The Dreamlike Nihilism of Bret Easton Ellis’ Less than Zero

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There’s something about Bret Easton Ellis. Whether it’s the alluring cool of a literary ‘Brat Pack’, the frisson implied by a 1980s enfant terrible or the fact that he published his first novel while still in college, aged 21 (the canny bastard), I find myself drawn to his presence both as a cultural persona and simply as a man of interesting writerly craft. I have been listening obsessively to his podcast for a few weeks now, engrossed in his attacks on the millennial ‘cult of likability’, on the pop cultural salivation over a tv ‘golden age’ and on the lack of context which accompanies the bandying around of quotes online (and the accompanying Twitterstorm). Part of it, I guess, is the perspective of a millennial (me) feeling they have something to learn from a Gen-Xer. Part of it is simply that Ellis does have his own particular brand of pop cultural and authorial genius. This article hopes to delve into this genius by looking at Ellis’ debut novel, Less than Zero, which I recently reread. 

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‘Fast Lane’ – Photo of Los Angeles by Neil Kremer

Turn up the TV. No one listening will suspect,
even your mother won’t detect it,
no your father won’t know.
They think that I’ve got no respect
but everything means less than zero

(Elvis Costello, ‘Less than Zero’).

See above the chorus from Elvis Costello’s song, ‘Less than Zero’, released in 1977 on the My Aim is True album. Costello has written that the song is about totalitarianism and fascism. What does it mean for Ellis to take this song as the title for his novel? – a novel which doesn’t exactly exude the anarchic spirit of 1970s punk, nor does it make any overt political critique. Nevertheless, Less than Zero is a political text on some level, in so far as it deals with the subject/self under late capitalism. Costello sings about something secret, an inner feeling that you can drown out with the static sound of television. What kind of secret is concealed here? The absolute flatness of existence, the alienating depression that creeps and inhabits your bones? I’ve got no respect. For what – the world? What do your parents matter in this life without boundaries, where morality thins to a flimsy image, where selfhood is nothing but the label on your trainers? This is a world of regression, degeneration, of falling from grace, redefining what the hell grace is. It’s the secret inner disgust for all that surrounds you. The sadness bursting in your brain, the endless lines of cocaine…

So goes the life of Clay, the protagonist from Bret Easton Ellis’ debut novel, Less than Zero. Published in 1985, it’s often lumped together with the likes of Tama Janowitz’s Slaves of New York and Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City as an exemplary work of the 1980s literary Brat Pack: writers who encapsulated the alienated experience of Generation X, often influenced by journalism and the movies as much as that elusive category of literature known as the Great American Novel. Less than Zero follows Clay’s return to his family home in Los Angeles after his first semester at college. Yes, it could be considered a Gen X Catcher in the Rye, where the apathetic perception of cultural phoniness plays out against a backdrop of sex, drugs and snuff films. However, while Salinger’s novel exposes the adult world as darkly sham and shallow, Ellis’ turns its attention to the synthetic lives of Clay and his fellow adolescents. Unlike a traditional bildungsroman, it lacks plot and narrative and that most perjured and celebrated of terms: humanist subjectivity. The question of character development in the novel is mostly a non-issue, as Clay ‘grows’ only in the sense of growing more detached from the world around him, more aware of his own indifference.

In a way, Clay is the perfect model of a disillusioned teenager, and Ellis nails the setting. Where better to lose all sense of self and reality than in LA, the city where dreams and visions are spun on film reel and everyone’s an actor, or at least the spawn of one. Clay and his friends live hollow lives, gorging themselves at the playgrounds of consumerism offered by the city: fancy bars and clubs, endless bottles of Perrier and expensive therapy. The novel more or less follows a repetitive structure, the narrative moving in a series of vignettes as Clay moves around, calls a friend from a payphone, drops by people’s houses, goes to a club, takes drugs, gets laid, hangs out by the pool, smokes a joint. Little else happens. It’s all in the accumulation.

I’m not saying this is an avant-garde novel, working through ‘accumulation and repetition’ in the way that Zadie Smith said of Tom McCarthy’s debut, Remainder (2005) in her famous NY Times essay, ‘Two Paths for the Novel’. Ellis is less interested in ripping apart the contemporary consumerist (and humanist) literary establishment than in using this establishment, its obsession with pulp (check out the noirish drug/snuff/pimp plot) and branding to unravel the vacuous experience of being young and glitteringly rich in the 1980s. Part of the novel’s point is questioning whether Clay ever really had a sense of selfhood or reality in the first place – whether such things exist at all. The wastefulness of contemporary culture trickles out of Ellis’ minimalist prose, which is just as effective as Joan Didion’s was in capturing the strange alienation of the mid-twentieth century. We are left longing for something more in the gaps between his sparse paragraphs, his dull and vacuous dialogue. This is all culture. This is all politics. Only, you wouldn’t know it from the novel itself.

No, the world of Less than Zero couldn’t be more insular. Its only connection to the world outside Los Angeles is through the brand names, the song lyrics and movie references which trail through the narrative as often as Clay’s car trails along the LA freeways. Yet if literature is about subjectivity, than the subjectivity explored in Less than Zero is irrevocably damaged, fractured and, if you’re a fan of Deleuze & Guattari, schizophrenic. It’s dispersed along the various signifiers that constitute culture. All of Clay’s perception is whittled down to tiny details: the catalogue of brand names, the repeated references to physical appearance (always tan, always blonde) and the drinks that people are cradling, the glamorous food pushed uselessly round a plate. It’s a highly cinematic narrative, which sometimes resembles a screenplay. Sections of prose often begin with brief indications of time and space, the opening words in bold to quickly situate the reader in a social setting, neglecting any poetic descriptions to set the scene in favour of blunt ‘headlines’: ‘It’s a Saturday night’; ‘At Kim’s new house’ ; ‘It’s Christmas morning’; My house lies on Mulholland’.

Perhaps, indeed, it’s not all that far (stylistically) from Made in Chelsea; except take away the tv show’s sparkling jouissance (its soaring indie pop and glorious Instagram-worthy visual filtering) and replace it with the endless merging of barren surfaces which make up Ellis’ novel. Replace the easily sweet pleasures of Made in Chelsea’s gin bars and contorted gossip and romance plots with sleazy LA mansions, snuff films, heroin and bodily dismemberment…While the lack of affect in Made in Chelsea contributes to a kind of narcotic addictiveness, in Ellis’ novel it creates a sheen of unsettling detachment.

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People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles.’ So goes the opening line of Less than Zero. It was only when I first picked up this book, about three years ago, that I realised the connection to Bloc Party’s ‘Song for Clay (Disappear Here)’. The song, an homage of sorts to Ellis’ novel, repeats several phrases, including ‘complete disdain’, ‘live the dream’ and ‘won’t save you’. It’s a song which builds slow and sparse and then suddenly thunders with a sharp guitar riff and pounding drums. It’s sort of the experience of reading Ellis’ novel: the headache, the endless migraine of details, the food and coke and insomniac joints in the early morning. People are afraid to emerge on freeways. What does it mean? Why does it repeat in the text like some fragment from a litany? I guess you could say it’s about the fear of opening yourself to someone else, of sharing problems, being personal and ‘genuine’. You know, take this interchange between Clay and his on/off girlfriend, Blair:

“Clay?” she whispers loudly.

I stop but don’t turn around. “Yeah?”

“Nothing.”

What the hell is genuine though? Even in the privacy of his narration, Clay struggles to admit any emotional depth. His focus is always on cool detail:

I’m sitting in the main room at Chasen’s with my parents and sisters and it’s late, nine-thirty or ten, on Christmas Eve. Instead of eating anything, I look down at my plate and move the fork across it, back and forth, and become totally fixated on the fork cutting a path between the peas. My father startles me by pouring some more champagne into my glass. My sisters look bored and tan and talk about anorexic friends and some Calvin Klein model and they look older than I remember them looking, even more so when they hold their glasses up by the stem and drink the champagne slowly; they tell me a couple of jokes that I don’t get and tell my father what they want for Christmas.

