among the floating corpses of his fellow sailors, lost to the storm: ‘And they all dead did lie! / And a million million slimy things / Liv’d on – and so did I’. The mushy consonance of the l sounds here recreates the oozing viscosity of all those wriggling bodies, but there is a sense in which the mariner seems to revel in the sheer multitude of these ‘million million slimy things’, as the repetition suggests—their individuality as types of species is beyond his grasp and he can only face them as a kind of hyperobject, the sharp realisation following the caesura (-) indicating the revelation of coexistence, which is both wondrous and terrifying.
Indeed, there’s something about El’s telekinetic powers too, the way they can elasticate reality, bending objects and shattering matter, but at the expense of something inside her, the price of the blood that oozes from her nose each time, signifying her depleted energy. She is no robot, but material and mortal too: the recurrence of the blood and its spilling viscosity insists on this. El’s ‘magic’ enacts a disruption of foreground and background; we cannot just perceive it as magic, for we have witnessed its basis in a kind of scientific experiment within the labs. It comes out of the world, disrupts the subject. Stranger Things is rife with pathetic fallacy – storms and power blackouts – and this isn’t just a contribution to the horror mood but also an underlining of the show’s ecological context and monstrosity: the collapse of weather as mere background, stage-setting, into the narrative itself (the significance of electricity in the show is still to be traced) signals the impossibility of the world as such. ‘We have no world,’ as Morton so aptly puts it, ‘because the objects that functioned as invisible scenery have dissolved’ (2013: 104). What happens when you think through the world as the world, rather than from an anthropocentric viewpoint? Peter Watts has written a short story titled ‘The Things’ which reverses the perspective of Carpenter’s movie, this time telling the story from the virus’ point of view (note the plural things and think back to the mutational plurality/chains of the virus)—once again, disruption of subject/object ordering. What is an alien consciousness? What is nature’s consciousness? The only way we can find out is by recognising nature’s strangeness, and that strangeness is inherently within us too. In Stranger Things, the dissolution of objects is part of the show’s exploration of the uncanny (walls and doors shift, ooze, open and close) in relation to the monstrous (and this is rooted in other themes beyond the scope of my essay; for example, the nuclear family and adolescent sexuality), but also the monstrosity of nature enacting its gross and terrible vengeance against man’s interference: El, little pixie child of the forest as she becomes, is able to manipulate objects, thus denying their status as mere staging and indeed staging them as vitalist forces in themselves (so far, so Object Orientated Ontology?).
On the subject of ‘energy’ and electricity it isn’t just El’s psychic energy and the deceptive title of the ‘Department of Energy’ that resonates in Stranger Things. ‘Energy’ also points us to the vitalist elements of Stranger Things; namely, its interest in the networked relations between humans and technology, the way that communication and transmission rupture not only the fleshly interaction of humans but also the metaphysical boundaries between life and death. For starters, there’s the song played against the opening title: New Order’s ‘Elegia’. What first struck me about this track was the dissonant synths, the way they creep up on you in mesmerising waltz-time, the guitars, piano and synths enveloping one another in counterpoint melodies. NME tells me that the song was written as a tribute to Ian Curtis and it’s almost impossible to listen to the 18-minute track, whose elegiac status is inscribed in the very title, and not think of absence, death, the plunge into void, the journey through its swirling, miasma-like movements which render eerie and maybe even ‘inhuman’ our experience of temporality. Before this contextual note, however, I was weirdly reminded of ‘Lavender Town Syndrome’: the 1990s internet myth surrounding the music from Pokemon Red and Green. The MIDI track from this particular town is indeed extremely jarring, run on two channels so that the sound travels literally through one ear and out of the other and thus fusing in the brain to create a certain sonic effect. There were rumours that this effect caused suicides and seizures until the MIDI track was ‘tamed’ for the American version.
While the story was more or less sheer internet rumour, it’s still provocative and raises questions about the ghostliness (or, as Warner might put it, phantasmagoria) provoked by the phantasmic structures of media technology. Aphex Twin, for example, embedding a spectrograph image inside an audio file, the implications of such a shape upon sound: screeching, searing static. The sound of a ghost trapped in a glitch world? If the glitch is an accident, then what is a ghost? An accident of time and space, trapped in the in-between, reminding us of the fragility of time-space itself? Of being itself? Sound, after all, is temporal; a MIDI track is self-containing in its temporality. You can loop it, but it has a form and a shape, a beginning and ending. Does the ghost have a beginning and ending? When I listen to the original Lavender Town track, I can definitely feel a kind of fuzziness or vibration in my brain, as if the frequencies of my thought were suddenly being played upon, synapses twisted and twanged as if in electro-convulsive therapy; or like the sensory experiments upon the brain portrayed in Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange and indeed in Stranger Things, inspired by the psychedelic investigations of the 1960s and 70s, name-checked in the show as ‘MK Ultra’ – incidentally, also the title of one of Muse’s most politically paranoid songs. An early configuration of this could be the Romantic Aeolian harp, which represented the mutual ‘play’ of sound, expression, music, poetry and impressions between the world and the artistic mind (see Shelley’s ‘A Defence of Poetry’). What these aural effects again reinforce is the dissolving of subject/object, as sounds from the so-called ‘environment’ feed into our brains, penetrate the boundaries of the self and flesh and in doing so enact a kind of digital Heideggarian poeisis, wherein the arrangement of sound itself (like words on the page of a poem), causes something to actually happen, to come into being. What is this being? The experience of terror, a sudden rupture of consciousness as the soundwaves pulse through the brain? Sensation, in its flux, placing us under erasure, as we fall away from consciousness? Where are we now, reaching back for the material symbols of the soul that would save us from the sea of dissonant, consuming music? Stranger Things evokes a rich sonic atmosphere, full of grotesque, squelchy, pulsing, oozing, insect-esque sound effects which trickle the presence of monstrous nature, of the metaphysical strangeness of the Upside-Down and its plant-like materials, straight into our brain.
Attached to the auditory is the technological unfolding of the visual. Throughout the series,photography plays a significant role in the identification of the beast/creature. Following the scopophilic power of the male gaze (and of course another Blue Velvet reference is inevitable here, Jeffrey peeking through the closet at the acts of domestic sexual violence), Jonathan sneaks into the woods to take photos of Steve’s party, snapping pictures of Nancy for whom he harbours a secret desire/teenage love. Yet what remains in the photos isn’t just the form of his beloved, but the strange shape of the beast, captured indelibly in the developed ink:
Photography is a mode of tekhnē– a making appear (technology “makes” something “appear” out of parts, raw materials; it is thus the truth of the physical world; we make, we cause to appear things, commodities, but what does photography make appear? Images made of shadows, light and dark – in this it causes to appear an event no longer there, no longer with us; it gives us to see what we cannot otherwise see.
(Dick and Wolfreys 260)
There is a sense in which photography is, like the New Order track, inherently elegiac—or at the very least, represents the flicker between presence and absence, since the material presence of the photograph is haunted by the absence of what it represents, the not-there, the once-happened. As in the play of light and dark, positive and negative space, the photograph captures the liminal position between presence and absence, matter and ethereality. It is thus, as Barthes shows in Camera Lucida ( 1980), a medium closely associated with death. The shape of the beast is barely distinguishable in the photograph, especially with the added layer of another camera, and the computer screen through which we stream the Netflix content of Stranger Things itself. The temporality of the photograph is thus strangely ephemeral, despite its suggestion of a ‘snapshot’, a reification or fixing of the moment. There is a ghostliness to the photo: ‘it bears witness where there is no witness’ (Dick and Wolfreys 2015: 261); it reduplicates the sense of presence as reading the image bears another kind of birth, the control of the eye/I at the focal point in another space of time which is always overtaken by the image and its embodiment of another time–the displacing and shifting incurring is a kind of haunting.
Think of Twin Peaks, another series whose entire plot hinges on absence, namely, the death of its main character, Laura Palmer, which occurs before the show’s diegetic action even begins. Laura’s absence is primarily signified by the presence of her prom queen portrait photograph, which occupies not only the mantelpiece of the Palmer home but also the end credits of every episode. Played over with the melancholy Angelo Badalamenti score, the picture serves to remind us of the presence of Laura as narrative phantasm, the way that the absent/dead Cathy and Heathcliff haunt Nelly’s recollected narrative in Wuthering Heights.
Ghosts, then, are not just the creaky ghouls of Gothic castles, but instead are inextricably linked to the replicating capacities of technology and indeed narrative itself as a medium of recalling some thing or person or event, thereby disruptively evoking the past in the present, disturbing presence itself. As Derrida puts it:
Contrary to what we might believe, the experience of ghosts is not tied to a bygone historical period, like the landscape of Scottish manors, etc., but … is accentuated, accelerated by modern technologies like film, television, the telephone. These technologies inhabit, as it were, a phantom structure…When the very first perception of an image is linked to a structure of reproduction, then we are dealing with the realm of phantoms.
(Derrida 1989: 61)
In addition to photography, electricity and telephone communication are prominent mediums through which the ghostly is figured in Stranger Things. Joyce starts to hear Will calling to her through electricity—through the lamps and electric lights strung up in her home. She answers the telephone and hears his voice through the ambient rasping, and we can hear glimpses of that gooey, squelching monster sound. She literally rips the telephone out the wall trying to get back to him, causing another spatial rupture in the material world which started with the ephemeral, the sound of the phone call. Her makeshift séance codex constructed out of letter posters and the flashing bulbs of fairy lights renders literally the evocation of the dead through writing, the Derridean play of presence and absence which dissolves subjectivity in the space between speech and writing. Here Will can only communicate by flashing the lights, so that his presence is available only through the transmission of a kind of Morse code. At the end of episode two, as Joyce tries to navigate the suddenly terrifying environment of her home, seeking the source of the noise and of Will’s possible voice, the soundtrack, heard by us and by Joyce through the walls, is the Clash’s ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go’ – a song which ironically renders the subject’s lingering on the threshold between going and staying, presence and absence. Joyce’s discovery of the song playing on the stereo as if by magic is uncanny because the familiar song becomes wrenched from its normal experience and is here recontextualised as extremely disturbing and perhaps even tragic, the flicker and stutter of its playback following the jilted rhythms of a voice, a soul, a subject, trying to pierce through some unseen border, to transmit signals to his mother.
At one point, Joyce gets so far as to catch a glimpse of her son through the wall which becomes a glass screen, but soon he vanishes, the wall returns to being a wall that is now smashed and the daylight is beaming through, reminder of the permeability of all borders, the fragile boundaries of the home. When the estranged husband, father of Will, comes to visit, he makes attempts to patch up the physical confines of the home, but this patriarchal intrusion of order and reparation of stability does little to stabilise the spirits of the house: the invasive Creature, which howls in the wall, and Will, who calls through the lights.
What we get is a sense of Joyce’s claustrophobic mania, her absolute loneliness as she desperately tries to seek out signs of her son’s presence. Jonathan makes attempts to help her, to make her breakfast and be strong for her, but he too prefers to retire to his room and listen to his new wave melancholia, eyes transfixed on the constant whorl of the tape spools. As Joyce fashions a codex for communication, I think back to the idea of writing itself as a kind of call. In writing, the self dissolves, is irrevocably split (so far, so Lacan), but the same is true of speech:
[…] we come to apprehend a ghostly structure at work, which informs the condition of being human, and with that all forms, instances, possibilities of communication between the self and the other, the host and the guest or ghost, the living and the dead. Even if no one has said anything to me, when I begin to write, or when I start talking – to give a lecture, or in a seminar – what I call “my” words, arrive as a response to some unheard, but nonetheless persistent call […]
(Dick and Wolfreys 2015: 28).
