Friday, July 11, 2008
When I first read Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis (official website), I had never seen the (now infamous) film. That's a good thing, I think, because when I eventually did see it, I could see what they'd cut to make it suitable for the screen, and so I could pinpoint exactly why I didn't like the film.
The novel rocked my world, though. As I've said in the past, I'm a sucker for a great first line. They make or break my reading experience. The first sentence of a novel is that important. The first sentence of Less Than Zero is "People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles." And everything in the novel after that point hinges on the many ways you could read that sentence based on the verb "to merge."
I hadn't read transgressive fiction before this other than William S. Burroughs (and that's another entry entirely, trust me). So, especially toward the final third of the book, things get really transgressive and sexually extreme, I really didn't have too many ways of processing that. No theoretical armor to distance myself from the experience of the violence. To this day, though those are only two maybe three scenes in the novel, I still don't deal with the images well. By the time I got to Dennis Cooper (another future set of entries), I had some theory for dealing with the violence, though, so even though Cooper's work is much more extreme, it is this novel that I think of as much harder to deal with, emotionally. Even Glamorama (an upcoming entry in "books that influenced me") was easier to deal with because I'd already had to deal with this book, first.
When I think about this book, there are a few images that come to mind in relation to it. The main one is the alone-ness. Not just of the characters, but in having the experience as a reader: coming up against this level of detachment in characters and the level of sexual violence they encounter and not having anyone around who had read the novel that I could talk to about it (because this is not the kind of plot you talk about over dinner). Having to hold on to the images and the horrible sadness of the characters' lives alone, like a secret. I found people who had seen the movie, but all of the things that shook me so much about the book had been removed from the film so that all that was left was the disconnect with the characters. When I finally saw the movie, I could see the difference. Most reviews thought it was just bad acting, but it wasn't--they had the disconnect right, but all the reasons for it had been removed from the text.
He's supposedly working on a follow up (though Rules of Attraction and American Psycho--both books with somewhat regrettable movies attached--already are) that thought is odd, because Ellis's "universe" is all connected, like Faulkner's. You can bet I'll be talking about American Psycho at some point in the future, too.
Even though Cooper and Irvine Welsh are all much more invested in the violence of their books, it is ultimately Ellis' Less Than Zero that forms so much of how I think about transgressive novels. Ultimately, most of the impetus (but not the stylistic choices) for Stealing Ganymede comes from this novel.