It’s the immediate present tense. It’s (in)tensely detailed. The sentences drag with repetition, long and slow, heavy and stoned. Clay replaces what would typically occur in such a scene with the mundane reality, pulling out the grotesque from the shiny film of appearance. Sure, to an outsider, Clay and his family would seem like any good looking LA clan out for a fancy meal. Yet it’s immediately clear that Clay feels very distant: not just from the image but from the family themselves. His fixation on cutting a path between his peas is a bit like the cars which won’t merge on the freeway: another symbol of separation, of dividing lines. The self in its shell, stunted. He splits the peas up into meaningless scattered matter. The novel is full of meaningless scattered matter, the endless push and pull of desire, ‘back and forth’. Anorexia is mentioned several times in the novel (Blair’s friend Muriel is hospitalised for it) and the consumption of food and drink is of course central to much of the action (settings; family lunches, dinners, expensive bars). Anorexia, you could argue, is the simultaneous consumption of culture (absorbing absolutely and indeed making literal the beauty of the image, thinness and surface) but also its rejection (literally refusing to consume, to accept the consuming impulse). It provides another symbol of the contradictory imperatives of postmodern culture.

So we have branding, so we have mental illness, disturbed appetites, boredom and beauty and the annual climax of consumerism: Christmas. So far so adolescent bildungsroman. Yet unlike Esther Greenwood in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (1963), Clay is quite content to sit around in a hullabaloo, watching the world swirl meaninglessly on by around him:  ‘No one talks about anything much and no one seems to mind, at least I don’t’. The fact that he has to qualify ‘no one’ to refer mainly to himself indicates how easily the micro reflects the macro, the self reflects the culture. Clay feels like his experience of boredom and alienation is pretty much endemic, therefore uninteresting. Ellis doesn’t exactly depict a special snowflake, a depressive uniquely at odds with his society. Sure, there are times where Clay feels particularly ill at ease with what goes on around him (he sometimes leaves the room when his friends’ sex games and suchlike get too unsavoury), but never makes an effort to stop what’s going on.

One way of looking at this aspect of Clay’s personality is by comparing him to Patrick Bateman, the serial-killer protagonist who narrates Ellis’ later novel, American Psycho. While Bateman is an active assailant, Clay is relatively passive. Stuff happens to him; he drifts through life. He never has much of an opinion, openly admits to not enjoying anything. Why does this make him interesting? Maybe he resonates the dullness of culture in such a way as to provide incisions that cut apart the surface sheen of everyday LA life…

Yet we cannot easily develop a ‘cool’ relation to Clay’s narration in the way that we can in American Psycho. The sheer volume of violence and repetition of brand names and daily routines that make up American Psycho’s narrative perhaps forces us to become desensitised to Bateman’s narrative, even to the point of distrusting its ‘veracity’. Is this an effect of Ellis’ intoxicating cataloguing or a defence mechanism to deal with the acts of extreme violence the narrator describes? Either way, there is a lacing of satire in American Psycho, a cynicism perhaps, which is far less, if at all present in Less than Zero. Indeed, amidst the bored, sparse descriptions of similar social encounters, there are moments of genuine poignancy which peek through the narrative. We get these mostly in the italicised ‘flashbacks’ where Clay relates stories about his childhood, about his holiday with Blair in Palm Springs; where he recalls these things with a flatness of affect, yet the sadness of these scenes sheds a kind of melancholy over the rest of the novel, which would otherwise mostly lack in emotion. About halfway through, Clay recalls a time when he thought he saw a child burning alive in a car crash, and how afterwards he started obsessively collecting newspaper clippings about violent accidents and crimes:

And I remember that at that time I started collecting all these newspaper clippings one about some twelve-year-old kid who accidentally shot his brother in Chino; another about a guy in Indio who nailed his kid to a wall, or a door, I can’t remember, and then shot him, point-blank in the face, and one about a fire at a home for the elderly that killed twenty and one about a housewife who while driving her children home from school flew off this eighty-foot embankment near San Diego, instantly killing herself and the three kids and one about a man who calmly and purposefully ran over his ex-wife somewhere near Reno, paralysing her below the neck. I collected a lot of clippings during that time because, I guess, there were a lot to be collected.

Clay’s involvement with the violent world of LA youth, then, has a root. It’s cultural, it’s endemic. Violence is rife in the media, spreading through the collective Gen X psyche. They grew up realising that they wouldn’t necessary be better off than their parents; that the economy did not owe them the same opportunities it did previous post-war generations. They grew up into a world of job insecurity, of decentred, fragmented wars. They grew up against the backdrop of the War on Drugs and the War on Terror, though perhaps millennials are more affected by the latter. In short, a globalised world of messy, liquid or late modernity (depending on whether you prefer your Bauman or your Giddens).

In the above passage, Ellis’ prose garners an almost incantatory sense of endless, meaningless violence being related through the media. All the place names he describes end in the same vowel sound (‘o’), creating an accumulating effect of repetition that desensitises us to the specificity of crime and instead forges a sense of its ubiquity. There is no emotional reaction which accompanies these stories; Clay merely describes them in a matter-of-fact tone. This emotional sparseness (characteristic of the entire novel) leaves an even more chilling sense of our culture’s paradoxical obsession with and indifference to violence. Ellis sums this up neatly with the tautological final sentence: ‘I collected a lot of clippings during that time because, I guess, there were a lot to be collected.’ No personal, subjective or cultural explanation is given for Clay’s interest in collecting the clippings; the habit becomes one of recursive, self-justifying meaninglessness. The explanation pans out onto Ellis’ novel as a whole, which also constitutes a kind of collection of clippings: vignettes from Clay’s brief stay back in LA, the cataloguing of brands, names, places; scenes of darkness and violence, the lack of a strong narrative thread to connect them.

Yet the kind of cultural and existential emptiness implied by such passages does not preclude the presence of some poignancy to Clay’s narrative. Sure, there’s a lot of violence, a lot of banality; but there are also moments which almost reach the level of personal reflection. We can compare this to American Psycho’s comparatively cold satire and lack of character ‘depth’ by looking at two very parallel scenes in each book. In these scenes, Clay and Bateman go to visit their mothers, who each ask them what they want for Christmas.

American Psycho: 

My mother and I are sitting in her private room at Sandstone, where she is now a permanent resident. Heavily sedated, she has her sunglasses on and keeps touching her hair and I keep looking at my hands, pretty sure that they’re shaking. She tries to smile when she asks what I want for Christmas. I’m not surprised at how much effort it takes to raise my head and look at her.

Less than Zero: 

My mother and I are sitting in a restaurant on Melrose, and she’s drinking white wine and still has her sunglasses on and she keeps touching her hair and I keep looking at my hands, pretty sure that they’re shaking. She tries to smile when she asks me what I want for Christmas. I’m surprised at how much effort it takes to raise my head up and look at her.

Aside from a few situational details (Bateman’s mother is in a residential home, Clay’s meets her son in a fancy LA restaurant), these passages are virtually identical. Except, perhaps, for one crucial line. In American Psycho, Bateman is not surprised by ‘how much effort it takes to raise my head and look at her [his mother]’, whereas in Less than Zero, Clay is ‘surprised’ by the effort. Thus while Bateman fits some kind of definition of psychopathy, utterly indifferent and lacking empathy for his mother, Clay is surprised at his own indifference, his struggle to display some kind of emotion or human connection. To merge on the familial freeway (to use a horrible phrase!). As readers, we can empathise with Clay far more than with Bateman, who locks us out with his construction of a cold and clinical world (see more about this here – an article I wrote a few years ago). Less than Zero is a novel more obviously filled with human pain, perhaps, than Ellis’ later novel, where the pain is certainly there, only more coded, buried inside violence, surface and image in an even more complex way.

Take, for example, the passages towards the end of the novel where Clay revisits his old school:

I used to pass the school often. Every time I drove my sisters to their school, I would always make sure to drive past and I would watch sight of small children getting onto yellow buses with black trim and teachers laughing to each other in the parking lot before classes. I don’t think that anyone else who went to the school drives by or gets out and looks around, since I’ve never seen anyone I remember. one day I saw a boy I had gone to the school with, maybe first grade, standing by the fence, alone, fingers gripping the steel wire and staring off into the distance and I told myself that the guy but live close by or something and that was why he was standing alone, like me.

We can imagine Clay glancing at this other boy, still trying to justify his presence there by means other than a shared moment of sentimentality. The only reason they have visited, Clay tries to say, is purely down to physical proximity. A meaningless walk. LA, then, is made up of intersections, connections and disconnections. Freeways that nobody merges on. You don’t just wander and end up somewhere significant, you drive places. The two could be friends, could’ve been friends, but Clay can only gaze at him from afar, as the boy too gazes on, seemingly at nothing. At distance. The core of the novel: absence. Always caught between meaning, between human connection, lost in the swamp of cultural signifiers that supersede any ‘deep’ emotion.