There is, then, an uncanny disruption of subjectivity within the voice itself, a spacing of difference and deferral. Whose words am I speaking? In the experience of hearing Will’s voice, we undergo the creepy realisation of his presence penetrating the possibilities of time/space (how can you speak from the realm of the dead?) at the same time of the technological reproduction of his voice adding another layer of ‘removal’, of phantasmagoric embodiment to Will’s ‘self’ or indeed ‘soul’.
I would argue that the show’s real obsession is not with Cold War governmental conspiracy, but with transmission and networks. I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on how Tom McCarthy’s novel C (2010) approaches the discourse networks of twenty-first century internet and wireless technology by representing the wireless networks of the early twentieth century’s radio communication, in doing so carving out a media archaeological approach to literature and theory that renders the always-already status of subjectivity and human communication as a form of transmission, indelibly connected to texts and technics. McCarthy’s protagonist, Serge, tunes into the radio frequently, but even as he listens to a gramophone, the unravelling distortions of his dead sister’s voice tune into his brain through a psychoanalytic panoply of incest, desire and technological anamnesis:
The cylinders and discs are still there. When he plays them now, her voice attaches itself, leech-like, to the ones recorded in them – tacitly, as though laid down in the wax and shellac underneath these voices, on a lower stratum: it flashes invisibly within these crackles, slithers through the hisses of their silence.
(McCarthy 2010: 78)
Here the material paraphernalia of the gramophone has the effect of a medium in the telekinetic sense of communing with the dead; only Serge never speaks back, he only listens. The leech-like imagery conjured here, with the slithery plurality of voices, the intrusion of external sounds (‘these crackles’) recalls the slimy imagery of Coleridge’s water-snakes and indeed the Upside-Down: these are parts of ‘the world’ of matter that cannot be elided, that flicker in the strange temporal space which technologically carves out (in its ‘archaeological’ and reproductive function) between life and death. Sophie, the dead sister, returns as material detritus, reminding us again of our enmeshment (here physical embedding) within the material world. As the ‘wax and shellac’ score ‘these voices’, Warner’s figuring of the phantasmagoria of the soul appears again: the soul is here literally materialised, but only as recollected fragments. This is an ecological point in the sense that it underscores our dependence on the matter of technics as an entry point into being, since memory is crucial for our sense of selfhood, its recollection the temporal play that brings a sense of presence—of duration and continuity, though predicated on movement and the spacing of image and sound, the material, sensory forms taken by memory. There is something in this inherently connecting the child and the technological machine. Perhaps it is because children are closely associated with futurity, and their death (living on only in memory fragments) uncannily disrupts our sense of the linear ‘order’ of things. Perhaps also because of the history of the technical media itself:
As the literary critic Laurence Rickels points out, the technical media first create these children – “create” in the sense of constituting them as modern subjects by inscribing them across their wax- and nitrate-plated surfaces, framing them within their boxed walls – then, once the children are dead, provide the mausoleums they inhabit. “Every point of contact between a body and its media extension,” he goes on to argue, “marks the site of some secret burial.
(McCarthy, Tom 2012)
Will’s friends try to reach out to him by playing with the Ham radio at school, eventually getting through to him from the Upside-Down and in the process exploding the equipment. Is this burst of flames the violent rupture of the Real, another signal that the boundaries of the symbolic and indeed metaphysical order are being ruptured? The revenge of physics against a narrative of possible mysticism? When El encounters the spooky Russian man upon one of her sensory deprivation trips, he is muttering random words which sound like a radio transmission. El herself is a transmitter. She is the explosive node in the network which opened up the gateway between the ‘real world’ and the Upside-Down. In a kind of re-imagining of Donnie Darko, the boys question their science teacher on the multiple worlds theorem, and I have tried to read up on the physics and relativity theory but my poor wee humanities brain can’t quite hold it all together. Still, the idea of multiple worlds implies being as becoming. There cannot be stable presence, singular origin of selfhood, when multiple possibilities can coexist…I think of the protagonist of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper (1892) tearing at the grotesque yellow wallpaper as if seeking for the opening, the wound in the fabric of reality, which would let out that terrible voice, the face that she sees in the multiplicities of arabesques, which perhaps are not that unlike the floral arabesques of the green, ivy-like winds of the Upside-Down’s ‘lining’, hungry as fly-eating succulents in the greenhouse of Hell…
There are times when the absent/spirit/representational world ruptures into reality. This is the terror of Lavender Town Syndrome. Pokémon Go literally makes a game out of it, by placing Pokémon to be caught within the cartographies of ‘real’ space. We are obsessed with this slippage of the real and the illusory as palimpsests, where sometimes elements of each world slip through to the next. Slender Man, which grew out of an internet myth, the placing of a ghostly trace figure within digitally-manipulated photographs, flowered as if by evolutionary monstrosity into an elaborate urban legend. Breaking the fourth wall, two 12-year-old girls from Wisconsin have been charged with first-degree attempted homicide for trying to stab their friend to death, citing the demands of Slender Man as the cause of their actions. The blur between fiction and fact stares us straight in the face of this real-world ‘tragedy’. Was Slender Man ‘real’ if the girls truly believed in him and acted on accord of his illusory voice? What are the ethical implications of this infiltration of myth narrative within our phenomenological experience of the world? Often, we see the characters seeing the Creature more than we see the Creature (for example, when Barb is attacked at the poolside), and could this relational depiction of terror be a way of drawing us in further to a shared ontological understanding of the pervasiveness of the monstrous, rather than merely a cheap horror movie trick aimed at suspense? Isn’t suspense itself a disruptive force, holding hostage the linear ideology of progress in favour of the rhythm of the ‘shock’ which loops back into the past and halts the present?
In his book Haunted Media, Jeffrey Sconce eloquently explores how television came to be figured as uncanny, as the interconnecting medium between multiple worlds. The medium itself seemed to embody a hauntological structure, with the appearance of television ‘ghosts’, whereby wispy doubles of the actual figures onscreen cast a spectral aura around their ‘real’ counterparts: ‘not so much as shadows, but as disembodied echoes seemingly from another plane or dimension’ (Sconce 124). The combination of sound and image thus proliferates the ghostly possibilities of reproduction. The BBC series’ Life on Mars and its sequel, Ashes to Ashes take this to its logical extreme by exploring television as a medium for transmission across time and space. The central characters wake up in a parallel reality where they have a similar job only they have gone back in time by several decades, forced to work on police cases which will have ramifications for the future and indeed cases whose origins are the source-code for events already experienced in the characters’ present-moment temporalities. A whole other essay is required for analysing the complex play between technology, ontological instability, nostalgia and memory here (as well as comparative police culture!); but I can briefly say that, as in McCarthy’s novel, the exploration of past technologies is often used as a way of commenting on the present.
Moreover, the figuring of technology’s ‘ether’ connects to the metaphysics of the series itself, as we gradually discover more of the mechanics of time and space within Life on Mars and even more so on Ashes to Ashes. At the start of each episode of Life on Mars comes the refrain: ‘My name is Sam Tyler. I had an accident and woke up in 1973. Am I mad, in a coma, or back in time? Whatever’s happened, it’s like I’ve landed on a different planet.’ If the past seems like a ‘different planet’, then we are always-already inherently split: are our former selves and the lives we lead and have led fundamentally alien, as soon as they have happened? We gradually discover that the world inhabited by the ‘past’ characters (as opposed to the twenty-first century present) is a limbo of sorts, and this is revealed as characters start to glimpse aporetic fragments of starry ‘space’ towards the end of Ashes to Ashes. Like Joyce piercing through some dimension in her ripping holes in the wall, these characters uncover the stage-setting of the world around them. Space is figured as space in the physical sense (galaxies of matter) but also in the textual sense of rupture, pause, gaps in representation. No system is bounded or closed. There is a sense of the lost future, that which was snatched away from the dead, though lies still in its imminence. An elegiac sense of the stars, as often we perceive the dead as stars (which are themselves dead suns, and once again that idea of the flickering of light/shadow, presence/absence…). But also, the star spaces as portal/threshold, reminding us of the tangible and perhaps even elastic physical and ethereal spaces. What is it that calls us to open the door, to step forth? Upon what authority? Is it the voice within the self, irrevocably spilt as uncannily other? How does El vanish through the blackboard, along with the Creature? We are drawn to the liminal as we are drawn to the abject, precisely because there is a recognition of the enmeshment of things (Morton’s dark ecology) and the gaps in the web fascinate our sense of being as living species in relation to all other categories of being: the nonhuman, the (super)natural, the living and dead. In Life on Mars and indeed many other literary or dramatic representations of uncanny technology and its transmissions, these metaphysical hauntings are linked to the structural effects of television itself:
The introduction of electronic vision brought with it intriguing new ambiguities of space, time, and substance: the paradox of visible, seemingly material worlds trapped in a box in the living room and yet conjured out of nothing more than electricity and air. […] Unnervingly immediate and decidedly more tangible, the “electronic elsewhere” generated by television was thus more palpable and yet every bit as phantasmic the occult empires of previous media.’
(Jeffrey Sconce 2000: 126)
What is the effect of watching television in the perpetual present enabled by the internet? The browse-all, constantly-refreshed interface of Netflix? There is an added layer of immediacy which renders the nostalgic 1980s setting of shows like Ashes to Ashes (which isn’t on Netflix by the way, last time I checked) and Stranger Things even stranger, like we are reaching through a portal upon our return to their ontologically-distorted worlds. The representation of now-disused technologies as uncanny, their transmissions disturbing and problematic, prompts reflection on our contemporary digital condition. Elizabeth Bridges sums this up perfectly:
Stranger Things gets the fact that silence feels uncanny in 2016, that a lack of noise and flashing screens makes people anxious now, that it feels…. off, eerily desolate. The jolt of a ringing phone amidst a sea of silence seems jarring for us in a way that it would not have felt in 1983. Oddly normal moments in this series make us jump out of our skin.
Our present condition, the always-on, archiving-on-the-fly status of digital and portable media, renders the world of constantly disrupted communication even more strange. There is another level of disconnection, a rupture in the present, the shock of a telephone ringing. When was the last time your house phone went off when you were at home alone? The human voice recorded seems strangely anachronistic now, a product of lost time; I can’t recall the last time I made a voicemail message, or even listened to one. There’s something about the recorded voice, floating out there in the ether…the sound of the answer machine, the creepy litany, please hang up and try again, in crisply forgotten Queen’s English…
There looms, within abjection, one of those violent, dark revolts of being, directed against a threat that seems to emanate from an exorbitant outside or inside, ejected beyond the scope of the possible, the tolerable, the thinkable. It lies there, quite close, but it cannot be assimilated.
(Kristeva 1982: 1)
Perhaps it is not the conspiracy theories or the paranoid Cold War plots or the violence that frighten us. Perhaps it is the mediums of transmission themselves, carrying wave upon wave of voices, disembodied, from different times and dimensions, bearing the abject realities which render the folds in the fabric of our being, the slippages between past/future, self/other, subject/object and life and death itself…Perhaps all technological recordings mark a death of sorts, a vital split between the transmitting subject and the transmitted object. That is the technological uncanny, and its violation of foreground and background is what draws us back into the enmeshment of a dark ecological awareness, the sense of the importance of things—the understanding that we too, as humans, are things.
Barthes, Roland, 1980. Camera Lucida (Hill and Wang).
