Thursday, October 13, 2011

WFJ Book Club # 7: Less Than Zero

Prejudice should never be something to take pride in.  It's hurtful in many instances, and intellectually lazy in most others.  However, we all have prejudice, and the best way to deal with it is to lay it out in the open.  Finding out what triggers our prejudicial instincts can take us a long way in understanding our reactions to anyone or anything at all.

In my case, I carry two formidable prejudices: one against the city of Los Angeles, and the other against the mass culture of the 1980s.  In my mind, both represent the best possible case for the notion that hedonism and decadence lead to the downfall of civilization.  I'm no doomsayer, but I have a theory that Armageddon occurred on the Sunset Strip sometime during the rise of Hair Metal; all of history since then has merely been a traumatic hallucination, a collective defense mechanism against the overbearing awfulness of the modern world.

According to my theory, Less Than Zero, the 1985 novel by Brett Easton Ellis, would be an artifact of the end of the world, a graphic record of our civilization's greatest nightmare preserved for the education of its benighted survivors.  It isn't, of course, because the world didn't end in the 1980s (we're still living with its ill effects today).  But even with all of the references to payphones and Atari and other echoes of the last century, the story still reads like apocalyptic literature.

Truth be told, reading the book is painful.  Not stylistically; there's a lot to admire in the descriptions and characterizations, as well as the variety of contemporary references that gives the setting breadth.  The plot, however, is excruciating.  Scenes range along a continuum of troubling, depressing, disturbing, and abominable, sliding back and forth without mercy.  I'd recommend this book to anyone on the basis of its art and craft, but I'd hesitate to promise that they'd "like" it.

Less Than Zero works on a number of levels for me, to the point that I was a little afraid of the book in my hands.  As a portrait of privileged nihilism, I recognized a lot more in the characters and situations than I hoped I would.  If you disregard the specific trappings of time and place, the actions of characters bear a distressing resemblance to real life.  Even ordinary, respectable people spend most of their time doing what they believe they can't help doing.  It's a lifestyle that looks ugliest when those imagined imperatives are chemical addictions, but is just as bleak in principle for anyone else.  A book like this offers the chance to see the equivalence, in the comforting guise of morbid voyeurism.

I've come to expect tales of hedonistic excess like these from Los Angeles.  But in spite of my prejudices, are they realistic?  Well, I have heard some things.  I haven't seen nearly as much, but I've seen some; I know that humans have an astounding capacity for destruction, whether they direct it at themselves or others.  Families disintegrate, friends disappoint, and lovers fall out of love: in ordinary terms, these are the least of our troubles.  The collapse of ordinary life didn't happen in the 1980s; it happens everywhere at every time, as soon as our eyes are open enough to see it.

But a "collapse" implies some kind of finality.  Somehow, life and civilization survive to endure continuous new collapses, as we continue to surprise ourselves with new lows.  It may not make us stronger, but it hasn't killed us yet.

Oh, was I talking about a book?  I suppose I was.  Less Than Zero is a good one, if you're looking for a good punch in the gut as well.  Just take a weekend and watch the world explode.

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