Clay’s attention to little fragments of visual memory here give us a sense of his warped nostalgia for childhood. His younger sisters are never described as having the innocence that Clay has lost: they steal his cocaine, idly watch porn and greedily snatch cheques from Daddy on Christmas Day. There’s the sweet yellow school bus, the laughing teachers, the familiarity of routine. Those rose-tinted things. You don’t get that kind of sentiment in American Psycho. It’s emotionally painful to read because this passage is sort of an interlude in the midst of the noir plot elements (Clay trying to get his money back from Julian, who is being brutally pimped; the rape of a pre-pubescent girl, foreshadowed by a horrible porno tape). It’s a burst of curious innocence amongst the ugly detritus of Gen X’s consumer lifestyle. Yet the classroom sweetness of yellow has become something altogether too bright, too painful for Clay to deal with. In an early scene in the novel, Clay describes the walls of a diner, Fatburger, as: ‘painted a very bright, almost painful yellow’. The colour of happy childhood has soured. It’s the colour of the Valium pills by his bedside. There’s the ‘grotesquely yellow’ moon that hangs ominously in the sky as Clay looks out over the business district, woozy from too many gin and tonics. As Clay returns to his former school, it soon becomes the yellowing of age, of moral decay:

I go to another bungalow and the door’s open and I walk in. The day’s homework is written on the blackboard and I read it carefully and then walk to the lockers but can’t find mine. I can’t remember which one it was. I go into the boy’s bathroom and squeeze a soap dispenser. I pick up a yellowed magazine in the auditorium and strike a few notes on a piano. I had played the piano, the same piano, at a Christmas recital in second grade and I strike a few more chords from the song I played and they ring out through the empty auditorium and echo. I panic for some reason and leave the room. Two boys are playing handball outside and leave the room. Two boys are playing handball outside. A game I forgot existed. I walk away from the school without looking back and get into my car and drive away.

Clay retraces his childhood steps, literally. He’s like a ghost, haunting the corridors of his youth, idly attempting to recreate the simple universe he once inhabited, squeezing the soap dispenser, reading the day’s homework from the blackboard. However he literally cannot locate/identify his former self, as he fails to find his old locker. Throughout the novel, we are given very little indication of Clay’s interests; he never even talks about what subject he studies out in New Hampshire. Yet here we have a snippet of something he once did: playing piano. There is something slightly uncanny about the older Clay standing at the same piano and striking a few notes, as if he were trying to summon up that younger self, the fragile doppelgänger. He even remembers the same chords. Funny how he remembers the music but not the game of handball. The fact that Clay panics is telling: he is literally allergic to his feelings, unable to deal with the sudden pain that comes from memory, from realising the loss brought on by time. His alienation is complete as he drives away, escaping his feelings as readily as all the times before, where he snorts coke to deal with a problematic or potentially emotional situation. The narrative also trails off, moving to another scene, another jump cut. There is nothing left to say, no coherence, no self-development.

This lack of narrative and self development or ‘growth’ is exemplified in Clay’s personal lack of futurity. Towards the novel’s end, Clay meets Blair for a drink and they skirt around the issue of their relationship. In a way, Blair sums up what we have come to learn of Clay: ‘You’re a beautiful boy, Clay, but that’s about it’. Yet we are left yearning for something more than beautiful surface. Sure, Clay as the narrator has given us many beautiful surfaces, but he has also exposed the rot beneath the surface, the absolute black nothing inside each person. Blair asks him up front: ‘“What do you care about? What makes you happy?”’ and his reply is explicitly telling: ‘“Nothing. Nothing makes me happy. I like nothing. […] I don’t want to care. If I care about things, it’ll just be worse, it’ll just be another thing to worry about. It’s less painful if I don’t care.”’ This is something we don’t really get in American Psycho. Clay actually admits his feelings, or lack of, and the way it’s expressed doesn’t come across as cold or psychopathic, but human and genuinely sad, a classic case of depression. We get this sort of emotional ‘revelation’ towards the end, after Ellis has carefully laid out the social context of Clay’s psychological and emotional numbness. Unable to think about the future, Clay seems to put off its existence, or anything that might change things as ‘another thing to worry about’. He cannot think positively, cannot be active in his likes or interests.

The question of futurity and passivity is also interesting in American Psycho, as an insight into what Bateman values in his killings. There’s a classically disturbing scene where seemingly at random Bateman fatally injures a young child at a zoo. His reflections follow thus:

Though I am satisfied at first by my actions, I’m suddenly jolted with a mournful despair at how useless, how extraordinarily painless, it is to take a child’s life. This thing before me, small and twisted and bloody, has no real history, no worthwhile past, nothing is really lost. It’s so much worse (and more pleasurable) taking the life of someone who has hit his or her prime, who has the beginnings of a full history, a spouse, a network of friends, a career, whose death will upset far more people whose capacity for grief is limitless than a child’s would, perhaps ruin many more lives than just the meaningless, puny death of this boy.

This view is obviously at odds with the overriding sentimentality and regret publicly voiced in the wake of a child’s death. We put great meaning on the futurity of the child, its association with a new life, with possibilities and an open future, a pure blank slate. Lee Edelman, in No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive, has written on how the child is held up as a glorified symbol of the future, of the onward march of heteronormative culture. We are ideologically forced to take the side of the child and the future because ‘the child remains the perpetual horizon of every acknowledged politics, the fantastic beneficiary of every political intervention.’ Edelman asks what it would mean not to be ‘fighting for the children’, and in a way, Ellis’ novel points towards this. Bateman doesn’t care about what the child stands for as a symbol of pure innocence and possibility to come, of what Edelman calls ‘reproductive futurism’. The queer, Edelman argues, is always pitted against this social conscience of reproductive futurism, as contrastingly selfish, narcissistic, antisocial and backward-looking – in short, the opposite of a collective drive towards development, progress and the future. Bateman, while hardly a queer hero by any means, interrupts the privileged ideology of futurity.

Indeed, he questions the value of the child because he lacks history. Without a record of decisions, mistakes, actions and memories, the child is reduced to pure matter, ‘small and twisted and bloody’ – he is animal, inhuman. This could obviously be taken as a moment of the novel’s token existentialism, the fact that, as Sartre put it, existence precedes essence: there is no inherent self, but only the values and meaning the human has created for herself through actions. It is also, however, a crucial component of the novel’s critique of various ideologies underpinning the yuppie world of consumerism which Bateman inhabits. Suddenly, a life can be described as worthless, ‘puny’. Bateman takes far greater pleasure in ravishing lives whose deaths entail a broader sweep of social impact. It’s as if he takes pleasure in destroying narratives, the networks of associations a person acquires through life. In doing so, he creates meaning: by destroying, Bateman has the pleasure of interrupting the consistency of social worlds, asserting his power. It’s the venture capitalist gone mad, staking his claim in all sorts of places, schemes and, well let’s face it, bodies.

So I guess I’d argue that part of Clay’s central pain is this disconnect with the future, his queer relationship to temporality. The sense that he’s drifting, which is pretty much now a ubiquitous social phenomenon among young adults, both from Gen X and millennials living in a post-recession world. When Clay’s friends ask each other what they’ve been up to, where they’ve been, the answers are always flat and vague: ‘“Not too much”’, ‘“I don’t know”’, ‘“Like hanging around”’, ‘“Shopping”’. Sometimes they simply repeat the question back to the questioner. One of the phrases that repeats a lot throughout the text is ‘Disappear Here’, which Clay reads off a roadside billboard. In a way, the phrase represents the limit point, the blind spot, the aporia into which meaning is deferred, the space of emotion where Clay cannot go. On a sunny Friday after Christmas, Clay hangs around the beach club, waiting for his friends: ‘I sit on a bench and wait for them, staring out at the expanse of sand that meets the water, where the land ends. Disappear here.’ It’s as if the phrase is dragged up in avoidance of interior reflection; its repetition supplements the kind of psychological detail that would appear in a classic realist or bildungsroman novel. The self has dissolved into the sign: the world of surfaces, of signs referring only to signs described by Baudrillard in Simulacra and Simulations, but also literally the billboard sign, the symbol of capitalism’s flattening of the self. Not unlike the billboard advertising Eckleberg’s eyes in The Great Gatsby. Disappear here: you pour your own meaning into the sign; sign after sign constitutes self. What is it that the eyes see?