ONE need not be a chamber to be haunted,
One need not be a house;
The brain has corridors surpassing
It seems silly to write about one’s love for a house. After all, houses are inanimate things; they can’t feel or think, can’t love you back. It’s a bit materialistic, a bit capitalist perhaps, to love one’s property. Still, houses aren’t just houses. We are brought up in this world to experience ourselves through things. Not only is this the sociological and psychological consequence of living in a world where we define ourselves through the symbolic order of possessions, but it is also the personal, lived experience of assigning meaning to that which surrounds us, the structures and spaces in which we spill our being. What’s more, the very act of dwelling is charged with the problem of desire. We constantly pursue ownership and control over that which we occupy; constantly assigning possession, marking territory. As Karl Marx said, ‘the felt need for a thing is the most obvious, irrefutable proof that the thing is part of my essence, that its being is for me and that its property is the property, the particular quality peculiar to my essence’: we are, through and through, the things that we own, desire, lose. Maybe it is our seemingly irrevocable need for things that dooms us to a certain emptiness, a loss that prevents the fulfilment of the self.
The old Lacanian equation of desire as relying on lack. Maybe we love things more when we lose them. We start to think if we ever really had them in the first place; we question the possibility of possession altogether. In the void we clasp at meaning, like a baby blindly seeking nourishment.
When I was just three years old, my parents, my brother and I left a cramped cottage in leafy, small-town Hertfordshire for a three-bedroom, two-garden semi-detached house in Ayrshire, Scotland. Land of agriculture, Burns, Buckfast and teenage pregnancy. My first day at school, a couple years later, and I did not understand why everyone kept saying aye, still thinking they were making bizarre expressions of the first person pronoun, rather than simply saying yes. Ken was another strange one. Scotland was foreign and I was even more foreign. I spent most of my childhood trying to grapple with my Englishness, working out who the hell I was and what’s more, who did I want to be? Toning things down to avoid being bullied…but really, deep down, did I want to be different from anyone else? Slowly, the older I got, I felt the bright Scots words trickle into my vocabulary: hanek, gads, glaikit, wee, Ned, jakey. When my cousins visited, I found myself wishing I had the purity of that sweet, Hampshire accent, instead of my own brand of weird hybridity. When friends at school made jokes about Scotland’s superiority, their hatred of the English, the need for their country’s freedom, I felt that wavering sense of otherness, an instinctive need to protect my ‘origins’. As a child, England meant family; it meant going home and being ‘free’. Days out in the summer holidays to the sun-sparkly cities of Brighton and London; the suburban beauty of Milton Keynes in autumn. I liked how I was the only one in my primary school class who wasn’t born in Irvine hospital. When you’re a kid, you kind of like to be special.
Maybe it’s terribly ironic that I would grow up to become a pretty staunch supporter of Scottish independence; someone who works in a whisky bar and identifies more with the social milieu of Kevin Bridges’ standup than that of Austen novels, who cut their teeth drinking Frosty Jacks instead of White Lightning, who fell in love with a wasted seaside town instead of London, and spent inordinate amounts of time listening to endearingly miserable Scottish folk bands over whatever was ‘hip’ in Hoxton. When did the change happen? At what point did I stop mourning my lost English childhood, with its (probably false) promise of sunny summers, middle-class comforts and extra bank holidays? It was long before I started to associate much of England with the heartlands of UKIP and Brexit, long before I realised that Scotland did things differently (socially and politically) to the rest of Britain, and that this was a very good thing.
I guess part of it was realising I didn’t really belong in England either. I couldn’t play the cool and demure English rose, not all the way. For one, with the lack of sun up north, my naturally blonde hair faded, and I’ve now settled on a Celtic shade of copper red. Back then family members would point out queer things I said, like when I relayed stories about folk ‘battering’ each other at school, or how it was ‘pishin’’ it down with rain, or my periodic and derisive expressions of ‘haneck’ whenever anything unfortunate happened. My brother and I would amp up our ‘Scottish’ banter whenever we were down south, cracking jokes and putting on our rough Ayrshire accents the same way any Brit does abroad. I started to realise that I sort of loved the strangeness of Scotland: the Ceilidh dancing we had to learn in P.E, the pervasive aura of folktales, of haggis and kelpies; bottles of Irn Bru that I was forbidden from drinking as a kid, the stern broad Scots of the man on the tape who announced the beginning of every French Listening paper. I wasn’t sure how well I fit in, but I liked it anyway. It started to feel like home.
In my hometown of Maybole, there is a strict policing of difference. The smoke plume of neds at every bus stop will be the adjudicators of any risqué fashion you choose to indulge in. If you wore black and a slick of thick eyeliner, for example, they were sure to enquire whether you ‘shagged deed folk’; if you wore a miniskirt you were a ‘wee hoore’; if you were a guy who had slightly long hair you were a ‘poof’; skinny jeans made you – perhaps the ultimate insult – ‘an emo’. In our school, there was the Mosher’s Corner, the Farmer’s Corner, the Smoker’s Corner, to name just a handful of territories whose policing often bordered on the militant. In first year, I witnessed a friend being shoved headfirst into a spiky hedge because he tried to ‘invade’ the Farmer’s Corner. At the Mosher’s Corner, which took a couple of years to gain full acceptance, you were pelted with stones by bored and angry first years, or scolded by irate P.E. teachers, who had to pass through the area and always liked to pull you up on inane details of uniform. Don’t tell me I can’t wear my stripy knee socks to school when that guy’s cutting about in a tracksuit.
In the midst of this battlefield of identities, is it any wonder I loved my house? The one place where I could be whatever I wanted? Whenever we had to write our address down at school, I relished scribbling down the house name, Daisybank, with all its pastoral resonance. Compared to all the places I have lived in Glasgow (room such and such, flat 1, 2, 3 etc), having a house name is a proper luxury. It was on the road to Turnberry Golf Course; ten minutes walk from the Ranch caravan park. I had a pal who owned a dairy farm nearby, and the woman a few doors down bred collie dogs. For some reason, we always seemed to live beside ministers. In a way, Maybole is the epitome of rural quaintness: it is famous mostly for its former glory as a cobbler’s paradise, for being the meeting place of Rabbie Burns’ parents, for having a relatively crap golf course, a sixteenth-century castle and once upon a time a couple of lemonade factories. You’re ten minutes drive from the sea and surrounded by vibrant green hills studded with pretty villages. The air is fresh and the water tastes great. There’s even a train line.
Still, it’s difficult to appreciate all that stuff as a teenager. I started to dream of Glasgow as this mythical solution to all my problems: a place of cosmopolitanism, where people read poetry, played in bands, and didn’t care what anyone thought of them.
It was only when I moved away from home, got a flat in the city, that I realised the extent of my weird sense of belonging to this silly wee town where technically I had no roots.
The last time I properly cried was the day I said goodbye to Daisybank and Maybole for the last time. I paced round the empty rooms, hearing the silent creak of the floorboards, memories passing by me as fleetingly as moths, leaving me with this overwhelming sense of grief. It was like saying goodbye to the entirety of childhood, the last eighteen years of my life, all at once. Unlike most people, we didn’t move around much and this was our home all that time, through thick and thin, good times and bad. I realised how protected I had felt by the presence of the house, its strong sandstone walls, the elaborate latticework of memories that had wove themselves into every structure, every smell and texture and object.
I sat on the train back to Glasgow, staring at the late summer scenery pass behind me, feeling like I had severed a limb.
I don’t know what it is that made me feel that way. Maybe it was the garden: the pond we made with water reeds and frogspawn pinched from the lake at Culzean (the pond in which at my sixteenth birthday party, my friend lost his Buckfast bottle), the faint scent of the lilac tree and its treasure trove of bluebells in May, the memories of bonfire nights, Easter egg hunts, performing original plays; the August weekend when a friend and I climbed the rowan tree and picked every red, gleaming berry – each one to our childish eyes as precious as a ruby. Maybe it was the peace sign my Mum’s ex-boyfriend mowed into the front lawn. The lingering whiff of failed baking experiments that still haunted the kitchen, popcorn burnt to the bottom of the pan, bowls dissolved in liquid heat, vague explosions in the oven (the door of which had to be constantly propped open by a chair). The mice that lived in the piano, the washing machine that shook so violently we had to put a brick in it.
The bike rides up into the Carrick hills; the hysterical impersonations of bleating sheep, chasing chickens and pheasants off the roads. Feeding lambs in spring, horse-riding and jumping off hay bales. Long walks with friends, where we deconstructed the universe as the sun bled its final light behind the Kildoon monument.
The summer we painted the wall of the den at the back of the garden, purple and orange, and I got black floor paint, thick as molasses, on my brother’s leg. He was about six and it didn’t come off for weeks. The concrete steps I fell down once and grazed my side so badly I could hardly move. The cities we drew with chalk on the patio, until the rain came the next day to wash them away again. The nights of mild teenage trauma, when I crawled into the space beneath my bed to calm myself down. All the people that came and went, who knocked on the back door or else rang the bell at the front. Afternoons alone in the corner of my room, hunched over chord sheets and trying to play Paramore songs on guitar. Parties with gin served in secondhand teacups, with contraband vodka smuggled in Coke bottles, with the perpetual background flicker of my frozen iTunes library, which everyone cracked a shot at.
Halloween parties with ersatz cobwebs strung from every surface, bowls of punch and fistfuls of body glitter; dubstep thundering from the upstairs study.
The secret room next door to the bathroom which we never discovered, because you had to knock the wall through. Sometimes, when I was lying in the bath, I liked to think about what was on the other side. What wild and weird stories I could fathom from that dark place of possibility? You could see the skylight in the garden and I thought maybe someone had died in there and the previous owners had decided to seal it in.
Previous owners. It’s strange, when you settle so deeply into a house, you think you are the only person to have ever lived there. I remember being about six years old and finding a little plastic doll under the gas fire once and thinking how disturbing it was to think of another young girl playing on the floor of the living room, as I was. The mere thought of her presence could only be a ghost to me, as transient and fantastical as the people on tv.
There was the man next-door who thought we were dirty hippies, but still gifted us with various vegetables grown in his greenhouse, and murmured a gruff hello when we were in the garden.
The long grass meadows out front across the road, where once we made snow angels in winter and walked the dog, where now there’s an estate of houses.
The home videos from when we first moved in: plastic toys scattering the grubby carpet, school friends garbed in 90s fashion (lilac or orange crop tops, white peddle pushers and velvet hairbands) draped over the ugly, velcro sofa. The dent in the wall from a misfired golf ball; the scorch mark on the carpet where someone dropped char from a shisha pipe. Places on my bedroom wall, behind the plaster, where I scrawled Green Day, then Cat Power lyrics; ‘star pupil’ and various Kerrang stickers that couldn’t be peeled off the wardrobe (also the Metal as Fuck sticker we stuck on the lamp, which I’m sure still lingers, irrevocably); the cupboard under the stairs with the camping gear, the old washing machine and the pervasive smell of must. As soon as you opened the door, you were simultaneously attacked by a falling hoover, a bag of tent pegs and a canopy of jackets.
Whole evenings and afternoons, lost to playing Sim City on the old computer. Waiting patiently for dialup to connect, doodling on wee notepads that my dad brought back from hotels on his business trips. Sifting through stacks of Standard Grade artwork, band posters, electric guitars, music stands, golf clubs, tennis rackets and folders of homework.
I could go on forever listing details. I guess it’s the nature of missing something that you link things together, this endless concatenation of memories. You think it would be claustrophobic, living in a small town, but one of the things I’ve always missed since moving out was the space. You could run up and down the stairs, pretend the floor was lava and jump from sofa to sofa in the living room, stare out the big bay windows not at a yard of bins and more buildings but at the rolling, sprawling countryside. Hear the jackdaws in the chimney, watch the butterflies flutter around the Buddleja, the sunflowers bloom in June after the dying of the tulips. Life had a rhythm; you paid more attention to nature: the creeping in of the spiders in September, the wasps in August that nested constantly outside my mother’s bedroom, to the point where her windowsill was a nasty holocaust of their dying bodies.
