I just finished listening to Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero in audio form, and my take on the novel is a little more positive than it was last week when I first mentioned it. The book still leaves me discomforted, and even though I know that’s what it’s supposed to do, I’m nonetheless not totally on board for that move. (That sounded awkward, I know.) I’m supposed to be turned off by the vapid lifestyles of the young L.A. scene of the 1980s, I’m supposed to be repulsed at the sheer disregard of life, I’m supposed to be angered by the callous actions of almost everyone in the book. And I get it: I’m supposed to be turned off/repulsed/angered, on and on and on. Ellis makes his point, you can’t deny him that. But it’s the overkill (at times) that gets me, as well as an almost complete lack of humor in the text. There’s irony, sure, but there’s really not much in the way of “lightness” that seeps through. I’m thinking, in contrast, of another novel that generates a lot of disgust and repulsion: Sabbath’s Theater. Mickey Sabbath is one of the least attractive characters in contemporary American literature, but what makes that novel so powerful is Roth’s humor. Sabbath is not only despicable, but he’s tragically comic as well. There are times that we can sympathize with Sabbath because of the humor, which is what makes that book so successful at what it does. If you can get a reader to sympathize with someone as nasty as Mickey Sabbath, that’s saying something. I don’t find much sympathy in Clay, the protagonist in Less Than Zero. There are times when his humanity leaks through, but even then those moments are fleeting. Except toward the end, when we get to feel more and more sorry for his predicament. I guess that’s why the last part of the novel resonated more with me than the first part (although ironically, it’s in the last third of the book that the most repulsive and bizarre things occur).
Another reason I’m not totally enamored with Less Than Zero is because of my sense of the author, who, rightly or wrongly, I link to his subject matter. For all of the critical and ironic distance that Ellis seemingly establishes between himself and the lives he depicts in the novel, I can’t help but think that a good part of this is actually him. That’s not a fair assumption, I know, and perhaps that attests to his skills as a writer that I would think that. Maybe I’ll give him that.
Perhaps what interests me more about this book is the listening experience itself, the fact that I was engaged with this novel, despite my sometimes trouble with the subject matter. I really enjoyed listening to the novel, and I found myself looking forward to it. The same went with the previous book I had listened to, Bright Lights, Big City, and the one before that, Snow Falling on Cedars. Indeed, I’m intrigued by this form of narrative acquisition, the aural form. How might this way of experiencing narrative differ from, or even resemble, other means of taking in narrative? How does the reading experience, where the story is acquired visually through text, change when you receive it through listening? How does that format change the way you interpret a text, the way you conceive of a story, the way you piece together a storyworld? Is an audio book an adaptation of the text, a kind of performance, not dissimilar to an adaptation on the stage or the screen? This is something I’ve recently been discussing with my friend Chris Gonzalez, and he’s intrigued by this process as well. In fact, we’ve even thought about writing a paper on this topic. So who knows, this interest, and the questions it generates, just might lead to another scholarly project. Great…just what I need: another project.