In which Netty zeroes out in the big city …June 29, 2010
“People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles.”
– Less Than Zero, Bret Easton Ellis
“You are not the type of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning.”
– Bright Lights, Big City, Jay McInerney
It’s a timing thing. On the dawn of the release of its sequel Imperial Bedrooms, what better time to revisit Bret Easton Ellis’s debut novel Less Than Zero? One of my all-time favourites, this is probably the book I’ve read more often than any other (with the possible exception of certain Peanuts comics). My favourite book of all time? That honour goes to Ellis’s fellow literary Brat Packer Jay McInerney’s Story Of My Life. But here I’ve coupled rereading Less Than Zero with Bright Lights, Big City – McInerney’s debut. Same era, same demographics, same drugs, different coasts. Brothers in arms in so many ways.
Ellis first. Basically you either love or hate the guy – and most of the people who think they hate him have never read American Psycho, which is primarily the reason they think they hate him. Psycho (1991) is a brilliant, of-its-time satire, and condemnation of the late 1980s American yuppie creed, but it’s widely misinterpreted and not an easy read by any stretch of the imagination – and yes, the violence is unrelenting and pornographic, often literally. But I’m getting ahead of the game.
Back in 1985, Ellis was a 21-year-old east coast college student who reportedly wrote Less Than Zero on a month’s break. Critics often dismiss Ellis’s work as “nihilistic” – bereft of conscience and moral obligation – and certainly the majority of his characters are. But it’s not a charge that can be levelled at Clay, the disaffected, often-bored narrator of Less Than Zero. It’s a well-known adage that writers, whether intentionally or otherwise, often base their debut novels on themselves, and Less Than Zero comes across basically as a roman a clef. But Ellis, a self-described “moralist”, imbues the same quality in his literary alter-ego. On the surface, there’s a lot here that seems like typically gross-out Ellis material – as Clay negotiates, with an increasing sense of horror, a snuff film, a dead body and the gang rape of a 12-year-old girl, all presented for the amusement of his peers. But athough Clay probably wishes on some level that he was immune, he has too much heart – and stomach – to do so.
At the start of Less Than Zero, Clay returns home to Los Angeles from Camden (widely assumed to be based on Ellis’s alma mater Bennington, also the setting for his second novel The Rules Of Attraction) for a month during the summer break. He hooks up with old friends – like himself, rich, bored college kids and dropouts with absent parents, ample trust funds and awash with drugs – hangs out, goes out to lunch, parties, nightclubs, the beach. Clay negotiates his on-again-off-again relationship with girlfriend Blair against a backdrop of flings with others, both girls and guys, and tries to reconnect with his boyhood friend Julian, a junkie who has been forced to whore himself to pay off his drug debts. As a counterpart running alongside the main plot, Clay poignantly reminisces about a long-ago summer spent with his grandparents and family in Palm Springs.
The novel runs to a little over 200 pages; the arc is subtle, the writing is sparse and the prose gorgeously elegant – Ellis is enormously effective in conveying the sense of alienation, summertime heat and lingering dread hanging over the city of Los Angeles. Unlike the 1987 film – a complete Hollywood hash-up, and desperately screaming out for a remake – there is no moral resolution in the book, just a faint, bittersweet melancholy for the way things were, are and always will be.
Now for McInerney. Older than Ellis by about a decade, McInerney published Bright Lights, Big City in 1984, at the age of 29. It is narrated wholly in the second person, by an unnamed protagonist who works as a fact-checker at a prestigious New York magazine, but harbours ambitions to write fiction (for the record, McInerney once worked as a fact-checker at The New Yorker). The narrator’s model wife Amanda has recently left him, but, in denial, he spends his nights hanging out in clubs – often with his friend Tad Allagash – snorting cocaine by the vial-ful and unsuccessfully trying to hit on girls, whilst dreaming and scheming of ways to get back with his ex.
By day our hero dodges increasingly frequent messages from his brother Michael and is tormented by his tyrannical boss Clara Tillinghast, who harbours grave suspicions about his abilities and is waiting for him to put a foot wrong. Which he inevitably does, bringing his situation to a head – with ensuing comically tragic (or tragically comic) results. The reasons the narrator is running are actually two-fold. But after resignation and acceptance, there is ultimately light at the end of this tunnel.
Unlike Less Than Zero, Bright Lights, Big City has an obvious story arc, and wears its heart on its sleeve – fortunately, never to its detriment. The narrator knows he and his actions are often pathetic, but he doesn’t wallow in his misfortune and elicits a good deal of sympathy from the reader as a result. It is witty rather than mordant, multi-dimensional rather than unrelenting. McInerney mined similar material for his next couple of books; thereafter his characters started to grow up, mimicking their author’s physical and emotional growth, while Ellis’s later characters are dragged kicking and screaming from the plentitudes of youth into an ageing, uncertain future.
The other thing most striking from these novels is how much the world has changed in 25 years. No one had mobile phones in the early ‘80s – these characters leave answering machine messages for each other, which they often don’t end up getting. Clay’s friends listen to records at home and tapes in their cars, not CDs or MP3s; there are no ATMs around to dispense cash at 4am when Bright Lights’ narrator is hanging out for more coke. AIDS has not yet reared its ugly head, so these characters sleep around with reckless abandon (the only thing Ellis’s characters catch from each other is mono – or glandular fever to us). Both are set against a backdrop of Reagan-era America; the cold war is still in force. Global warming and/or climate change are not popularist concepts. These characters are at once knowing and jaded, yet also naïve in so many ways, even innocent.
As L.P. Hartley once noted: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” Indeed it is, and indeed they do. But every once in a while, it is good to go back there and hang out for a little while. Less Than Zero and Bright Lights, Big City afford me that opportunity, and for that I am grateful. Fuck, I love these books – then and now. Maybe you do – or will – too.