My childhood home was flawed. There was the icy drafts that blew in through the floorboards, the lack of a shower, the grit that sometimes spat out the taps, the sound of lorries trundling past, the toilet that struggled to flush, the kids out back that belted JLS songs as they bounced on their trampoline. Sometimes the roof leaked, we had to clean the gutters, the hot water stopped working, the carpet always slipped on the top step of the stairs. Somehow though, despite their irritation, these flaws were endearing. It’s different, I think, when you own a property compared to when you rent: when you own it, the flaws are just something you sort of live with, rather than demand your landlord to fix. When you explain them to guests, you’re only ever semi-apologetic. The embarrassing parts (the Alan Partridge lap dance postcard on the fridge, the broken oven, the cracks in the kitchen tiles which our friends and I used to take apart and reassemble like puzzle pieces, the precarious stability of the garden wall) become something you’re sort of proud of. It seems kind of absurd now to think that one time, in the middle of the night, our garden wall literally just collapsed, blasting bricks across the patio and shattering the wooden bench, sending its splinters as far afield as the neighbour’s garden.
Maybe it’s that shambolic charm that drew me again and again to Dodie Smith’s novel, I Capture the Castle, as a preteen. I wasn’t just obsessed with the lucidly beautiful voice of the young heroine, her story of unrequited love and the struggle to grow up amidst slightly meagre and crazy circumstances, but also her descriptions of the crumbling castle which her family called home. She describes her first impressions thus:
How strange and beautiful it looked in the late afternoon light! I can still recapture that first glimpse – see the sheer grey stone walls and towers against the pale yellow sky, the reflected castle stretching towards us on the brimming moat, the floating patch son emerald-green water-weed. No breath of wind ruffled the looking-glass water, no sound of any kind came to us. Our excited voices only made the castle seem more silent.
The image is imprinted on her memory, relayed back through her diary; as still as a flower pressed between the pages of a book, as the motionless water, a reflection of a very specific and idealised point in time, the fresh perception of this place that would become the crumbling though romantic ruin of a poverty-stricken home. It is clear that much of Cassandra’s descriptions of the castle are filtered through the discourse of fairytale, though in a knowing, reflexive way, that recognises the flaws of such fantasies. Her sister, Rose, will not be the perfect princess, English Rose though perfect she is; neither will she be the perfectly objective narrator. I just adore the scene when they are drinking outside the village pub: cherry brandy for Cassandra, bright green creme de menthe for Rose, to bring out the russet shades in her hair.
Sitting outside in the comparative paradise of my own garden, I enjoyed the traditional Scottish though equally vibrant liquor of Mad Dog 20/20 to season my youthful palette (unlike Rose, I don’t think my choice of tipple ever worked very well to seduce rich and handsome American suitors). I had the smell of woodsmoke in my hair, the wind coming in off the near-distant sea with a faint and familiar saltiness, the taste of health. There’s something so lovely about that nostalgia, when you can see yourself outside of yourself, picturesque in your childhood surroundings.
In a way, I guess I sort of thought as Daisybank as my castle. We didn’t have a mote, or a crumbling turret, but we had a garden of long grass and dog daisies and a steep drive that kept the floodwater out and the crazed night dwellers away (once, my mother parked the car on the road and some random jakes literally tipped it on its side, so she woke up in the morning to it pouring oil all down the street, like it was weeping sadness and blood). It’s hard to recreate that sense of absolute safety, of home — where all your memories have long seeped into the walls, where you first wept at a book, kissed a boy, got blackout drunk on whisky. All the birthday cakes and candles, the mean words said and the reparations. It’s like the house has witnessed the sweetest and darkest parts of ourselves and god knows it must be a burden to bear those secrets.
It’s kind of impossible for me to imagine the house with new people living in it. It’s even difficult to imagine Maybole without my family living there. You sort of stay in touch via Facebook pages, you have the odd dream about walking down the high street or buying a roll in the deli or sitting on the swings at Miller Park, but you can’t really imagine it just going on being. Like a kind of clockwork village, it stops in your mind when you’re no longer there; when your roots are sort of severed. When people I’d known a long time found out we’d sold the house, they talked about it with the almost the same level of sadness and compassion they would on discovering a close relative had died.
It was a bloody good house; I don’t think I’ll ever live somewhere as nice and homely again – or at least it’ll never be quite the same. There’s just something about the place you grow up in, a magical and elusive quality. I can start to describe it, the pink and orange light seen from the patio on winter mornings, the daffodils on the kitchen table, steam from the iron, the flicker of Sonic the Hedgehog games on the old television, the space under the desk where my dog used to hide on fireworks night; but then here I am again, slipping back into details. You can’t grasp it; it’s in all of these things. Like love. It’s supplementary, in the Derridean sense that it has no inherent presence or meaning: it’s just all the things you try to hold in place for a moment, the mesh of connections and space of interplay that forms, pliably, impermanently, when you try to grasp at the meaning.
Houses are, perhaps, more than houses. Every writer, every intellectual discipline under the sun has spent centuries debating the meaning of ‘home’, but perhaps houses themselves are equally strange and uncanny. What does a house mean to us after we have vacated it, stripped it of all the stuff that made it personal to us? Can it still be a home? I must admit, I don’t imagine myself living in my old house anymore; I can only see it as it was before. I can recall myself standing in particular locations: the feeling of waking up in my bed, or standing at the sink, washing up on a Sunday evening, watching the birds out the window. Yet when I try to think about how it might be decorated now, what the people inside are doing, I draw a blank. You can’t picture it like in the the Sims; can’t just imagine the drama of the lives within.
Many authors have anthropomorphised the houses in their books. They become characters in themselves, or at least acquire some kind of emotional or physical sensitivity to what goes on in and around them. Toni Morrison, in Beloved, describes the house, from Denver’s perspective, as ‘a person rather than a structure. A person that wept, sighed, trembled and fell into fits’: the domestic space is as much a character as Denver herself, it takes on the qualities of and indeed reacts to the events which take place within it. You know that eerie sense of dust settling, of silence and weightiness that falls upon a house after an argument? There’s something to it. An ethereal feeling, a kind of knowingness; as if the house itself could somehow be conscious.
Perhaps the most famous instance of an anthropomorphised house is that of the Ramsay’s holiday home on the isle of Skye in Virginia Woolf’s novel, To the Lighthouse. Woolf takes a hefty chunk out of her narrative to describe the process of decay that unravels the household in the Ramsay’s absence. Significant family events, such as marriage, childbirth and death, are confined to parentheses, while intensely lyrical descriptions of the details of the changing conditions of the household are given centre stage:
[Prue Ramsay died that summer in some illness connected with childbirth, which was indeed a tragedy, people said, everything, they said, had promised so well.]
And now in the heat of summer the wind sent its spies about the house again. Flies wove a web in the sunny rooms; weeds that had grown close to the glass in the night tapped methodically at the window pane. When darkness fell, the stroke of the Lighthouse, which had laid itself with such authority upon the carpet in the darkness, tracing its pattern, came now in the softer light of spring mixed with moonlight gliding gently as if it laid its caress and lingered stealthily and looked and came lovingly again. But in the very lull of this loving caress, as the long stroke leant upon the bed, the rock was rent asunder; another fold of the shawl loosened; there it hung, and swayed. Through the short summer nights and the long summer days, when the empty rooms seemed to murmur with the echoes of the fields and the hum of flies, the long streamer waved gently, swayed aimlessly; while the sun so striped and barred the rooms and filled them with yellow haze that Mrs. McNab, when she broke in and lurched about, dusting, sweeping, looked like a tropical fish oaring its way through sun-lanced waters.
I just adore this passage for several reasons. It’s full of poetic devices which bring the house itself to life: all the personification which renders objects and shadows and light into living, breathing things. The recurring consonance of the l sound which leads us, liltingly, through all sensory encounters; as if we, occupying and flying through the sentences, were as light as air, a travelling dust mote, surveying the situation. L is a flickering kind of sound, fluttering, leading onwards, somehow soporific. A line like this sends tingles up your spine: ‘the stroke of the Lighthouse […] came now in the softer light of spring mixed with moonlight gliding gently as if it laid its caress and lingered stealthily and looked and came lovingly again’. The sentences and descriptions flit between movement and stasis: the loving caress and the sudden shift of a rock, followed by a hanging, a loosening, a suspension. Everything seems to be swinging, swaying; the material of the house unfolds and unravels like a shawl. The zanily surreal image of the housekeeper Mrs. McNab trying to control the chaos in the manner of a ‘tropical fish oaring its way through sun-lanced waters’ is deliciously both amusing and vivid, conjuring a sense of the beauty of this interplay of order and decay. It’s a clashing sort of image, the vibrancy juxtaposed with the dulling surroundings, but the effect is to exoticise, just ever so slightly, the whole scene. We are invited to look closer, as if peering through a fish tank. This is more than just a house laying to waste in its owners’ absence. Real empathy is stirred for the house itself:all the ghosts that inhabit the walls, the absence that tears at everything. Objects and noises, the vacant trails where once human footsteps made their passage. Mrs. McNab, in all her matronly cleanliness, is but a colourful fish, pulling itself fleetingly through the reeds. All our efforts to clean up the world, to annihilate its disorder, are perhaps similarly slightly futile.
Throughout Time Passes, Woolf contrasts and holds together opposites: day/night, abstract/specific, growth/decay, movement/stasis, beauty/waste, absence/presence and life/death, to name a few. At once we lament the abandoned house, while also marvelling at the ‘power’ of nature’s ‘fertility’ and ‘insensibility’: the way in which dahlias, giant artichokes, cabbages and carnations continue to flourish amongst the house’s decline. She might as well be describing the inconsistencies and tensions within the psyche of an actual human character. Time veers between eternities and instances; the sheer significance of a death (here, Prue’s) is passed by fleetingly, another stain upon the already well-blotched backdrop of war, a different trauma to the slow, inevitable decline of the house. The writing here is both photographic and cinematic: moving through the stillness of random snapshots to the build-up and unravelling of a time-lapse. Isn’t that like life, like memory itself?
‘Some days in late August at home are like this, the air thin and eager like this, with something in it sad and nostalgic and familiar’
— William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury
Maybe home is all about the seductiveness of boredom, the comfort of merely occupying space. Maybe its familiarity is what contains an inherent sadness: a sense of loss stemming from that which we cannot regain, despite our close spatial proximity. Like someone you love but who has changed, irrevocably, drifted out far beyond your reach. Like lost innocence and joy, the way we were before we knew certain things; before life happened, in all its terrible narrative beauty. Quentin’s reflections in The Sound and the Fury have a degree of universal application. Late summer and early autumn; the turning of the seasons, the fading of the year. We spend more time indoors as the air thins to a coolness; we retreat into the safety of houses. Each year, we think back to blackberry picking in gardens, cooking soup on the stove, going back to school. One of my favourite (and pleasantly simple) opening lyrics, from Stornoway’s song ‘Zorbing’: ‘Conkers shining on the ground / the air is cooler / and I feel like I just started uni’. It’s details like that that send us home. Reminders that time moves in loops; that constantly we are living through our memories, mixing the strange and new with familiarity. You don’t necessarily need a specific physical location to be ‘home’. Maybe it’s more complex and slippery than that. Sure, I miss Daisybank like hell, but it’s the details I miss most, and like everything else, with age they acquire that golden, treacly glow of nostalgia. Maybe I don’t need to be Scottish or English or anything at all. I just need to find home. Then I can begin again.
Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
the world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.
There is a time for the evening under starlight,
A time for the evening under lamplight
(The evening with the photograph album).
Love is most nearly itself
When here and now cease to matter.
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.
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.
‘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?”