And indeed there’s something uncanny about this. Clay’s repetition of disappear here throughout the novel only adds to its temporal sense of an unending present, with the run-on sentences and disjointed dialogue creating the impression of not only a stunted self, but also a stunted world. The more you repeat something, the more it becomes meaningless. The characters’ lives stop and start: plots about drugs and sex climax brutally then fizzle to nothing. As the narrative draws to an end, it doesn’t move towards closure, but leaves the reader with an empty feeling of being lost in the world of LA. Ellis really amps up the gothic elements which have been woven in and out of the text so far. Take, for example, Clay’s description of the Ellis Costello poster at the beginning:

It’s the promotional poster for an old Elvis Costello record. Elvis looks past me, with this wry, ironic smile on his lips, staring out the window. The word “Trust” hovering over his head, and his sunglasses, one lens red, the other blue, pushed down past the ridge of his nose so that you can see his eyes, which are slightly off centre. The eyes don’t look at me, though. They only look at whoever’s standing by the window[…].

The Costello poster substitutes for the spooky portrait which hangs traditionally in a gothic heroine’s bedroom. Presumably, Clay once had an interest in this poster, bought it for a reason – but now it seems eerie. The homely has become unhomely. Clay refers to the hypothetical subject ‘standing by the window’, the ghost who meets the gaze. Clay admits to being too exhausted to even be that subject, to even be the observed – ‘I’m too tired to get up and stand by the window’ – perhaps this is an early hint at his drive (conscious or otherwise) towards disappearing altogether. The elements of gothic which colour some of Clay’s narration give an expressionist tinge to his descriptions, externalising some of the inner fear and turmoil, the hollow sense of fear and emptiness at returning to a place that is no longer home, even when Clay gets his tan and starts to fit in. At a party in Malibu later on in the novel, Clay observes:

There are mostly young boys in the house and they seem to be in every room and they all look the same: thin, tan bodies, short blond hair, blank look in the blue eyes, same empty toneless voices, and then I start to wonder if I look exactly like them.

Is fitting in the same as disappearing? The boys appear strangely inhuman, little more than mannequins; uncannily voiced with the same dull monotone. It’s Clay’s sudden identification and self-realisation that startles here. Looking at the boys is like looking in the mirror and seeing many horrible doppelgängers surround you. There’s an opportunity for him to freak out about it, but instead he ‘tr[ies] to forget about it and get[s] a drink’. In short, he dissolves even deeper into the thick glaze of surfaces, spreads himself thinner as an image. When Clay first observes his bedroom poster, he’s feverish and ill, like the heroine in a gothic novel. We may not have the moors of Yorkshire, a la Wuthering Heights, but we do have the desert, the Hollywood hills and the accompanying coyotes.

As the novel starts to close, we get some spooky vignettes. Clay relates how his sister’s kitten disappears, leaving behind only ‘pieces of matted fur and dried blood’. He talks about the coyotes which sometimes come down from the hills:

On some nights when the moon’s full and the sky’s clear, I look outside and I can see shapes moving through the streets, through the canyons. I used to mistake them for large, misshaped dogs. It was only later I realised they were coyotes. On some nights, late, I’ve been driving across Mulholland and have had to swerve and stop suddenly and in the glare of the headlights I’ve seen coyotes running slowly through the fog with red rags in their mouths and it’s only when I come home that I realise that the red rag is a cat. It’s something one must live with if you live in the hills.

That final sentence almost seems un-Claylike in its resonating wisdom. It suggests the tone of a social commentator, reflecting on the environmental conditions of LA and lending a metaphorical weight to his words. The brutally devouring coyotes thrive on instinct; the youths of LA pursue physical gratification out of sheer boredom. How easily for the ‘red rag’ to become a slaughtered domestic pet. There is a surrealist vibe to this transformation of objects. In American Psycho, the transformation of the child into something ‘twisted and bloody’ is more classic horror, whereas there is a perhaps darker, eerier atmosphere to Less than Zero. The sense of emptiness, the canyons at night and the fog. Clay’s description has a slow-motion feel to it, drawing the reader into his stoned-out world. These frequent killings, we are reminded, keep happening against the backdrop of Clay’s friends, endlessly circling the freeways, making calls, popping corks, snorting coke.

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Sunset over LA — photo by Neon Tommy

Clay himself, as I have already suggested, is a kind of ghost. He recalls the previous Christmas in Palm Springs, sweating in bed and struggling to sleep. The vaporous heat seems to cloy his mind, cloy the narrative. Think of the many references to the palms in Less than Zero: their shadows, their fragmented remains after storms and car crashes, their wildly shaking branches. It’s creepy and atmospheric in the way the swaying pines and Douglas Firs are in Twin Peaks. There’s the omnipresence of MTV, its serial carnival of flashing images, the humming numbness of Valium. Clay describing the ‘strange sounds and lights next door’, ‘visions of driving through town and feeling the hot winds on [his] shoulder and watching the heat rise up out of the desert’. In all the emphasis on Ellis’ interest in sex, drugs and violence, it’s easy to forget the importance of atmosphere. You can tell that the novel is influenced by film, self-consciously soundtracking itself (Squeeze, INXS, U2, the Psychedelic Furs), laying out scenes, drawing us in with its snippets of visual detail. The heat is stifling and everyone is sleepless, wired or stoned. The novel slowly moves towards Clay’s return to New Hampshire, like a fade to black at the end of a film: the final sections each start with some temporal marker in relation to his actual leaving: ‘The last week’, ‘Before I leave’, ‘Blair calls me the night before I leave’, ‘When I left’. In leaving, Clay seems to dissolve. His narrative closes with reference to a song called ‘Los Angeles’. A kind of montage of memories, of visual images stolen from another cultural source. Clay feeds on these images after leaving. The temporality is important. Has he broken into some other dimension, or is this a reference to how memory burns right through you (even memories that aren’t your own, memories from visual media – images and film)? My impression (and I have not yet read the sequel, Imperial Bedrooms), is that Clay is not moving into a new, open future; necessarily he still defines everything in relation to the past, to the dream world of LA, its perpetual, glittering, trashy present:

There was a song I heard when I was in Los Angeles by a local group. The song was called ‘Los Angeles’ and the words and images were so harsh and bitter that the song would reverberate in my mind for days. The images, I later found out, were personal and no one I knew shared them. The images I had were of people being driven mad by living in the city. Images of parents who were so hungry and unfulfilled that they ate their own children. Images of people, teenagers my own age, looking up from the asphalt and being blinded by the sun. These images stayed with me even after I left the city. Images so violent and malicious that they seemed to be my only point of reference for a long time afterwards. After I left.

After I left. After I left. The insistence on the posterior. The sense of grotesque sublimity, the reference point of LA contained in these almost unspeakable images of ‘people being driven mad by living in the city’. They ate their own children. Isn’t this the ultimate violation of linear temporality: literally consuming symbols of the future, one’s own legacy? Hypercapitalism, perhaps, creates its own kind of queerness.

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The Many Moons of Jupiter

I was just five years old when my Dad first took me to see the stars. In the museum downtown they have this observatory room with a great glass ceiling displaying the night sky. A kind of visibility you can’t get in real life; you can’t help staring and staring for hours and hours, just staring at that bright jewellery case of stars. The blackness in the background, that velvet sheet they use, seems deeper alongside the purplish blueish hues which streak behind the twinkling chips of silver. I would sit on the floor of the observatory and stare up at those stars until my neck hurt. There was a makeshift telescope too, which showed up tiny coloured planets. You could check everything you saw against The Book of Celestial Details which was lying open on the glass table. It gave me an immense satisfaction: checking up on those stars, learning the constellations.

It was always Dad that took me to the observatory. Saturday afternoons I was his responsibility, and the easiest thing – the thing I begged for – was to visit the museum. We would go out to lunch afterwards, me leading the way down the familiar streets with the bustling weekend crowd, people weaving in and out of each other like threads from a harlequin fabric, trailing smiles and shopping bags. We always went to the same cafe, where they sold chocolate milkshakes and beans on toast for a fiver.

