Sunday, August 31, 2008

Less than Zero

People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles. This is the first thing I hear when I come back to the city. Blair picks me up from LAX and mutters this under her breath as her car drives up on the ramp. She says, “People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles.” Though that sentence shouldn’t bother me, it stays in my mind for an uncomfortably long time. Nothing else seems to matter. Not the fact that I’m eighteen and it’s December and the ride on the plane had been rough and the couple from Santa Barbara, who were sitting across from me in first class, had gotten pretty drunk. Not the mud that spattered the legs of my jeans, which felt kind of cold and loose, earlier that day at an airport in New Hampshire. Not the stain on the arm of the wrinkled, damp shirt I wear, a shirt which had looked fresh and clean this morning. Not the tear on the neck of my grey argyle vest, which seems vaguely more eastern than before, especially next to Blair’s clean tight jeans and her pale-blue T-shirt. All of this seems irrelevant next to that one sentence. It seems easier to hear that people are afraid to merge rather than “I’m pretty sure Muriel is anorexic” or the singer on the radio crying out about magnetic waves. Nothing else sees to matter to me but those ten words. Not the warm winds, which seem to propel the car down the empty asphalt freeway, or the faded smell of marijuana which still faintly permeates Blair’s car. All it comes down to is I’m a boy coming home for a…

Would you read on?

I gulped this book down in one sitting three years ago on my first read. So much information on this first page. “People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles.” Feels sort of OCD, especially on the refrain and the contrast to other things that seem less important – a tough trip, people getting drunk, an anorexic friend. This dropping of woes so casually sucks me in, I want to understand why none of this bothers someone so young. The narrator is accustomed to privilege – he traveled first class – and the argyle vest smacks of upper-crusty preppiness. Yet there’s this poignancy here that tugs me to flip the page – why is Blair, the girl in clean tight jeans who smokes pot, picking him up and not his family?

Why is our protagonist so alone?

LESS THAN ZERO is a book I reread several times a year. No one does depression and ennui and depravity better than Bret Easton Ellis. Of all his novels, this, his debut, ranks supreme (the others tend to wallow overmuch in sex and drugs and violence). When I emerge at the other end, I feel wiped out and hollow; afterwards, I end up writing reams. I read this when I need to sink to deep lows in my own writing (along with select scenes from THE SOUND AND THE FURY, A MILLION LITTLE PIECES, and THE BELL JAR). My good friend Jimmy the Prince once paid me the highest compliment when he said I write better than BEE. That made me feel almost as good as getting BRIGHTER THAN BRIGHT published would make me feel.


THE WRITING… Still plugging away at the past tense rewrite. First 1/5th finished to my satisfaction, with another 1/5th entered into the computer but still needing another pass. It’s a long-winded process, requiring the mechanical and rather tedious tense conversions before moving on to the more creative ‘flow’ revisions. I tend to make hard edits for the first step, then enter into the computer, print out and make the ‘flow’ hard edits, then input, then printout and pass through 1 – umpteen times.

Rewriting from present to past tense makes a difference in my protagonists’ voices. Phoebe seems more rounded, more complex in past, while Ben has lost a bit of his itchy edge. That’s a supreme challenge in the rewrite – letting the reader feel his angst, his emotions verve all over the page. It’s meant changes in his word choice and dialogue patterns. It’s been… tough.

I think about PURE all the time. A new character, Liam Nolan, teases me with his secrets, his passions, his cabin in the dark wood of New Hampshire.

THE WEEKEND… superb. Good family time: lattes and playgrounds, Gravely Point to watch the jets roar from Reagan International over our heads as we loll beside the Potomac, Asian pear and raspberry gallette with vanilla ice cream (fruit from our garden and prepped by YT), a long stroll through Arlington National cemetery…

LISTENING TO… Viva La Vida by Coldplay. It lacks the darksome scratchiness of X & Y and A Rush of Blood to the Head. Brian Eno co-produced; this album’s got lush, upbeat strings, virtually no falsetto by Martin, and interesting lyrics that harken back to Keane’s Under the Iron Sea. Lost is my new anthem… Just because I’m losing/doesn’t mean I’m lost/doesn’t mean I’ll stop/Doesn’t mean I’m across…
Peace, Linda


  1. Don’t think this book would get me. Seems like too much and then and then but then and then. I know that is not what it said but that is what my mind got out of it.

    But I am mucho happy that you enjoy it and what a fab weekend for y'all!

  2. great writing progress!

    and it took me awhile to warm up to viva la vida. the sound is quite different. but i like it now!

  3. Hey Paige, yeah, Ellis evokes strong reactions from readers - you luv him or you don't. This is the only one of his I love, but mostly for the mood it evokes. I've learned a lot about writing from studying this book.

    Cindy Lou, Coldplay's latest also left me tepid at first but now I am grooving on the songs. And the writing is, well... you know how those revisions go... Happy weekend. Peace, Linda