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.
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.
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.
‘Power floats like money, like language, like theory.’
(Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation)
Something happened to me recently and I found myself drifting into the glossy paradise of the Upper East Side; more specifically, that alluring tab on Netflix entitled ‘Gossip Girl’. It’s been a while. I used to watch the show when I was about fifteen, in its heyday. I guess it just slipped away from me and I kind of passed by the whole finale hype back in 2012, but something brought me back to it a few weeks ago. Maybe it was the absence of real-life summer and the promise of a sun-drenched pavement in Manhattan, or maybe it was just Dan Humphrey with his dark mop of curls and deceptively earnest eyes. Maybe it was the cracking soundtrack. Either way, I was struck again by how entrancing the show is, even while it’s kind of terrible.
Gossip Girl is a show about power. It follows the privileged, glitzy lives of a group of Upper East Siders, from high school into the land of careers and more sophisticated scheming. There is a point round about the end of Season 2 which most critics concede to be the end of ‘good’ Gossip Girl; all subsequent seasons were just a bit daft. We’ve gone from credible high school bitching and scheming to absurdities on a Skins series 5 & 6 scale. How did we get from petty teen drama and pregnancy tests to Bart Bass falling from a roof and Chuck and Blair rushing themselves through a (gorgeously shot) emergency wedding? From Dan Humphrey as amateur school poet to successful penman of a Roman a clef exposing the ‘scandalous lives of Manhattan’s elite’, as Kristen Bell so enticingly describes it at the start of each episode. The link in all this chaos is power. Power and simulacra.
‘You’re nobody until you’re talked about’. That’s the mantra that seems to crop up again and again, haunting the minds of Gossip Girl’s characters like they’re stuck in some bizarre virtual reality where rumour precedes being, scandal precedes survival (see Sartre, ‘existence precedes essence’) – Mean Girls meets Black Mirror, if you will. What distinguishes Gossip Girl from other teen dramas (The O.C, 90210 and so on) is its centring around the concept of ‘Gossip Girl’. Like Foucault’s ‘panopticon’, Gossip Girl is a technology of power. The panopticon was a kind of prison design, created by Jeremy Bentham in the eighteenth century. It was intended to institute the force of surveillance not just on the individual but on society as a whole, so that in a prison each inmate is invisible to others, but visible to the guard station placed in the centre of the prison building. The point is that at any moment, the individual knows he or she is being watched, and will thus adjust their behaviour accordingly. A panoptic way of disciplining is one in which people are controlled through constant surveillance.
It seems pretty obvious that the outcome of Gossip Girl is constant surveillance. Every remotely meaningful action taken by the big-shot Upper East Siders (Serena, Blair, Chuck, Nate, their friends and family) is sent to the Gossip Girl server via anonymous reporters (anyone within or outside of the elite circle) and is then posted as a ‘blast’ which is then communicated straight to everyone’s phones. You know, if it wasn’t so familiar it would sound like something straight out a sci-fi novel. Throughout the show, Gossip Girl doesn’t just record and publish the intimate details of the characters’ lives (think dark secrets, slander and sex tapes) but indeed anticipates things that might happen. Sometimes, characters act a certain way because they are aware of the presence of Gossip Girl, of the probability that their actions will end up exposed through her blasts.
It doesn’t take much to link Gossip Girl to the Twitter generation. The Age of Snapchat, or WhatsApp, or whatever you want to call it. Created in 2007, the show suddenly tapped into a massive cultural shift among young people, whereby our entire lives become archived online, with or without our permission. Yet back in the mid-noughties, we were using Bebo and MySpace to spread gossip and create profiles of ourselves and others. These platforms were still relatively slow, especially as many of us still accessed them via a dialup connection, or by slyly hacking through content blockers at school while the teacher wasn’t looking. Gossip Girl anticipated the sort of instantaneous, life-shattering exchange of information that creates a panopticon effect on our lives. It’s a great plot device (the unravelling of a secret to everyone instigates some serious character crises) but now, in real life, it’s an uncomfortable truth that a nude selfie or a sneaky picture of say your neighbour doing cocaine can indeed be spread around with the ‘blast’ of a single Snapchat message, unravelling reputations in its wake. If, as Baudrillard argues, ‘power floats like money’ it does so because, like money, it is transferable, easily shifted, lost and dissolved. Instant, mass communication arguably makes power more diffused: in one minute it’s in Blair’s hands, then Serena’s and then HEY – Georgina Sparks steps in outta nowhere and suddenly it’s all gone wrong again. These days, you might say similar things about power and global politics.
But is it really diffused? Couldn’t you argue that although different people post in to Gossip Girl, ultimately it’s the Wizard of Oz, the soul behind the screen, that controls the gates – isn’t it that one person that has all the power? Just as Mark Zuckerberg ultimately frames all our communications via Facebook? In the end, we discover that (surprise surprise) Dan Humphrey, the main ‘author’ figure, is Gossip Girl. Dan Humphrey, the ‘impoverished’ outsider, exiled in his trendy Brooklyn loft, banished from full membership and relegated to the limbo world where messenger bags meet the glamour of Blair’s Marc Jacobs and Serena’s Prada. Dan started the Gossip Girl site as a way of literally writing himself into the closed world of the Upper East Siders, fashioning the role of ‘Lonely Boy’ within a fairy-tale, Fitzgerald-esque world of vicious scheming, stinking money and glittering mythology. In the end, Dan gets the girl: as the ‘5 Years Later’ epilogue of the final episode so indulgently shows, Dan marries Serena in a beautiful wedding (interestingly enough, his Brooklynite ex-rockstar father gets with – the actual – Lisa Loeb).
You could argue that there is something ‘queer’ about Gossip Girl. An almost Beckettian obsession with repetition and the endless possible combinations of relationships you can achieve within a group (OK, so maybe that’s more Made in Chelsea – or perhaps Sade?). In a way, Gossip Girl is obsessed with binaries: good girl vs. bad girl; Golden Boy vs. Bad Boy; virgin vs. whore and, perhaps most importantly, truth vs. falsity/appearance vs. reality. Yet these binaries are never sustained, and in fact the show repeatedly reveals the inherent insecurity of these binaries. The innocent Little J is really just the protective adolescent cocoon from which raccoon-eyed rebel Jenny emerges (more dramatically in real life, with Taylor Momsen becoming a risqué rock princess). There is a whole convoluted storyline about Ivy Dickens, who impersonates Charlie Rhodes (Lily Bass’s niece?) who herself is acting as someone else – ‘Lola’. Ivy, now her ‘authentic’ self, enters a relationship with Lily’s husband Rufus, but little does he know that Ivy is actually sleeping with William Bass (Lily’s ex and Serena’s father) who, it turns out, is only in a relationship with Ivy to get (in a roundabout way) back to his ‘true love’ Lily and the kids. The storylines get so elaborate and implausible (Blair meeting and marrying the Prince of Monoco; Bart returning from the dead) that you lose track of what’s real and what’s really happening; you become dissociated from the notion that any of this is really part of ‘our’ world. Even Penn Badgley, the actor who plays Dan Humphrey, admitted that the revelation that Dan was Gossip Girl ‘doesn’t make sense at all’, but that’s kind of okay because (in his words) ‘Gossip Girl doesn’t make sense!’ Sure, New York is always there, in those beautiful, sweeping shots of the city: embracing the characters in its warm glow, looking fantastic in summer, spring, autumn and winter; but the lives of the characters are as twisted, repetitive and as confusing as Samuel Beckett’s television play Quad.
[Imagine this as a symbolic representation of Gossip Girl’s plot. It’s the mesmerising that’s key, not the accurate rendering of reality.]
The queerness, then, (I’m using the term ‘queer’ tenuously, in a more generalised sense – the show can hardly be a banner for LGBT) is in Gossip Girl’s shameless disregard for certain old-school, heteronormative notions of ‘morality’, its distortion of conventional character arcs and its indulgence in various strange sexual affairs which often border on the incestuous (and then there’s that old problem of Serena and Dan and their parents being married for most of the show…). It’s in the fact that characters’ lives seem to follow more of a cyclical than linear path, as they repeat the mistakes of their parents, fall strangely in and out of love while maintaining they were in love the whole time they were also in hate. The whole Blair/Dan/Serena triangle.
Unlike some other shows which run for the length of Gossip Girl, Gossip Girl keeps more or less the same core cast throughout the six seasons, and in doing so transforms its characters into weirdly intangible signifiers rather than ‘real people’. So much of them is based on the need to manipulate the reportage of their lives that we can’t be sure how much we know of their ‘real’ selves. I would like to think that Baudrillard would approve of Gossip Girl much more than The Matrix, because in my opinion, the way Serena, Blair et al plan their lives around the panopticon of Gossip Girl fits pretty well with Baudrillard’s idea of the simulacra as the ‘map that precedes the territory’, the ‘reality’ dependent upon representation. Most of the characters’ actions are driven by and shaped around Gossip Girl: the virtual voice who ‘maps’ the lives of Manhattan’s elite.
There is a point in most TV shows where you are able to gage the protagonists’ motivations, but with several key players, Gossip Girl leaves us endlessly guessing, as some very weird choices leave you baffled about who or what is this person who you thought you knew from Season 1. Chuck, for example, is sometimes romantic softie, sometimes nonchalant alcoholic, sometimes downright psychopath. But that’s the fun of it, the not-knowing, the rollercoaster effect of plot after spiralling plot. A show about scheming; that could be another tagline.
A love letter to New York; that could be another tagline. The city is so lovingly rendered throughout the show that even the actual New Yorkmayor got involved with the set of its 100th episode, and declared January 26th ‘Gossip Girl Day’. I wonder how I can start incorporating that into my life…perhaps I’ll start with one of those glorious pastry and fruit-filled brunches and then spend all day sipping scotch a la Chuck, kissing boys in classy bars a la Serena and ending up at some expensive party where everything around me is basically the flashbulb remnant of a photograph…or maybe I’ll just live tweet my actual everyday Glasgow observations – Spotted: Man with a Farmfoods Bag Disappears into the Bookies. It’s hardly Manhattan amidst golden, burnished fall, but it might just have to do.
In the final episode, Serena tries to defend Dan’s (pretty immoral) behaviour in acting as Gossip Girl by claiming that his salacious discourse amounts ultimately to a ‘love letter to all of us’. It’s true: all that reporting of all that scandal, all those razor-sharp character assassinations were a form of mythologising which we can recognise not just in celebrity culture, but now in our everyday online lives. Being mean doesn’t just keep ‘em keen, it creates drama, which is what makes any good slice of fiction. And what is life without fiction?
For all its raciness, Gossip Girl falls into a pretty comfortable conclusion. Two weddings, a (very cute) baby, a potential political career for Nate; it’s all very white, upper-class and generally heterosexually perfect. But that’s what Gossip Girl’s always been shamelessly about: sure, there’s Blair’s ever-present maid, Derota, but she functions more as a Shakespearean comedy sidekick than as a serious addition to the plot. Gossip Girl has never claimed, unlike say Lena Dunham’s Girls, to be ‘the voice of a generation’; it has always zoomed in on the narrow world of a handful of privileged characters. This is its flaw as well as its strength: there is, sadly, little racial/sexual/religious diversity, but when it does touch on such matters, it does so with its own quirky ease, meaning that it doesn’t trip over itself trying to take everything too seriously. There are nuggets of genuine, ‘emotionally truthful’ storylines in there, and real teen issues like losing your virginity, finding yourself stuck in family feuds and trying to make friends are handled sometimes with poignancy, sometimes with juicily gratuitous melodrama. Blair Waldorf’s bulimia is, in a way, a symbolic symptom of the culture she finds herself in: endlessly consuming, lusting for more information, gossip, power, but simultaneously being unable to contain it, needing to purify, purge, rewind the cycle. Dan longs to be part of the world, but at the same time it repels him; he is part of that societal wastage, the baggage once used then left behind – but he uses his limbo position to his advantage. In a way, the American Dream in all its distorted glory is right there, at the heart of Gossip Girl her(him)self.