Dad is a landscape gardener. He digs up piles of mud and lays down square rolls of soft grass and puts in fancy plants that people order from catalogues. He does things with precision: cutting up his food carefully, watching everything I do with his observant eye, following this kind of persistent rhythm. He hated if I got food around my mouth, if I made a mess of the salt shakers or the scraps of food I left on my plate. In the cafe he talked to me about school and how I was getting on and what I liked and if my friends ever got into trouble. One thing we never talked about was Mum. Dad didn’t know how to talk about Mum.

My favourite planet is Jupiter. The biggest planet in our solar system, made of flaming greys and yellows and oranges, patterned with swirling lines which sweep around its diameter. After the moon and Venus, Jupiter’s the brightest planet in the night sky. Of course, I’ve never seen it in real life, only the simulated museum version – the version that flashes up onscreen and floats around in orbit. I always dream of that beautiful hologram, but all those pixels get mixed in with the Saturday city buzz and the taste of milkshakes. I don’t know what I’d do if I stumbled upon it one day, walking in some clear crisp countryside and seeing it up in the real night sky. I think it’d be pretty scary, not very real at all. I always wonder about that giant spot, the storm that’s raged for centuries on its surface. I’ve zoomed in right close to that Giant Red Spot like I was looking into the eye of a god. It’s like my way of praying, staring into that spot, feeling very small as I read about its greatness.

In the cafe, Dad asks me about the future.

“What do you want to do when you grow up?” he says. He asks me this just about every week, like he’s forgotten how I answered before. I have a list of things which I reel off for him: astronaut, astronomer, artist, builder.

“Artist? Builder?” he sounds confused. He doesn’t understand what I mean by that. I mean, I want to draw planets, to make planets come to life out of pencil and paper. I tell him I want to build things which will last like the planets, that will exist on the earth as the earth exists in the solar system. I can’t put it quite into words; it’s a feeling I have. Eternity. The rings, faint and reddish pale, that surround some of the planets – it’s sort of like that – the feeling drifts out to you, faint and pale. I wonder what it’s like to glide along one of those rings, feeling the chaos of gravity, shafts of light shooting right through you. Like playing Mario Kart, whizzing down a rainbow highway and picking up gold stars.

The problem is, I don’t think I’ll ever be an astronaut or an astronomer; I’m no good at maths.

Sometimes, I don’t think I’ll ever grow up at all, because Mum and Dad won’t let me.

“He doesn’t like toys anymore!” Mum shrieks at Dad when he buys me a train set for my birthday, or a Gamecube for Christmas. “He’s too old, for God’s sake!” She stares at me with her eyes on fire, wanting me to say something, to agree with her. Sometimes she throws plates or tips the dinner all over the floor, or literally shoves my father out the door. They fight over everything.

What’s confusing is that I can’t tell sometimes whether they’re making up or being mean; whether they hate each other or love each other. There is a small red wine stain on the carpet by the sofa, and I stare at it when they are arguing in the living room in front of me; I stare at it like it’s the Giant Red Spot of Jupiter. I want to dig my nails into the carpet and peel it off like a scab. They hurl swear words at each other, and Dad always shrinks into silence. It’s Mum who creates disorder, swirling her self around the room, her voice getting louder and louder. I sometimes have nightmares about this: the way she goes from shouting to crying, her red face blurring into something indistinct and terrible. I close my eyes and think of comets, shooting endlessly over the night sky.

She says I’m getting too old for museums.

“Help him with his homework instead,” she nags to Dad as we leave on Saturday mornings to get the bus into town. Her plea is lost to our backs as we step out of the house. Sometimes, late at night, I hear her come into my room and tuck me in. She stays there for a while, hanging over me and breathing softly – breathing warm tufts of fire. She touches my face and I pretend to be asleep as she slowly starts to cry, still stroking my cheek. All I want to do is shout: Mum, stop! but I can’t. I lie there, still as a shop floor dummy.

She listens to me sleeping, but she doesn’t listen to me talk about the things I like. She doesn’t listen to me when I talk about the sun and the solar system, the many moons of Jupiter. She just switches off, shutting you out with this kind of supernatural force.

How amazing it would be, to escape among the stars! I watch the science channels and see the space ships and the shuttles hurtle away from earth. They always interview the astronauts after they’ve landed: How do you cope with not seeing your family for so long? Don’t you get lonely? What can you eat out there? but they never ask about the things want to know:

Were you good at maths at school?
Do you need to do algebra to be an astronaut?
What is the square root of 395,691,324?
What do Saturn’s rings and Jupiter’s Red Eye look like from Space?

I always turn off the tv when I see their smug faces, when they take off the space helmets like they think they’re in a movie. Plain old human faces are as boring as my parents’ arguing.

Nowadays, they fight about anything at all. I don’t understand it; they’re like kids – and even Dad shouts now. From the top of the stairs I watch them through the gaps in the banister, wishing I could go down there and make them stop, make them shut up as fast as a hurricane tears up a city.

“Don’t forget we love you son,” Dad always says afterwards, “no matter how Daddy and Mummy feel about each other.”

But he never answers when I ask if they are getting a Divorce. It’s like I’ve whispered a secret I’m supposed to keep quiet, the one special code word that holds us back from chaos.

Now that I’m older, we don’t go to museums anymore; we get lunch in the pub. Dad loves fish and chips and Fosters lager. He also loves the slots.

Saturday afternoons he stands in front of the puggies while I watch the bartenders pouring pints and count how many times they spill things. Sometimes I go over and watch him play: I like to see the flashing lights, the colourful fruit symbols glow as the slots fall into place. Simple, persistent, like the bubbles in a glass of lemonade. Dad buys the drinks and tells me to go sit down. It’s a weird thing, watching him at the slot machine; like he’s in control of everything, like he knows when the slots will align the way he wants them to. Often, he pounds on the plastic shell of the machine, curses. We walk home in the purple dusk, past the city shutting up, and he tells me about anything – a song on the radio, the size of his shoes, the hat his mother used to wear when he was a kid – anything but how much money he’s lost.

The other day, I found Jupiter in a textbook at school. I guess I haven’t really been thinking about planets and stars and space for awhile, and now it stood out from the glossy pages like a face smiling from the darkness. A familiar face.

This girl sitting next to me, Layla, leant over my shoulder.

“What’s that you’re looking at?” she asked in that bright, tinkly voice of hers.

“Jupiter,” I said. I ran my hand over the smooth page where the clouds patterned themselves across the surface, like the wisps and eddies of smoke leftover from a fire. In my head, I rehearsed the names of all the elements that drift on through those clouds: carbon, vapour, neon, sulphur. 

“Is that your favourite planet?” Layla whispered, a lock of her hair spilling over my cheeks. I nodded.

“It’s the biggest planet there is. It’s so big it could swallow up all the other planets.”

“And one day you’ll live there like a king?” she smiled. She was teasing me.

“Nobody could ever live there, it’s too cold.” I closed the textbook.

After a while, I turned to look at Layla, thinking she would be facing the front again, watching the teacher scribbling sums on the board. But she was still looking at me. In her eyes I saw the glass darkness of another kind of space, where stars come forward like shoals of beautiful silver fish rising to the surface of the ocean. I glanced back at my paper and wrote down a perfect equation.

It was winter and after class she cornered me in the snowy playground and for fun I kissed her, just like that. Her lips were cold and wet with snowflakes and everything felt very still around us, like we were caught in a hullabaloo. It was all just luck really – that was the exciting part. I told her it’s a beautiful world and she laughed, like I had just said something funny and random from a movie. Like we’d made up the world ourselves and now we were powerful.

When I got home, all Dad said was: she’s left us. He looked around the room with this blank expression on his face, like the air itself was different, like something in the particles around him had changed. I poured a glass of milk and thought about it for awhile, but then I remembered the stars and the cool night sky that was only a few hours away, waiting with equations and gorgeous auroras. And yeah, I guess I felt okay.

(This short story was written for the GUCW Summer Short Story Competition 2015, under the theme of ‘Chaos’, and is republished from http://gucreativewriting.wordpress.com).

Reciting for Burns Night

 

In the room of primary colours and paper
I stood up, small, to read my piece;
shaking like a frond of heather
caught on a hillside breeze, unable
to stop the bite of a lip, the sweat
spreading my skin with its heat.

The vowels didn’t come out right;
I failed to master the harsher diction,
the bouncing consonants, flying fricatives
and tongue rolled r’s luxurious.
Words were tangled in my mouth
like a lump of food I couldn’t eat.

