The dark brilliance of Bret Easton Ellis, by Ottessa Moshfegh

The satirical horror of Elliss debut Less Than Zero devotes the novel its seductive force

TaB was submitted in 1963 as Coca-Cola’s first diet booze. It applied zero-calorie saccharin instead of carbohydrate, an innovation that was intended to invigorate people to indulge in carbonated sweetness without worrying about packing on the pounds. Eventually, amusement could be enjoyed without guilt, peril or retribution. Forget water- here was a soda to stir life carefree. Drink TaB and “youre ever” released from mortal concern and responsibility, the ads indicated. More facetiously, commercial-grades with skinny ladies sucking down TaB sold customers the idea that drinking it would build you thin. TaB was less than zero, in this sense.

I remember first envisioning TaB in movies in the 80 s, when the drink rose to popularity. And it appears in Less Than Zero by the 21 -year-old Bret Easton Ellis, with some frequency. Appropriately, within the first several pages, we hear that Muriel, a minor character, has been admitted to infirmary with anorexia. TaB’s nothingness seems central to the meaningless luxuries and woes of the 80 s boy generation: immunity and ineffectuality are the highest privileges of the young, beautiful and rich. Less Than Zero exploits that ineffectuality with minimalism, compressing ennui into dreaded, and then into horror. Thus, it succeeds in stimulating something out of nothing.

The novel’s premise is simple-minded: Clay, an 18 -year-old college freshman, returns dwelling to Los Angeles for the winter transgres. His ex-girlfriend, Blair, picks him up from the airport and drives him residence, “where hes” greeted by no one but a brand-new housekeeper and the ripped poster of Elvis Costello on his bedroom wall. This is not LA at large, but a very specific gated ground of multimillion-dollar dwellings, pond boys, private chefs, Lamborghinis, flawless skin, smog and diamonds, designer clothes, and narcissism so rampant it is considered the status quo. During his few weeks at home, Clay reconnects with old friends, parties, drives around, fools around with a guy and a few daughters, remembers things, get manipulated into lending money to a friend who has to turn tricks to pay off a obligation, the usual rich-kid hijinks.

Bret
‘ His mothers split in 1982. One must wonder how autobiographical the novel really is’ … Bret Easton Ellis in 1992. Photograph: Ulf Andersen/ Getty Images

To say that the boys are poorly behaved would be to insinuate that there are well-behaved adults chasing them with sovereigns. But the parents are absent, if not physically, then surely psychically, and the attitudes of Clay’s mother and father, who have broken up, are not too far away from their children’s- aloof, debased and disconnected. Everybody rumors, fucks, drives drunk. These are not the kids in the 90 s teen drama Beverly Hills, 90210 trying to manage social lives and please their parents with good points. This is a higher stratum, one of derangement brings with it by money have been achieved in a culture where nothing is sacred. Entertainment and its exploitative industry always push consciousness into a void of indifference. Merely the alchemical measures of human experience are likely to pertain: sex and drugs. So this is the case in Less Than Zero , where everybody’s momma or father is a cinema executive or a movie star, and their children are left to fend for themselves, with expensive cars and credit cards at their disposal.

The emotional valence of Clay’s delivery is stark, a voice swimming together with the pollution and cigarette smoke. As the reader, I align myself with him, but Ellis still get me to wonderwhether Clay is on the inside or the outside of the nothingness. Clay’s is not a pragmatic being, but has been silenced through the repression of lovelessness in his upbringing and the culture in which his persona has developed. Teetering between two worlds- New Hampshire, where he is a student, and Los Angeles- he appears to have learnt some light. Judgment cannot exist in a vacuum. For most of the fiction, Clay harnesses the pacific patience of someone with nowhere better to be , no future, and no hope. But the velocity of his tale- running at high speed with silent anxiety, zooming down the road doing 100 mph on downers listening to KNAC-FM- gives the succinct hollowness of the narration its driving force. How Ellis managed to give Clay’s voice the tension and weirdness that make this volume unstoppable is beyond me as a columnist. It is the calm one feels in the seconds before a car accident, just as you envision the truck approaching and it’s too late to switch lanes. The impeccable timing, particularly in panoramas of dialogue, captures the banalities of Clay’s life in such a way that both disgusts me and interrupt my heart.

It is perhaps against the rules of the book, canned and sappy, to point out the utter lack of desire in it, such is the cage around its heart. Italicised parts throughout the novel narrate more emotional times in Palm Springs before Clay’s grandmother dies, and even then, the world is flat, devoid of tenderness. The past is smoke in the wilderness. It might haunt you, but it has no further bearing on the purposelessness of your current existence. Clay has two sisters, but they, too, shall form part of the system of drudgery and vanity. His papa takes Clay to dinners and treats him more like an underling or a frivolous employee than a beloved son. His mom is nearly invisible in her blondness. She and Clay seem to have an understanding that superficial communication avoids the pain provinces of estrangement and misery. As it makes the progeny of cold Hollywood nobilities as hot-bodied consumers and posers in a pantomime version of their greedy, aloof mothers- snorting coke, doing lunch, getting liquors at the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills hotel- Less Than Zero satirises a world that feels emblematic of the ailments of 1985, but also intensely personal. The lens of the narrator feels close to the author’s.