What’s great about Gossip Girl, then, is its ability to take us on a whirlwind of artifice, of phony drama for phony characters, but through the falsity it reveals some hideous truths about contemporary society. The network of New York, as a series of public spaces, of upper and lower ‘sides’, is an inverse parallel to the non-hierarchical communications enabled by the Web, where power ‘floats’ more easily as hackers and smart kids from Brooklyn find themselves running the system. There is, in real life, an economy of gossip, whereby what’s been said about you determines your whole place in the world, perhaps even more so than money (sometimes). It runs in the workplace, the playground, the spidery webs of social networks. There’s a line in the final song which plays at the end of the last episode (‘Kill Me’ by The Pretty Reckless, the band headed by Taylor Momsen, aka Jenny Humphrey): ‘someone get me outta the sun’. I read this not just as a statement of Momsen’s goth/vampire credentials, but as an appropriate nudge to The Sun newspaper and by extension the world of gossip, the sunlit limelight which holds the (un?)lucky few up to fame and fortune and ruin.
There will always be an outsider wanting to get inside, Bell narrates provocatively as the last scene drifts over a street of smartly-dressed school kids, the next generation of Gossip Girl victims. It’s classic Gossip Girl: reminding us that even within the cherry sweet containment of its happy ending, there’s a bitter worm still at work. We’re now in an age where you can never live free of the media, of surveillance and all it entails. An unequal age where even the rich in their isles of bliss are never quite free of the rest of us, the outsiders, the mass exiles of our bulimic society – drawn to the alluring world of the beautiful and damned and then expelled because we can’t afford to be there, we don’t belong. And if that’s the end of Gossip Girl’s rollercoaster, then it’s not just a fairground of pure escapism, but also a biting satire on our actual IRL society.
—A satire which, I might add, trickles right down to the shameless flaunting of product placement:
(Warning: contains possible spoilers up until the end of episode four).
Moving from plumes of cloud and sullen mist to the flaming spit of fire below, the opening sequence of Poldark sets us up for a journey through the sublime chasms of history down to the core of its hero’s heart. The scene is Cornwall in the 1780s. The story is a beautifully rendered television voyage through various Romantic archetypes, culminating in the protagonist himself, who stands alone facing the open, churning sea, in the manner of Caspar David Friedrich’s famous Romantic painting, ‘Wanderer above the Sea of Fog’. In the first episode, Captain Ross Poldark returns, miraculously alive, from the American War of Independence, bearing the mark of his experience in the distinctive dark scar upon his cheek. After the battle scene in which Poldark alone escapes with his life, a dreamy flashback presents our hero in smart uniform, ready to go abroad, acquiescing to the breathless urge of his lover Elizabeth: ‘Pray do not be reckless, I wish you to return’. Well, like Robinson Crusoe from his shipwreck and 28 years of island isolation, Poldark does return. Only, while Crusoe returns to ‘civilisation’ to find a hefty profit from his Brazilian plantations to fill his greasy palms, Poldark returns to find his finances in ruins and his dear Elizabeth now married to his insipid cousin. What follows is a tale of Poldark’s redemption; once the idle gambler at war only to ‘escape the gallows’, he evolves into a near prototypical Romantic hero, embodying the necessary sentiment, broody solitude and bad-boy glamour that brought Byron his fame and trouble.
But while Poldark represents an idealised benevolence cut with rugged beauty, he is not a dandyish poet in the manner of Byron or Wilde, but a man of war and experience. While Byron would go off gallivanting with his many women, writing hopes of radicalism back home, Poldark says little of his time overseas – a quietness that only emphasises the intrigue of his character. As the frequent close-ups of his scar insist, this man has done battle, a distinction that reinforces his difference to the other men of Cornwall’s stuffy society.
And indeed, Poldark puts his experience to virtuous use. He represents in some ways that much-loved ‘cult of sensibility’ that wormed its way into novels and poetry of the eighteenth-century: rescuing a wayward waif, providing work for starving labourers and delivering an impassioned courtroom speech in defence of an unfortunate young poacher (played – did anyone else notice – by metal-head Rich from Skins). Sensibility, as we might guess from the title of Henry Mackenzie’s popular novel The Man of Feeling (1771), was a kind of fashion for displaying emotion; a newly remodelled masculinity which was exhibited through tears and expression and other public manifestations of feeling. While Poldark is by no means the soppy hero of Mackenzie’s novel (the Editor’s Introduction to The Man of Feeling warns that the novel ‘proceeds in due course through so many tears that it is hardly to be called a dry book’), his compassion towards the struggling labourers contributes to our image of him as a benign venture capitalist, a hero of industry for our postmodern age of corrupt public figures and criminal bankers. The symbolism of a man attempting to re-open a mine threatened by closure and poor investment, to work alongside his miners in the sweaty heat of the pit and to share the profit, was perhaps not lost on Poldark’s viewers when it was first broadcast in the 1970s. While many period dramas fall into the trap of caricature when representing the ‘lower classes’, Poldark offsets this problem by honing in on individual experiences which highlight the precarious economic and social position of Cornwall’s labourers in the late eighteenth-century: the plight of the young poacher, and, importantly, the story of Demelza, who is adopted from the streets by Poldark as a house-maid and later becomes his wife.
This is a show that milks the viewer’s voyeurism. Any chance it gets to parade Aiden Turner’s sweaty golden torso, visible as he swims in the sea or hacking at the land, it takes it. However, such enticing demonstrations of abs and strength are not merely to keep Turner loyalists from the Being Human days happy. They also serve as an interesting parallel to scenes of Demelza alone in nature. Well, not quite alone. While Poldark ranges the cliffs on foot or on horseback – once again parading the dazzling iconography of Romantic solitude – Demelza wanders off at dawn with her little scruffy dog. While Poldark is a figure of Promethean strength and virility (here another connection between strength and suffering – Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound), Demelza’s ethereal looks, in tandem with her ‘exotic’ Cornish dialect, establish her as an almost mythological figure of Romantic fascination. There are many tender scenes where she lies languid in the long grass, playing with pretty cornflowers, or trailing over the rolling cliffs; but there are also scenes where she tills the land with all the power of Poldark himself. We are led into believing the credibility of their marriage because the show sets them up as equals. Demelza is, in a way, Wordsworth’s ‘Solitary Reaper’: the ‘lass’ with the regional accent, who ‘cuts and binds the grain, | And sings a melancholy strain’ which flows through the land with ‘more welcome notes’ than a ‘Nightingale’. When we first encounter her, begging in the street and being heckled, she is clearly a ‘peasant’, a mess of coarseness and dirt; but her time as Poldark’s domestic tames her appearance, though not her spirit. While Wordsworth’s female Reaper was just one of the rural characters to feature in the revolutionary Lyrical Ballads (1798), Demelza is not merely a figure of some traveller’s amusement or poetic interest. The camera does not gaze at her always from a distance, but switches to close-ups and pan shots of the scenes around her: the swaying grain, the face of her dog, some plain little flower or the ever-present sea. At times, then, we share her perception. Episode by episode, we are lured in with her sweet pure voice; significantly, the voice which settles Poldark’s love for her.
The master/servant romantic dyad is certainly not an original one, but a trope embedded in many prominent examples of canonical novels since the eighteenth-century. Hailed as one of the first ‘novels’ in the sense recognised today, Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1970) tells through a series of its heroine’s diaries and letters the story of a virtuous servant girl resisting the sexual advances of her master, eventually redeeming his character through her writing and in turn being rewarded with an equal marriage based on love and respect. What made Richardson’s novel unique was that it placed value upon a ‘mere’ servant-girl’s right to self-respect, to protect her chastity and resist the common (and indeed legal) assumption that a servant-girl was her master’s property, to do with what he would. Also, the level of psychological detail afforded by Richardson’s epistolary form allowed the reader an incisive insight into the consciousness of Pamela’s character, a consciousness that gained integrity and resistance through letter-writing itself. While Richardson’s novel gives us an excess of detail, Poldark speaks often through silence. It is those moments in the gloomy interiors of Poldark’s home, with the fire flickering shadows over a rustic meal, or against the backdrop of the ocean, with only the gulls’ moaning, that things change between Poldark and Demelza. The show fleshes her out with a backstory and a problem father, a sense of longing for an unspeakable freedom – the kind of Romantic liberty we experience in her plain, almost Blakean singing.
When Poldark and Demelza do get married, almost on a whim, the show deals with the social consequences of this unlikely coupling. Like Pamela, who has to get used to calling her master by her name, Demelza struggles to address Poldark as ‘Ross’ instead of ‘master’ or ‘sir’. Moreover, the rebellious couple face an onslaught not only of gossip but the kind of exclusion that has very material consequences, not just in terms of how Poldark is treated by polite society but even in business, as investors withdraw from his start-up mining company. This is something Demelza worries about greatly, as does Pamela in her marriage to her master, Mr. B-, as she reflects:
The great Mr. B—— has done finely! he has married his poor servant wench! will some say. The ridicule and rude jests of his equals, and companions too, he must stand: And the disdain of his relations, and indignation of Lady Davers, his lofty sister! Dear good gentleman! he will have enough to do, to be sure! O how shall I merit all these things at his hand! I can only do the best I can; and pray to God to reward him; and resolve to love him with a pure heart, and serve him with a sincere obedience. I hope the dear gentleman will continue to love me for this; for, alas! I have nothing else to offer!
Richardson’s novel, I should add, was riffing off the tradition of conduct literature, expressing a kind of Puritan message of self-restraint and virtue. It loses pace in the second half, where Richardson has shunned the romantic convention of ending on a marriage and instead spends the rest of the book describing Pamela’s efforts to run a virtuous domestic set-up. It is with Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) that the servant-girl heroine is imbued with a wilder, more defiant streak. While Pamela shows her strength not through any physical feat (indeed, her only two escape attempts constitute a foolish notion to drown herself in the garden pond, and a runaway plan which is aborted when she comically mistakes plain old cows for menacing bulls), Jane displays real physical endurance when she manages to flee Mr. Rochester after discovering about the sham marriage she was almost tricked into. I cannot help but quote that famous, impassioned speech that she makes to her would-be husband:
Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong!–I have as much soul as you,–and full as much heart! . . . I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, or even of mortal flesh:–it is my spirit that addresses your spirit: just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal,–as we are!
This transcendentalist ideal of love carried through spirit is profoundly Romantic, and one that comes to inhabit the space of Poldark through the mystic enchantments of Demelza’s singing. This taps into Romanticism’s trope of the folk ballad and the femme fatale, found particularly in Keats but also Coleridge’s ‘Christabel’, that warns of the strange seduction of the ‘wild’, exotic female:
I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful – a faery’s child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.
Perhaps this description could be applied to Demelza too, as she dances at the village carnival and skips fairylike along the cliff top meadows. In Keats’ ‘La Bella Dame Sans Merci’ (1819), the speaker meets a curious, vampire-like woman, who seduces him then leaves him cold and alone in the ‘gloam’ of the lake’s bird-less landscape (and, of course, birds are a very importance presence in Romantic poetry). It is interesting that in the twentieth century, with the impact of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), that the myth of the vampire, the lethal seducer, was transferred from the female to male (Turner himself played the tortured vampire Mitchell in Being Human). There are no vampires in Poldark. Demelza is more of the innocent fairy type, embodying the kind of alienated selfhood that Jane encounters as she perceives herself in the mirror: ‘the effect of a real spirit […] like one of the tiny phantoms, half fairy, half imp’. Estranged from what she thought she was – a mere governess – and hurled into the beautiful turmoil of a fairy story.