I felt a hundred eyes feast on me.
From the depths of the gym hall,
they watched hungrily
for my stops and splutters, my hesitancy.
For I was different, not like the others.

My English accent rubbished the nuance,
missed the beat of every lilting iamb.
Still, I stumbled on,
falling off the lines like Tam himself,
drunken on his horse, ready to cross
that brig over black water,
taking a final leap from stanza to stanza.

Finished at last, I fiddled with my tartan headband,
lifted my head to slow applause,
felt at once a strange inclusion.

Later, in the playground, I stared out
at the Carrick hills, their mist of violet rain,
and for the first time
I knew a perfect moment,
the one that burns then goes forever,
quotes a song then comes again.

Road Trip

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Picture the scene. You pass sea after sea of pines, their tall green points misted with a fine web of vapour, a greyness that stretches over, concealing the tips and the distance, and you are not sure whether it is fog or woodsmoke, the wisps of early morning or perhaps the smoulders of a landfill. Probably you’re somewhere deep in the moorlands, glens and peat bogs of the Highlands; or maybe not that far yet, maybe just the Trossachs. If you open the car window a tad, you can almost smell the midges, their damp, thirsty breath in the air. This is air so clean that its purity counts as a flavour, claimed by many who have flogged the native whisky or bottled water. You would leave the window open, indulge yourself, but there is a sharp cold breeze that tickles the fine hairs on your neck, waters your eyes. It is always windy here; or else deathly still, like a valley out of time. Mountains rise up around you, growing closer and grander as the car turns another corner. They seem monstrous, towering over your small car, and you feel like William Wordsworth (the boy version, out of The Prelude) plodding along in his stolen boat, gazing fearfully up at the mountain peak beyond the lake, the peak that gazes back like an animal: ‘a huge Cliff / As if with voluntary power instinct / Upreared its head’. You can’t help but stare at the streams which splash down from each hillside like silver belts, which glimmer in the pale light which makes it through the misted sky. They catch your eye, pull you in myriad directions. You know that rain is imminent; its scent is as clear as the water that runs on the burn alongside you.

There is always birdsong, even in the evening. You can hear the cacophony of many different species as the car rumbles on in the silent space between two tracks passing on the stereo. You and your friend spent a whole day curating the playlist for this trip. Curating. She said that word, jokingly; but even so, it makes you feel special. This isn’t just any trip. It isn’t like you get out like this all the time, free from the bustle and smoke of the city, the people lingering outside pubs, the strangers drifting through in street-lamp darkness.

You spent a childhood in the back of your mother’s car; the smell of her cigarettes always blowing straight back into your face, rolling down the window to snatch breathfuls of that sharp, fresh air – an escape. You scrambled alongside rivers which rolled on over gleaming boulders; you scrabbled together heaps of stones and logs and built dams, pools and waterways. You fell over, bruised your knees, skelfed your fingers on the pine branches. You watched the water for hours, while your mother smoked and your big brother showed off, scaling rock after rock, cliff after clifftop. You ate cheese and pickle sandwiches made soggy by the damp that seeps in everywhere, through the aluminium and glass, the plastic glovebox and the silver foil. Midges clung to your neck; constantly you felt their hot, sticky itch. Sometimes the car smelt of engine oil. The food made your cheeks flush afterwards, as you washed your lunch down with bottles of flat lemonade that had lingered on the backseat for days.

There was an innocence to those holidays which literally makes you ache to think of. You would do anything to be that small again, crouched by a river, dipping your toes into the freezing water while your brother splashed you from afar, shouting declarations of war. His always taunting words, his grand arrogance. The way your mother scrunched up the sandwich foil into tiny, crumpled balls, collected them in her purse. The day you found them all, still there, when you were digging for lunch money.

Fog coming in thick and deep from a distance. You saw it roll over the mountains like God’s own shroud. It was comforting, feeling the moisture prick in the air, seeing the landscape slowly disappear. When you retreated back into the car, packed up the camping gear, fought with your brother over the radio. He always wanted the sport – Five Live – and you wanted the songs, the music. The stereo pumped, crackling and loud, audible even through the walls of the car, drifting in and out of signal, static…

Her sadness, leaning against the bonnet, sipping from a flask of coffee, staring out into the distance. The tears that you couldn’t see – not from behind – but you always knew they were there.

And why are you going? Why set forth again into the world of fog, of deep enveloping glens and silver rivers? The soft moss and the heather, the greenness that haunts your sleep. Was there some mystery you thought you could solve? She said it would be cathartic, your friend, her name irrelevant. Anyway, it’s Eilidh. When you met her, you didn’t understand the silent letters.

The playlist comes from an iPod, the classic one with the spinning wheel and the white casing. You were going to sell it, after you lost your job and faced the end of things, but something pulled you back. Gone were the Nike trainers instead, and now you are here in the car with your best Sports Directs. What sounds pass through your head? There are many conversations you always wanted to have with Eilidh. You wanted to ask about her purple hair, the bright lilac colour of heather. What did it mean? You wanted to ask whether she was still seeing that guy she met at uni, the one who studied law and played cello for an orchestra; who spoke French in a way that defied the limits of his Edinburgh accent. But you had known her five years, and still you could not speak.

The songs were lovely, dark and deep. Miles were consumed by the roar and pulse of the engine, roadsides slipping away as easily as signs fading into hill fog. You were long gone from the city, its tall grey buildings a mere memory, the pillow of mist you sank into at night. Remember the times you shaved an inch from your life? The bus turning the corner, sharp; the tiny sliver of razor on the white bathroom china. The dark colours flowering out in water, as you watched your ex-girlfriend wash her paintbrushes in the sink. Shades of crimson, violet, blue and scarlet. You were slipping through all these images, the shock and the bruising; the little jolt to your heart as the car passed over a pothole. You were driving, then she was. It’s difficult to remember.

There’s a lot of Mogwai on this playlist. When you first hear ‘Heard About You Last Night’ it’s a bit like waking up for the first time, the blinking beat and slow entry of bass bringing into colour a brave new world of beauty and fear. So many people, you suppose, have died out on those mountains. Battles fought and lost and won. Rain that fell for so long, it seemed the whole landscape might be swallowed up in shadowy puddles. Then there’s the anxiety of ‘Hungry Face’, those infuriating repetitions which build up to the twinkling innocence of the xylophone against those quietly thundering drums. It gets in your head; you can’t help but think of ghost ships disappearing over the Clyde, a set of yellow eyes opening and closing, suspended in the dark, clouded air like the smile of a Cheshire cat. The sound of soft, steady bleeping. Eilidh says something funny about the sheep. They have an absurd look about them out here, she says, but then so do pretty much all sheep. They glance up at you, but instantly their expression fades into blasé. They have only two emotions: indifference and fear, the fear coming out when they jolt their necks back and scarper.

Soon you fall into the melancholy of ‘Cody’, so slow and serene you might as well be stoned, sinking away from your thoughts like being pulled out into a vast, shimmering ocean. The bass echoes slow through the car, its thick walls. You press your face against the glass, leaving steam marks which fog up the world outside, the tall green mountains now coated with your breath. Reality blurs with the material of sleep. And would you stop me? If I tried to stop you? You imagine this is what heroin feels like, plunging into a slow, majestic ecstasy, the kind that drags eons of time through your veins; and from all those hours draws out this kind of awesome mournfulness even as your whole body tingles with euphoria. You could sleep forever in blissful, evil dreams. When I drive alone at nights, I see the streetlights as fairgrounds / And I tried a hundred times to see the road signs as Day-Glo. So slow, the car turning corners. An elegy to a lost raver, stumbling through the darkness of some urban labyrinth, the upturned bins, old condoms and leaking glowsticks spilling out the wasted remainders of another good night, another goodbye to childhood. Would you care at all? Eilidh rests her hand on your leg.

“Stop crying,” she says. It’s a statement, not an instruction. You are still staring out the window.

Your mother used to listen to The Waterboys, maybe even Primal Scream in her more rebellious phase. She liked to dance around the living room doing the dusting to ‘Fisherman’s Blues’, all the dust motes swirling up in a maelstrom of childish untidiness and neglected housekeeping. Her voice would crack and she would laugh at herself, breathless, collapsing onto the sofa. Make me a cup of tea, eh boys?

You were at a house party once, at uni – not that long ago really – and this girl was playing a song that stirred something familiar in your memory. You knew that voice, its growl, the twists of electric guitars.