Perhaps that is my projection as a reader, one I stimulate to explain how a voice so unaffected in service delivery could induce my heart gate-crash: I so badly want this world-wide to be tethered to something real, to be the scratches on the prison walls, and for those recognizes to be rich with mean. Expert satire purposes this style; despite the straight read, we are continuing identify and comprehend. It is not just a criticism of the nations of the world, but a full experience of it. With a little digging, I learn that Ellis’s mothers divided in 1982. One must wonder how autobiographical the novel really is. Not that it would change its impact, but the intimate knowledge of such a niche domain of life raises the question.

Jami
Jami Gertz as Blair, Andrew McCarthy as Clay in the film adaptation of Less Than Zero. Photo: 20 th Century Fox/ Kobal/ Rex/ Shutterstock

I can only imagine the alienation this literary prodigy felt in a world that commodified art as entertainment designed to induce us slaves of mode and postures, to work hard to buy the right automobiles, date the right people, imbibe non-nutritive soft drinks, zone out in front of the TV. Simply a bright young person can look at the modern world and insure where it’s going, unhinged from the static of the past. One political learning is to say the book functions as a disapproval of the cruelties of media. Los Angeles is a factory of misconception. It invents illusions, and creates an illusion around that give. Hollywood, which looks like shimmering magicals from afar, is a complex system of egomaniacal executives responsible for feeding the masses narrative media, those box office smashes we celebrate as the express of our cultural identity. Having grown up in Sherman Oaks, in the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles, Ellis would perhaps have suffered this culture first-hand.

Less Than Zero was published in 1985, the same time TWA Flight 847 was hijacked by Hezbollah, the US version of the Nintendo Entertainment System came out and the Unabomber killed his first victim. Life-insurance companies began screening for HIV. The CD-Rom was introduced. Ronald Reagan, a former actor deeply are enshrined in corrupted Hollywood politics, was US president. The economic breakdown of the middle class was romanticised in Hollywood for great earning, selling the trappings of suffering back to the people living the real deal with no exit strategy but their own eyes and ears fixed to their screens and radios. And to imagine, these were more innocent times! Decades afterward, with Trump in bureau, it seems that when there is an entertainer in the White House, our culture descends into indecency- we lose track of what we intend by “humanity”.

The concept comes up only in the purposes of the agony and fatality. Meanwhile, the divide between art and recreation grows wonderfully clear. Entertainment is fodder for the masses, something to keep them busy and store while the nations of the world dies. Hollywood capitalises on sadnes by canning culture and feeding it to us spoonful by spoonful. Artwork, by comparison, is critical of the system of brainwashing, dehumanising, consumerism and avarice. The discrepancies between honesty and wit is in the eye of the spectator. Someone with critical reasoning can detect wit. Person who is used to swallowing blindly whatever is served will never understand intricacy. I think this is why Less Than Zero was so controversial. The extremity of the book is the fruit of so much better indifference. There is a dead kid in an alley who Clay’s friends induce into a spectacle, a 12 -year-old sex slave drugged and tied to a bunk. Clay, initially running on the fumes of his habituated high-school structures, begins to see his way out of the cloud by the end of the novel. It’s the startle of the dead kid or the 12 -year-old, or it’s his self-disgust as a participant in passivity. The ambiguity is precise.

Subtlety is necessary to satire, but is not prized in the US. We importance outgoingness, equanimity, direct onslaughts and festivities. We prefer straight arrow over innuendo. This is a weakness. Satire is the most difficult mode in literature because it purposes with a delicate, invisible layer of self-awareness- which readers often absence. An insensitive reader of Less Than Zero might envision,” Well, that was perturbing ,” and point to the moments of vivid exploitation as “inappropriate” and “wrong”. Such a read does not appreciate the incredible timing, restraint, and synchronicity in the writing , nor the fact that these “inappropriate” incidents are actually a direct reflection of world. We often refuse to acknowledge the ugliness in ourselves and in countries around the world, out of chagrin or vanity.

The generative suffer of reading this book is that of staring at a portrait of the human world-wide- LA is its costume- for long enough to see through the facade. The underbelly is always darknes, but that darkness isn’t what’s so interesting. It’s what the darkness is fogging- a blank region unmarred by romanticism and sentimentalism, the hard truth. It is invisible because it is true. One must detach from the mundane activities of life to see this blankness, this freedom. This is the beauty of Less Than Zero . The quiet transparency of existential fear is precisely what blew my thinker. I am not frightened by a 12 -year-old girl medication and tied to a bed while get gang-raped. I’m terrified by the silence around it. If this book is an existential irony, its proposition is that the world is hell disguised as paradise.

* Less Than Zero issued by Picador Classics( PS8. 99 ). To ordering a transcript go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p& p over PS15, online orders only. Phone orderings min p& p of PS1. 99.

Read more: https :// www.theguardian.com/ volumes/ 2019/ tainted/ 02/ evil-under-the-sun-the-dark-brilliance-of-bret-easton-ellis

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