It is in Demelza’s metamorphosis from fawn-like (as Elizabeth describes her) child to Poldark’s wife that the show reaps the reward for both parties. When Demelza finally works up the courage to try on a jewel-green dress she finds stuffed into a drawer, it is in this dress that she winds up in bed at last with her master. Yet even here she still looks shrunken, pixie-like in the dress too-big for her, representing the absurdity of the bourgeois identity that she is inadvertently stepping into, like Cinderella. Here, she remains, like ‘plain Jane’, elusive and fairy like, ephemeral in her selfhood. It is in her later endurances, her resistance to the jibes of polite society, that Demelza emerges as our true heroine.
In Brontë’s novel, stumbling alone and starving over the moors, Jane Eyre embodies both female vulnerability and endurance against hardship within the stifling social conditions of the era. Steadfastly she refuses to be Rochester’s mistress and live under a sham marriage. Eventually, like Pamela, she too is rewarded for her virtue, by in turn claiming her own (now, like Poldark, wounded) Byronic hero, whose redemption is signified in the purging of a dramatic fire. The hearth is enflamed from quiet warmth to primitive passion. At the end of episode 4 of Poldark, Ross confesses his love to Demelza in a scene of bedroom intimacy that well resembles that of Pamela and Jane Eyre:
‘You are not too ashamed o’ me?’ asks Demelza, sitting on the bed.
‘Why do you think I married you?’ her husband turns to her.
‘I don’t rightly know.’
‘To satisfy an appetite, to save myself from being alone […] I had few expectations. At best, you’d be a distraction – a bandage to ease a wound. But I was mistaken. You have redeemed me; I am your humble servant, and I love you’.
Like Rochester, and Mr. B-, Poldark is a man redeemed by humble love. Only time will tell (no spoilers) how this pans out. The novel is a form which tends to drive towards closure, the pursuit of some fulfillment of marriage, death or didactic morality; whereas television drama feeds us with cliffhangers, the always open promise of a sequel. This is of course a simplistic distinction, but even so, the point remains that with a book, you can physically see when you are getting to the end, where the pages are running out, and with television, there is a kind of abstracted spatiality and temporality that leaves you always hanging.
As if I were watching a serialised version of Byron’s biography, I intend for the rest of the series merely to sit back and enjoy the picturesque landscapes and the pretty hair, the romance and tragedy and beautiful costumes. All acts of consumption I suppose, which is fitting because Romanticism, as Timothy Morton argues in The Poetics of Spice, invented consumerism; consumerism in the sense of Marxian ‘commodity fetishism’ – consuming something for its representative, fantasy qualities more than for the use value of the thing itself. Wordsworth with his mountains, Coleridge with his opium; objects of desire which offer some form of imaginative potential to the self. But I won’t go into anymore detail; that’s another story, another romance.
My experience of watching Black Mirror: White Christmas was a sharp departure from the usual mindless festive telly fare. Like a lingering nightmare, it will hover over the dreamy limbos of television’s ‘Christmas Special’ tradition for years to come. Black Mirror (while we can certainly argue that some episodes are better than others) has successfully created a lethal concoction of technological speculation, sharp drama and black humour that stands out amidst the genres of science fiction, reality tv or documentary which tend to be employed to convey the themes explored in Black Mirror’s fictional anthology series. Themes like the impact of technology on our everyday lives, relationships, desires, minds.
On Twitter, the show’s writer, king of cynicism Charlie Brooker, promised that his Christmas offering wouldn’t be anything darker than what writers at the BBC had in store for the residents of Albert Square, but having only read a handful of bemused Facebook statuses to account for said Eastenders episode, I don’t feel fit to judge between the two programmes. Black Mirror delves into the future that hangs over us like an Apple update that keeps stalling our computers. The future that is five minutes (or, if your MacBook is as slow as mine, five hours) away. Drew Grant of The New York Observer has aptly described Black Mirror’s episodes as ‘self-contained parables about the modern condition’. The parable is a good description of Brooker’s show because it highlights the importance of the moral conclusions and dilemmas which entangle every episode. In this one-off Christmas Special, Brooker weaves three tales together through a darkly layered story of love, loss, crime, voyeurism, punishment, seduction and of course technology. What comes out at the end is a Beckettian acceptance of the futility of time; a sense of the fragility of everything in the face of time’s endurance. Watching Brooker’s characters recount the bittersweet and painful tales of their lives, against the sinister backdrop of technology and the ironic happiness of Christmas, I was reminded of Beckett’s play Krapp’s Last Tape. The protagonist Krapp stares into and sometimes physically leans over a tape recorder, which plays back the tapes he has made himself, voices recalling distant and familiar memories. There is the same sense of alienation and poignancy, the same mechanical desire that intermingles in the softness of human despondency.
What drew attention to this particular episode was its casting of Jon Hamm as a lead character. Hamm has become something of an icon for his role as the womanising advertising director Don Draper in Matthew Weiner’s period series Mad Men, but in this feature-length Black Mirror episode he proves his talents lie beyond smoking, nipping bourbon, cheating and delivering great advertising speeches. Hamm isn’t known for playing sinister figures, but then Brooker is never so simple as to create any such ‘simple’ characters. In Black Mirror, the basic components of the technology presented (often already recognisable in our daily lives) are underpinned by an endless constellation of questions and implications. Everything is always layered, complex, ethically challenging – from the ontological questions about what is really real in our hyper-mediated modern lives, to how new technology plays out in more concrete areas like the justice system. This is not a one-dimensional view of the future, but a conversation woven with logical gaps, technical and ethical problems, which invites the audience’s participation. We create our own fates; Brooker doesn’t dictate the determinism of technological evolution, but reveals our own often regrettable involvement in our dystopian downfall.
The show begins in a remote cottage where a man named Joe (Rafe Spall) awakens to the sound of familiar Christmas music. He looks gloomily in the mirror and touches a photograph of a girl that’s stuck there. He walks into the kitchen to discover what appears to be his roommate, Matt (played by Hamm), whipping up Christmas dinner. The tale then unfolds as the two sit down, and the charismatic Matt persuades Joe to be a bit sociable for once and enjoy some conversation over lunch with him. It’s uncertain what the relationship between these two men really is. The story proceeds through a series of flashbacks, as Matt tells Joe all about his past. The story is meant to explain why he is here, since Matt is looking for Joe to tell him why he is here. This central setting for the story that frames the narrative from start to finish harks back to that old tradition of framing devices that is often used in what we might call ‘ghost’ stories of sorts. Journeys to the dark heart of human nature: think of Marlow, travelling up the Thames in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as he recounts his tale of colonial horror along the Congo in Africa; think of the epistolary narrative of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; think of Wuthering Heights, where much of the story comes to the reader through the yarn woven by Nelly Dean the housekeeper as she sits knitting and talking to our primary narrator, Lockwood. In all these texts, characters are not so much human beings as they are shadows of discourse, and maybe you could say the same about the state of people in the digital age…
Such framing and meta-awareness of storytelling is of course prominent in cinema too, although often for different purposes beyond the sense of alienation and epistemological confusion evoked by such literary techniques. The likes of Martin McDonagh, in his stage dramas and screenplays, employs this technique or trope to reflect on – among other things – the problem of mediated reality in a so-called ‘postmodern’ era. In Black Mirror, Brooker goes beyond the televisual technologies which defined the era of high postmodernism to incorporate a future of duplicating, haptic and intensely interactive technologies. It is hard to shoehorn this programme into ‘science fiction’ or ‘crime fiction’ or merely ‘dark drama’. Everything is ambiguous, just like White Christmas’ central location. The audience doesn’t know what or where here is, other than a snow-coated cottage in the middle of nowhere. There’s a flickering fire and sense of impending disaster. Matt jokes that the cottage was only meant to include essentials, but weirdly that included a string of red tinsel. You can’t get away from Christmas, as Joe’s unfortunate avatar finds out in the episode’s end. In the three parts, we shift between the stories of Matt and Joe, as well as a broader story about the systemic use (and abuse) of technology, and the interwoven stories of the characters whose lives connect with our protagonists’.
You see, this is Black Mirror; things are never straightforward or linear. Matt used to be some kind of romance coach who provides dating advice to men by talking to them internally like an inner voice. Taken out of context, the person in question would look like they were talking to imaginary voices, like a caricatured schizophrenic. Implanted technology allows Matt to witness every action taken by the other man, Harry, through Harry’s own eyes. What kind of panopticon effect would this have on our consciousness, if we knew that everything we saw was being seen in directly the same manner by someone else? I’m immediately thinking of Google Glass here: technology that interacts with the optical function, that projects information between the eye, the world and the brain. Our own perception is shared through wireless communication, in ways that maybe we can no longer control. There are sinister consequences here, as Matt’s advice inadvertently leads the other man, Harry, to successfully seduce a rather unstable woman who is convinced that since they both hear voices they should pass to the ‘next stage’. The next stage being death; not just quitting her job, it turns out. She feeds him poison and he dies right there on screen, for Matt and his audience to see. It turns out that Matt helps shy and lonely men seduce women as a hobby, and in turn shares the footage of these encounters with other men, in what seems to be a sinister extension of contemporary internet ‘live-cam’ pornography. Only, the woman and man in question don’t know the extent to which their actions are being viewed and exploited. It doesn’t seem too far off from the hacking scandals that plagued the likes of Jennifer Lawrence’s iCloud only this summer. The story deals with these issues of consent and broadcast communication on the one hand, but also the ease with which Harry succeeds in seducing women with Matt’s tricks is a little chilling (not merely just unconvincing). In the context of a wider narrative on mediation, it makes us reflect on how much human attraction is based on pre-scripted ideas that are encoded in our brains from so much exposure to romantic discourse – from the old technics of writing and literature to computer games and cinema.
The poison scene weirdly reminded me of a corrupted version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, where Hamlet’s father is killed by having poison fed into his ear. An untimely revenge; perhaps the consequences of inauthenticity. The ghost of Hamlet’s father reappears in the play, and even when he is not present, the spectre of his wish haunts Hamlet’s frustrated consciousness. White Christmas is also concerned with ghosts. We might even consider the title an ironic reference to Bing Crosby’s ‘White Christmas’: ‘I’m dreaming of a white Christmas / Just like the ones I used to know’. Well, these lyrics seem pretty sinister in the context of this episode, where what’s white is the symbolically smothering snow and the egg-shaped ‘cookie’ device that connects to an implant in people’s brains. An implant that duplicates the self into a ‘cookie’, a cookie which is externalised and given a simulated body. A body that might not be real, but is certainly sentient.
If we used to know Christmas as pure and white, all love and peace and Sainsbury’s-spouted Christmas truces and freedom from suffering, Black Mirror throws this day of spirited possibility into suspicion. The twist of the tale reveals a moral dilemma that haunts the use of such duplicating technology that takes us towards the realm of cloning; but, as in episode Be Right Back, keeps it close enough to the present state of technological reality to really disturb. Is it wrong to harm things that aren’t real, but still feel pain? Can we keep our simulated extra-selves as slaves to enhance our lives, even if it forces them into a lifetime of torture? What does it do to our personal identity to be physically conscious of doing harm to some simulated duplication of ourselves?