“What is this?” you asked, the joint smouldering between your fingers.

“Oh, it’s The Waterboys actually.” You resented her showiness, of course, but this was interesting. “I know, so lame right? I like it though. They put Yeats to music. You know the poet, W. B. Yeats? ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’. It’s a lovely poem.” She was drinking port, of all things – you remember that too.

You inherited, perhaps, a gloomier tradition of the nation’s music. There would be no Proclaimers on this playlist.

Arab Strap, the disco beats, spat poetry and everyday apathy.  The sort of post-hardcore or drum-soaked indie that felt like having the rotten parts of your brain stripped out as you lay on a boat, slowly being drenched in dreich Scottish rain. You were always a fan of Frightened Rabbit, ever since you saw them at a festival once, danced yourself into a frenzied ceilidh of mud and tangled feet, even as the songs sung of sadness and bleakness and heartbreak. The endless drone, the refrain: it takes more than fucking someone to keep yourself warm. Teenage campouts in Loch Lomond, worried you would all die of the cold, of the rain and the midges. Drunk out your minds, desperate and scared of the river which burst its banks sometimes even in summer. The expectations of nothing but the prospect of falling into the same abyss as everyone else. Fag butts drifting by the edge of the river, the scorched remainders of a bonfire. Listening to it again now, well, you can’t help but think of how this seems to be coming true somehow. The same abyss. Even as the drums collapse over the screaming words, there’s a waterfall out there somewhere, maybe the one you floated in once, upside down on weird pills with the cold so deep in your bones that you didn’t feel the punches of your best friend who hated you because you kissed — no. That was another time. You are driving forward now, you are at the wheel.

Maybe there is something that you know that I don’t. 

“We should stop soon, you look like you need a rest.” The world outside is almost darkness; it is twilight spinning webs of navy and sapphire gold around the edges of trees and mountains. Trees with their shimmering leaves. Clusters of stars emerge from the velvet blackness. You wouldn’t stop for anything.

Next: There Will Be Fireworks, ‘From ’84’. The simplicity, the sorrow which isn’t yours; for how could you feel so much nostalgia for a year, a thought, that came before your time? The not-belonging is what makes you feel lonelier, the minor chord, the rustle of Eilidh in her woollen tights turning the page of a cheap magazine. Just a kid, in his room / No-one hears him howling at the moon. But you have lost touch with friends too, you have felt the strange pain that comes from seeing people you love change, grow apart. You cannot hit the high notes; you cannot sing along. So we’ll put it down to fate or bad luck. The plain, bare strumming pattern haunts you, even after the song finishes and something new comes on. You’re thinking of another lyric – sad song in a minor key – and wondering how you ever heard of this band in the first place. Why is it you love them so? Whether they’re actually any good, or just another expression of bleak Scottish winters, the lack of sunlight, the endless, down-pouring rain…but isn’t that beautiful too?

Eilidh has, perhaps, more interesting taste. The next song is hers: Cocteau Twins of course. She mutters on about how their best album was Milk and Kisses, though everyone thinks it’s Heaven or Las Vegas. Elizabeth Fraser’s dreamy soprano takes you straight through the night and into the morning; you could both listen for hours and hours, not realising that the songs were changing or repeating, just drifting into the dissonant guitars and distorted lyrics, the hypnotic drum machine loops, better than sex. You would like to float, suspended in a disco somewhere, each song playing out the pattern of a strange, intense kiss. You suppose these are all the 1990s discos your mother would’ve went to (if she hadn’t had you). What does it matter now? The sky before you bursts through in pastel smudges, which break up the dark silhouettes of the Trossachs mountains. In the distance, through the windscreen, sparkles of sunlight play upon a pale blue pool, the first loch you have seen since yesterday. There is something about the shape of the peaks, the space of the valley. You have been here before. 

The Twilight Sad come on the car stereo. There’s no mistaking the intensity of that voice, the thick accent and its distinctive rolls and howls. Each song with its own atmosphere, a haunted quality reminiscent of The Cure.

“Let’s stop here.”

The loch is so close now. You can feel something inside you, a tension breaking, the rapid increase of the beat from the heart that burns in your chest. Eilidh is humming along, though her voice crackles and breaks as easily as the gravel on the road below your tyres. When you climb out the car, cold air sucks your breath away as you slam the door. Suddenly, the signal floods back to your phone. Three missed calls from your brother, and you know what that means. Another night, another row of bottles slowly emptying, slowly being broken in a dive bar of old men, the black hole at the bottom of every street in every Scottish city. Once he was an eagle, soaring down those hillsides, ready to leap out and scale the lake with legs made strong by football, with arms that could reach out for anything they wanted. He couldn’t save her, any more than you could, weak and pathetic, wrapped up in all that suppressed panic. Hidden in your room, even when it happened. It rolls through you, the realisation. This loch, like a terrible mirror. This beautiful loch, the very one you all picnicked by, the year your brother finished high school, the year of your first kiss, the year she —

‘There’s a Girl in the Corner’ on the stereo, and Eilidh is speaking, but her words are muffled through the window, the pounding drums and resounding lyrics. She’s not coming back / And she’s not coming back again. Standing here, the cold wind at your neck, another summer nearly ending and here you are – you finally feel it.

(all embedded lyrics attributed to respective artists).

Tropical

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Tropical

You used to worry about the palms: there was something wrong,
you said,
if the palms weren’t sighing.

You relished the soft peel of the wind through those palms,
the ones by the hotel garden.
We’ve been here every year
since Dad died.

The white beach sand is a mouthful of moonlight.
We sit up late drinking crushed fruit
and you say strange things, as you always do—
have you ever eaten a mango in the bath?
You would live your life like that,
all the time you said, eating mangoes in the bath.

All that pulp and mess, all that flesh.
Dad died in the spring, when blossoms
of soft pink cherry gathered on my lawn.
The baby lolled around in it like April snow
and we watched her giggle, ribbon
flying out from her hair. He would’ve loved that,
seeing her there.

The cancer took the green out his eyes,
ate the skin of his face.
Even when they pumped him full of fat and creamy vitamins,
the bones kept poking, pointing.
His face was a mask of something;
I couldn’t let the baby near it.

I imagine you prefer it here
to back home. You like the ooze
of the days, the way the maids make the beds;
the emerald green of the parakeet,
early mornings where the tide sparkles. Still,
you saw signs in everything.

Dad used to come visit during monsoon season.
He wrote reams of prose,
lapping up slushfuls of rain. He wrote
in the small hours, when he wasn’t working.

We lost the notes.
We’ve only the stuff on his business trips,
lost code on his laptop.
We haven’t a sense
of what to him was sharp or clear, what it was
that brought him over.
Just the whispering palms, the sleepy tense—
one day I’ll take the baby here.

Easter Dreams

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How old am I here? I’m somewhere in England, awake early as usual from sleeping on the floor, stripping away the remnants of another dream about chocolate. A dream about chocolate? Oh wait, it’s Easter. The very word Easter sounds confectionary; like ‘viscount’ – a name recalling the little minty biscuit I used to have in my packed lunches – Easter connotes the crack of a thick chocolate shell, a glut of pastel colours, the consuming of cuteness. Maybe I’m seven. My mum is away in Brighton for the day and comes back with two beanie babies: a fluffy yellow chick and a pale blue bunny. Maybe I’m seventeen, walking out to Kildoon monument just to see the lambs in the fields and hope for a happier existence. You know, that’s Easter too.

cherry blossoms at Kelvingrove
cherry blossoms at Kelvingrove

Those who condemn reckless consumerism bewail the fact that Easter has forgotten its true message: the sacrifice of Christ, the promise of rebirth. It is a solemn hope that perhaps may only be touched by those with faith; it bears the risk of becoming kitsch in the Easter Story worksheets we used to cut out at school with those zigzag scissors. You know, ‘assemble the story of Jesus and the tomb’, where pupils tended more to desecrate Christ with bunny ears more than celebrating his existence. I remember as a child going to church on Easter Sunday and falling into the soft ambience of everyone’s prayer and the familiar stories about The Stone that Rolled and Jesus’s last day and all the other things that have slipped from my brain. I remember being given a Creme Egg by the priest on the way out and thinking he had handed me something precious and holy – but later eating it anyway. Did I feel guilty, biting into this symbol of the blood and sweat and sacrifice of Christ? The problem is, consumerism is good at assuaging such guilt with feelings of pleasure. Everyone’s doing it; everybody’s merry. And after the church ceremony I remember late afternoons watching a certain family member fall asleep after a generous glass of sherry…

Is it wrong that we value booze and chocolate eggs more than the faith and the story? Perhaps…but there is a certain gratitude in the exchange of happiness, the sweet serotonin glow of too much chocolate and a long Sunday afternoon spent with one’s family.

