Monday, 3 March 2014
Less Than Zero - Los Angeles (theguardian)
The above article was written for guardian.com by Dan Holloway in December 2011. Holloway comments on characters, setting and narrative to reflect the representation of Los Angeles in the 1980s.
The only real development in the book is Clay's gradually evolving disgust as he moves like a wraith through an endless round of casual sex, drugs, and violence that changes nothing about the world in which, and the people to whom, they occur. And every surface is so shiny that it slips through the world without leaving a trace.
This idea is important because it shows how Los Angeles is a completely different place to anywhere else on the planet. Clay experiences the extremes of the wealthy youth living in LA but it is evident to the reader that even the extremes of this lifestyle do not leave any lasting impression on the world. As if casual sex, drugs and violence are expected of LA and those who experience it do not matter. As Clay repeats numerous times in the book, "Disappear Here". This is shown on page 144 when Clay is told that 'Sylvan, from France, O.D'd on Friday' (references to people who overdose occurs numerous times in the book). When Clay says he doesn't know who Sylvan is Trent shrugs and changes the subject. It seems as though you could replace Sylvan with any other person and it wouldn't make a difference because drug abuse is "normal" in the wealthy LA lifestyle.
Less Than Zero is as slippery as the characters that haunt it. It draws us in only and precisely to the extent that we share its inability to care about anyone within its pages. We both identify with Clay's disgust and find ourselves disgusted by him in turn. But maybe his slow realisation is one of self-loathing? No, there is nothing noble, no sense of discovery, about Clay's repulsion. It is purely the product of an existential laziness; an accumulation of holographic detritus that results from not being bothered to dial out.
The interesting thing about Clay is that, as Holloway states, we 'identify' with him but also are 'disgusted by him in turn'. He is shown as someone returning from the outside but also being rooted to LA and this lifestyle. Throughout the entire novel Clay seems annoyed and judgemental toward his 'peers' but is also a contradiction of his own thoughts. He gradually moves towards what he dislikes by returning to LA. Clay's drug use increases, "I get into the car and open the glove compartment and cut a line, just to make it home" (page 30). Almost every page of the book has a reference to some sort of drug use whether it's cocaine, weed, valium, sppeed, desoxyn, meth, animal tranquilisers etc. Clay's drug use shows the reader that he is hardly better than the people he is judgemental of.
And while Clay slips away into who knows with those echoes playing like the last tracking glitches slowly tuning themselves out of his head, we know that both he and Los Angeles remain fundamentally the same.
The longer Clay stays in LA the futher he loses any morals that he once had. When Clay goes with Julian to the Saint Marquis he thinks, "I realize that the money doesn't matter. That all that does is that I want to see the worst" (page 160). Holloway is creating a link between Los Angeles and Clay and how they are the same. Clay will use Julian's misfortune to his advantage, to feel something or to 'see the worst', just as Los Angeles is filled with people and industries that use people the same way.
Because Less Than Zero is not about Los Angeles, or the 80s, or drugs, or hipsters. It is fundamentally true...Maybe that's Less Than Zero's redeeming feature. As the shard of ice, the frozen mirror that embeds itself inside us and pricks our conscience with our blank reflection at each of these moments, maybe it is a bud of hope, of change, of spring. But I can't help thinking, I hope it isn't.
Holloways final comments could be read in many ways but I think an important element of this article is the idea that Less Than Zero is not just about any topic of the 1980s, it is about the truth and a reflection of real life and the fact that these issues are actually happening. The final words of the novel, "Images so violent and malicious that they seemed to be my only point of reference for a long time afterwards. After I left." It suggests that the things that Clay saw and experienced stay with him for a long time after he leaves LA but the point is that Los Angeles will be unchanged after he's gone. The article helps us to understand these issues of the 1980s by highlighting how Los Angeles and those that live in it, particular the blank generation and the wealthy youth, make Los Angeles in the 1980s the cold place it is represented as by Bret Easton Ellis.