As with Hamlet, the theme of retribution runs rife through the episode. Partners punish one another through ‘blocking’: a way of cancelling out an entire person – as you may do on Twitter and Facebook – only in real life. The person in question becomes a pixellated greyish blur, like a glitch from a computer game that you can never quite get close to properly, even though they could still do you physical violence. Weirdly enough, the blocked figures in White Christmas reminded me of Pokemon Red and Blue’s ‘Missingno’, which appeared as an odd remainder of scrambled code that never quite got fixed in the games’ final cut. A Pokemon that appeared mysteriously without indexical recognition; an unknown creature. The name ‘Missingno’ also seems somehow relevant here, as it stands for ‘missing number’, as if the human in question was stripped of his/her name and personality, and left only as the grey matter of their brains, the bureaucratic residue of a ‘missing number’, 1984 style.
Only, unlike the geometric shape of Missingno (oddly resembling a missing puzzle piece), in Black Mirror you still see the human outline of the person you block. The fluid movement of their head and limbs. Their speech roars at you like a radio out of tune and communication will never ultimately travel as you want it to. Even in photographs, the blocked person dissolves from view. An absence cut permanently from your life; or at least until they unblock you. With great precision and a balance between steely analytic satire on contemporary social media and emotional humanity, Black Mirror explores the human consequences of such technologies: heartbreak, misunderstanding, new forms of enduring punishment. Matt is ultimately punished for his role in inadvertently causing Harry’s murder by being universally blocked, so that all humans are to him blobbed and distorted like a sea of Missingnos, and to everyone else, Matt becomes a red blur. We might think back to the days of MSN Messenger, where if we blocked someone from talking to us, on their Contact List we would forever appear as the red ‘Appear Offline’ icons. Always within reach but never fully present or within contact, we would linger elusively on their list of contacts but every message they tried to send would be lost in the ether. Technology, from the beginning, is a story of both absence and presence, communication and severance. It is all too easy to talk to someone across the globe, to love them truly even though they may be a stranger; it is equally all too easy to cut someone out of your life seemingly forever at the click of a button, given how much time we devote to living online.
I think it’s appropriate that such an episode is aired at Christmas time; the time when everyone finds themselves worshipping at the circuitboard altar of a new tablet or phone or smart-watch. It issues a kind of warning, at the same time as being dramatically gripping and comedically entertaining. We live in an age of Sony hacks, Gamergate, iCloud leaks, attempted murders committed by children under the influence of online Creepypasta mythologies, Twitter abuse storms and the rife availability of online child pornography, smartphone apps which track your every dietary intake and calorie burned, as if you were some cookie of yourself trained and disciplined by the ethereal whims of your own idealised higher being. Technology is clearly something we frequently use to abuse ourselves and one another as human beings; it brings out whatever darkness is already in our nature and provides the platform for exhibiting this darkness more effectively. If we lose ourselves to this ease of abuse, where will we be in five, ten, twenty years time? Maybe only Charlie Brooker knows.
If Back to the Future got some things right about 2015 (pollution, nostalgic 1980s cultural revival), and others pretty wrong (hover-boards and flying cars) it’s difficult to say how much Black Mirror gets right about our future. The most chilling aspect of all Brooker’s episodes is perhaps how much they touch on a prosthetic logic whereby we lose ourselves to the tools we employ to help us that is already in operation today. A prosthetic logic that only needs a few more steps in Santa’s workshop to become Brooker’s nightmare vision of reality. There is nothing wrong with the technology itself per se, the show suggests, but the way we lose our humanity by giving ourselves up fully to the wonders of its operation. Surely the best metaphor for this is Oona Chaplin’s character, who literally forges a double of herself (called a cookie) and enslaves this poor spirit animal to a life of making toast and adjusting the volume of ambient music, simply for the benefit of a more efficient and technically-enhanced lifestyle. If we surrender all morality and consciousness to the endless improvement of this so-called ‘lifestyle’, aren’t we forgetting the things that make life worth living? White Christmas ends with Matt drifting out into the ultimate alienation of universal blocking, and Joe in a hysterical condition in his prison cell whilst his cookie lives in an infinite torture of Wizzard’s ‘I Wish it Could be Christmas Every Day’ being played on repeat while he exists forever trapped in the isolated kitchen. This manic but also slightly funny conclusion reveals the show’s unique blend of human sympathy and nightmare desolation. No matter how many times he tries to smash the radio, the song keeps playing. It’s like that time Celebrity Big Brother decided to lock Basshunter in a room for six hours with his song ‘All I Ever Wanted’ playing on repeat really loudly. Sure, Brooker’s ending is a bleak reminder that Christmas isn’t always great for everyone; but it’s also a reminder that you should be careful what you wish for. After all, it’s easy enough to become slaves to the technology that enchants us, but not so easy to sever ourselves from this technology, once we’ve realised that it’s usurped our humanity, and maybe even our sanity.
There’s a certain uneasy, shifting quality at the centre of Made in Chelsea that reminds one of the later work of Samuel Beckett.
For a show in which a character actually says “Charles Dickens wrote Winnie the Pooh. No, Pride and Prejudice,” you might be shocked at any comparison raised between Made in Chelsea and the world of literature. And yet, there is a sense of unease that haunts the famous Channel 4 show which documents the financially-flushed lives of trendy twenty-somethings partying and gossiping themselves around London. A sense of unease that is usually reserved for the realm of the literary text, specifically the postmodern literary text, which evades fixed meaning and narrative closure. That leaves us in some sort of existential crisis. And so what is this Beckettian quality that haunts the flashy world of ‘yahs’, of immaculate blow-dries and fancy cars? Is it the sheer vacuity, the absurdity, the meaningless and endlessly repetitive plot lines? The bizarre seduction of its pointlessness and dragged-out pacing, the lingering shot on a face of shaky acting that aims to convey some kind of deep significance, but instead trails us into nowhere?
There is something strangely seductive about Made in Chelsea. I thought maybe I’d struggle to write this article, given that I have only watched a handful of episodes from a show that has run for seven seasons. My mother watches it, my brother watches it. They don’t watch much else on telly, so there must be something in it that lures them in. That lures us all in. Indeed, maybe there are people out there who genuinely anticipate new episodes, as if there really was some plot development to look forward to. There must be some reason why Channel 4 bother advertising narrative ‘tensions’ in their new episode teasers. Yet I find it difficult to establish the significance of any story arc in Made in Chelsea: each episode rolls over with an intrigue that evaporates like the champagne sucked so readily from its characters’ glasses.
But wait, you may say: Made in Chelsea is not meant to be television drama, it is reality, albeit ‘structured reality’. We are, supposedly, watching a show about ‘real’ lives; these are ‘real’ people acting out things that have ‘really’ happened to them. Reality does not readily provide us with such arcs of climax and resolution that fictional scripts tend to yield up; reality is all about interweaving story-lines, little tensions that burst and dissipate under hushed storms of gossip – the sheer joy of calling someone an idiot behind their back. I suppose this is what Made in Chelsea really is: grownup children bitching and dissecting one another against the backdrop of glittering cocktail glasses and an effortlessly hip soundtrack.
Because of course, this is no ordinary ‘reality tv show’. The cast of Made in Chelsea are rarely seen smoking, vomiting, shagging. The ordinary things folk tend to do on reality tv shows; you know, Big Brother and the like. The world of Chelsea is one of perfected physicality: sculpted bodies, stylish clothes, the cool gaze of another blasé conversation, another stilted standoff between two characters. For this show is all surface, all talk. Not much changes, except for the setting: from beautiful London gardens with the perpetual tinkle of glasses to throbbing club scenes and the stunning backdrops of Venice and Versoix, from gleaming storefronts to pheasant shoots and country-club chic. We are invited to revel in the gorgeousness of panoramic camera shots, the afternoon light as it flickers from the sun between leaves to the glint of a wine glass. Perhaps we could watch this show on mute, with the characters becoming a kind of tableau vivant, and we may sate ourselves on the images of their flawless skin, their achingly white teeth. These are characters whose personalities shift with the wind of each new season, who perform themselves as they please.
And of course, there is the British obsession with class, particularly the surface forms which class may take. We have always loved observing the lives of the super-poor and hyper-rich, and from Dickens to Evelyn Waugh readers have been drawn in by artistic representations of both the struggling underclass and the excesses of the wealthy. Watching or reading about the extremes of poverty or richness makes us feel better: it allows us to reaffirm our own position, as somehow ‘normal’. We’re never that bad; we’re comfortably in-between. In a sense then, Made in Chelsea shares with shows like the BBC’s documentary-style show The Scheme its status as a form of class porn. Watching the ‘feckless’ lives of those in poverty makes people feel better; superior, even. Careful editing enhances the drama, adds turbulence to the characters’ lives and cuts out the ordinary hard work that may go on behind the scenes. Watching Made in Chelsea, I suggest, deflects the structural issues underpinning the status of the super-rich onto a series of mundane story-lines that focus almost exclusively around love interests. There is very little in the show to tell us how so-and-so got his or her fortune. And if the university degree, modelling career or entrepreneurship features at all, it is usually as a mere prologue to some form of romantic or consumerist intrigue. We are told to sit back and enjoy this form of lifestyle porn, without bearing a thought for the opportunities these people received to get where they are now.
Also, there is a certain pleasure in indulging in one’s prejudices. The cast of Made in Chelsea embody a certain form of gap yah privilege that many of us enjoy mocking in this day and age where the class divide is wider than ever. While watching shows about the ‘underclasses’ often makes uncomfortable viewing, documenting the frequently distressing scenes of life on the breadline, watching Made in Chelsea involves both succumbing to the passive pleasures of spectacle and an exercise in mockery at the dandified lives of its characters. We may poke fun at the absurdity of some of their dialogue: the accent, the ‘totes’, the ‘yeah boi’, the gestures that seem to separate these people from the rest of the human race. As the notorious Mark Francis quips, ‘I once knew someone who owned a sleeping bag’. Yes, quite: a sleeping bag; those cave animals from the world beyond, with their horribly proletariat existence. Indeed, these beautiful beings, the Chelsea Set, are not like the rest of human kind. Not like the rest of us watching, half allured and half bemused.
Onscreen we watch these glimmering cyborgs, as they fashion their real lives right before our eyes.
And yet, the Chelsea Set are not untouchable beings. They splash themselves over pop culture: doing photo shoots, exclusive interviews, making innocuous appearances as guest-star DJs in clubs. We are asked to see them in the flesh, as if we too can reach out – if only briefly – to touch their precious stash, the solid gold of their lifestyles. We may look them up on Wikipedia to find out more; these characters are hypertexts, whose ‘real’ lives are perhaps preceded in a Baudrillardian sense by the simulations they portray onscreen. They have built up their empires of personality which branch out from the TV series to magazines and online articles documenting details of their fabulously elaborate yet ultimately vacuous existence. As Jon Dovey puts it: ‘reality TV is the ultimate expression of the simulacrum in which the insistence upon realism is in direct proportion to the disappearance and irrelevance of any referential value’. Yes, the disappearance of any worthwhile meaning; that sounds familiar. Are these ‘real’ people, or mere masks – postmodern burlesques of the generation of ‘bright young things’ which once lit up the 1920s Jazz Age, but now dissipate into the no-place of mundane conversation? The sexiness of Made in Chelsea is perhaps undermined by the sheer obviousness of its facade.
Yet when we watch these individuals perform their ‘selves’, do we passively absorb their world as if it were merely a stage-set, or can we pierce this world, burst the bubble on their champagne-scented version of reality? If there is an almost erotic allure in the mere spectacle of the lives of the rich, then allowing ourselves to be sucked into the simulacrum of this show constitutes a new, if slightly sickly, opium for the masses (or at least, those who bother watching). So, perhaps, let us covet the aura of affluence, of shimmering lives and expensive spaces, while at the same time reminding ourselves of the poverty and inequality that must exist to support the glamorous boredom of the rich and famous. Or maybe we could turn off the telly, and go camping instead.
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.