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How did we used to spend our Easter Sundays? Painting boiled eggs and rolling them down the hill at Miller Park. Fighting with my brother over who got to lick the bowl of melted chocolate, leftover from making crispy cakes. A walk to another park, somewhere in Burgess Hill or Milton Keynes, watching our dog do long jumps over a river filled with old trollies and sofas. Munching fizzy belts and trying to do loop-the-loops on the swing, never feeling sick but still exhilarated (I wouldn’t mind doing all that now, but I’d probably vomit rainbows). These were the good old, carefree Easters.

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When you hit fifteen, suddenly the Easter holidays are all about studying (or they are in theory). The endless, six am days spent copying diagrams for Biology or churning out practice essays for Modern Studies, or falling asleep in the sun with a Computing textbook over my head. Cooking some complex casserole in the evening and doing the washing up afterwards while my brother messes about with his playlist of ‘doing dishes’ music (or maybe it was the other way round; I always had the better iPod). The Easter of first year where I had a weekend down in Suffolk for my Grandpa’s 90th birthday, and got so excited about staying in the countryside that I went for a walk every morning at 7am, just to glimpse the pretty English fields and flowers. Oh, and the postman I accidentally saw peeing in the river – but that’s another story. The Easter afternoon where I laboured over a terrible wee screenplay for Advanced Higher English; or the one I spent laid up watching crappy old films because I had the house to myself for a week and it seemed a waste to bother with ceremony. That was, incidentally, a very good week: I watched three series of Mad Men back to back and walked up a hill and got my hair dyed and wrote about twenty practice essays for my uni exams. There is great productivity to be had in solitude.

Productivity in action...
Productivity in action…

The things I love most about Easter are basically the things I love about spring. As all the songs and hymns might sing, there is a simple joy to seeing the first daffodils and blossoms and lambs in the fields. Seeing everything through the spectrum of pastel colours, wearing lavender jumpers and polishing my nails mint green. At uni, I was too stingy to buy Easter flowers, so I would walk all the way along the Kelvin (halfway to Milngavie) just to find loose daffodils to purloin from their ungraceful state, where they were scattered along the path by wayward children.

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Back at school, Easter signalled the season of study leave; of long lunchtimes sitting on the hill gossiping while people were screaming at their football behind us. Bunnies are also very cool. I think I believed in the Easter Bunny more than I believed in Santa Clause. Maybe it’s the animal factor; there’s something creepy and alluring about anything anthropomorphic, reminding us of the fragility of our status as humans. The Easter Bunny, moreover, gets less visual representation than Santa in popular culture, leaving the onus on the child’s imagination to conjure what he (or maybe she; or should Easter Bunnies even have a gender?) looks like. One upon a time, my Easter Bunny was soft and probably adorned with buttons and ribbon, juggling a multitude of eggs with his paws and vanishing without trace at dawn (unlike Santa who takes his fill from a mince pie and carrot). Now, I can’t help but think of the horrifying rabbit, Frank, from Donnie Darko. The one that appears either as a schizophrenic vision or some weird spirit guide from the near-possible-present-future. Maybe that’s growing up; realising the terror in your favourite childhood memories. Pulling the latent darkness out of cultural myths and fairy tales. Still, there’s a pleasure in that too.

So yeah, today I won’t be doing much for Easter. I can hear the church bells ring for the morning service, and there are a few birds tentatively weaving their melody into the stiff Sunday silence. As far as I know, there aren’t any lambs in Glasgow, and that lovely lecturer who used to praise heavily the wonders of ‘curved chocolate’ is sadly retired. Today I will have to drag myself out of bed at some point to fall back into the world of studying, swapping festive joy for Johnson’s Rasselas, and juvenile pleasures for The Bell Jar. The only chocolate I have in the flat might be Tesco’s 30p Value, but secretly I’ll be celebrating Easter, if only in nostalgia.

My Mum gets extra parent points for always making us Easter baskets
My Mum gets extra parent points for always making us Easter baskets

Cumbrae: A Fragment

Source: openroadscotland.com
Source: openroadscotland.com

I have this memory of being nestled in the cleft of a rock on the isle of Cumbrae, my bike propped up beside me as I sit watching the sea and eating fizzy laces (they were cola-flavoured, or maybe strawberry). I’m on the rugged side of the island, where yellow eyes and strange animal faces are painted onto cliff walls and sometimes if you stare hard enough at the ocean you can see seals. On the other side of the island, you have the little town of Millport, with all the white and pastel-coloured houses looking out onto the harbour. Everything is still, soft, crisp – the texture of sorbet – so that the only sounds you can hear are the steady lap of the waves sloshing against rocks, and the occasional cry of a wandering cormorant. The island to me is like the shyest of kisses: the kind that taste of rain and raise your spirits. Yes, I’m eleven years old and I feel invincible.

You see, I’m on a bike ride, travelling twelve miles right round the island. I’m wearing jeans with the bottoms rolled up and spattered with black oil from the chain; I’m gripping the handlebars so tight I can feel the blood burn and tingle in the tips of my fingers. I’m pedalling even faster than my sporty brother and my father and I know I’m going somewhere because the landscape changes the faster I go. Life rushes by like a montage peeling back luscious scenery. I pass other families on their bikes but they don’t see me; I’m caught on the drift of the wind that they’re battling and I’m going faster than they could imagine. The sun is on my back and I’m flushed and my hair tangles around me, caught in the straps of my rucksack. I want to get there first; I want to be the first one to reach the secret beach.

You can stand there in your bare feet and I remember the cockle-shell rocks, greenish with sea leeches and weeds. Nearer the sea the sand is velvety thick and oozes up between your toes. My child’s eye spots the starfish and sea anemones, and I wish I had a jar to take some home. I’m teasing my brother about something and he throws a stone into the ocean, watching it bounce five times over the waves. Sullenly I watch it. Then in my head I tell everyone I’m a mermaid and paddle in the shallows, looking out for the shoals of fish that swim by in miniature shimmers. We’d wander back up to the rocks and pick our seat; and that’s where I’m sitting, now, in this moment, looking out to the mainland without worrying about a thing. I’m just admiring the craggy shapes of the distant cliffs and the way the cloud looks like billows of cigarette smoke coating the landscape.

The worries would come later, in the dreamy space that opens before sleep. I’m trying to get at the dregs of this memory. The exact details of colour and light, the way that the April air felt and the shapes of circling time. You go right round the island and come back to the start. You paint the strokes of the green hilltops and the silver belt of the road. It’s nearing summer so the day drifts endlessly through night; it doesn’t get dark properly here, not really. Not until the depths of winter. A shower of rain that’s a spray of glitter. Maybe there’s a lighthouse shooting beams of white across the bay. Ships passing ghostlike in the night and you wouldn’t even know. I remember the cold blasts of wind you get on the ferry, with the horn of other boats and the marvelled awe of other children looking out towards the harbour. I call up all these things and wish for more.

Source: openroadscotland.com
Source: openroadscotland.com

Maybe all that remains of this memory are the sea-smoothed shards collected in a jar that sits on the sill of some window in my mind. You can remove the lid and pick the best colours, turn them over separately in your palm, but you can’t make them real again. Time has softened the sharpness of their edges, added layers of distortion to their rays of shifting colour. Hold one up to the light and you will see the bubbles that mark each year that’s passed, arranged in no order other than chaos.

Somewhere, there is the shimmering bleep of slot machines from the cheap casino room of a ferry. A man asking for tickets and a car stuck on the gangway. The taste of peanut butter sarnies gritted with sand, the crispness of silver foil in my hand. If I close my eyes, dizzy and thirsty, I am back there, my body nauseous with the pull of the sea, the boat rocking to and fro with the turn of the words that mutter on my tongue. My hair whips over my face and it smells of salt and seaweed and I can feel the island growing ever so closer to me as the ocean moves towards the setting sun. It’s not that I’m eleven again – nothing is the same twice over – but it’s the feeling of a memory that you can hold up to the light, watch it distorted, watch it glimmering bright.