There was a brief period of my life where I was obsessed with Chicago. I thought all the best music came out of Chicago (maybe I could name three bands). It had a specific molten quality in my mind, like everyone there was never quite present but always dissolving at some point into the walls or sidewalks. There were basement clubs and people drank lager lager lager, a nod to cool Britannia, or else they swilled actual Liquor. I actually had no idea what went on in Chicago. It was possible everyone smoked in dingy bars and went about listening to jazz, feeling miserable. Did it rain much? All I had to go by was a Fall Out Boy lyric: ‘I’ve got a sunset in my veins / And I need to take a pill to make this town feel okay’. I was thirteen and still didn’t know what Seven Minutes in Heaven meant, let alone Sophomore; the spidery long titles made me feel Poetic. I was convinced Pete Wentz was the Bard of his generation. I still hadn’t seen any live footage of him goofing around onstage. I mostly thought of him in dark corners, sweeping his fringe aside, scribbling lyrics. Too much got spilled on the internet. I couldn’t believe when I found out he only played bass.
Wasn’t there a gimmick with one of their albums, where you got special tarot cards if you pre-ordered?
We used to stand on tables, chairs and cabinets back then, to get our selfies. Back then, they were prosaically named Profile Pics. You had to aim for a good mirror. The visible flash, you thought, was just a sunbeam addition to the general ~aesthetic~. You’d comment on each other’s photos, pc4pc. Like, Hello! It was good to get your legs in. Stripy knee socks or gauzy ripped tights. I wanted to wear a watch round my ankle like the lady with the white pumps at the party in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. I put rubber bands round my hair, dying it semi-permanent blue or pink, trying to get ‘coon tails. I backcombed with a religious zeal, scrunching as I walked to maintain the buoyancy. Hairspray wafted around us; a flammable aura of considerable permanence. There was an imperative to asymmetry, to looking a little like a lamppost. We all wanted to be skinny, we wanted the biggest hair.
I grew addicted to the bright, popcorn guitar licks. The sugary vocals. They spoke to someone that wasn’t me; there was this constant apostrophe of the lost girl, the lost boy, the key to a locked diary. I felt like a year would pass and I’d slip into these narratives, grow tall, smelling the gas of those cigarette lighters my friend used to rig to make the flames a foot high.
I don’t blame you for being you / But you can’t blame me for any name.
There was this corny idea of the rock show, everyone bobbing their heads in time. It was basically prom without the couples and expensive dresses. We all dropped weight for it, we all found a sweat in the rhythm and heat. When I got sick, I watched Kerrang! TV for hours, probably still playing my Game Boy or something. They’d show FOB videos more or less on repeat. I waited up for my crush on MSN, gossiped with friends; maybe there was something in that cyan-coloured comic sans font he used. We drank Jolt Cola cut half and half with Glen’s Vodka. An electric shandy, six times your daily recommended caffeine. Running down the beach. Emoticon wars. Back then in the middle of nowhere, a text was like a radar signal sent from the deep.
2018, I try gifting my cousin’s baby daughter with a Hello Kitty hair clip. She doesn’t get it.
I wrote all sorts of pop punk lyrics all over my Sports Direct trainers. I like to think I turned up to gym class with these crappy white trainers, each one adorned with My shadow’s the only one that walks beside me. My teacher looked me up and down with disdain. I imagined she listened to Meatloaf on the car to work each day, wolfing tuna sandwiches. She said my trainers were too ‘flat’. She dragged me out the library, where I was often skiving; she made me play badminton for hours. I liked to reach and aim, slam something delicate and thin to the ground. That was kinda how it felt being in the world, trying to fly out all light and free, then some dude with a bat just whacking you back down, crushed and moth-like. Playing badminton felt vengeful. There were spiders in the showers of the changing rooms afterwards. There were kids in first year who would throw golf balls over a fence to hit us. If they smashed a window, we’d get the blame. Some of us stole fags round the back of the gym block, looking out at the Carrick Hills.
Walking the crossroads was my favourite escape. I liked the bit that unfurled into greenery, sheep, rolling hills. Sometimes I’d be climbing Kildoon, sitting by the falls. That was learning to breathe again. When a lorry came, I felt the rush pass through me like a terrible swarm of ghosts. I was rattling.
There were diet pills you crushed with pro plus, sipped with diet coke or JD.
In The Virgin Suicides, Lux writes the name of her crush on her underwear. This is a false start, by any means. In writing we only possess a shard of some other self. It’s only ever temporary. The shape of ribs, a smile, the cut of your bangs or hipbones.
Imagine writing a name now. Keats Keats Keats. Each iteration a tiny seed.
Sometimes I liked to just lie on the concrete.
In town, loitering is our ontological condition. We exist for no other reason. We browse but never buy things. Some of us sneak lip glosses, necklaces, bars of chocolate beneath our sleeves. I had a friend that could even steal booze and pills. I’ve saved up my daily lunch money just to get here on Saturdays. In Burger King, we kill time and snort vitamins for kicks. A year before the haze of legal highs set in. We are so young.
All our talk is just procrastination. I watch you try on neon sports jackets in TKMaxx and it’s the best best thing.
In Chicago, they had a scene. Sufjan sang about it on some movie they showed, eventually, on Sunday TV. Little Miss Sunshine. I’m not saying I identified with the nihilist son, but…I wished sometimes it was acceptable not to talk. The less I ate, the less I spoke. That was liberating, I suppose. I was in love with the place, in my mind / In my mind.
There was the Easter holidays we played football down the Low Green every day, the last time in that year I remember being truly happy. All sorts of drama happened, breakups and makeups, and we watched it roll out from a distance. Smoked occasional menthols, hid under climbing frames, spun each other round in the night till we were dizzy. I never once grew tired of waiting at train stations. I had my iPod, my violet-lined eyes, my dreams.
We walked along the river sometimes, deep in the foliage, and joked about places you could get away with having sex in. We counted the bottles of Buckfast, watched out for insects. Nothing seemed alive in the undergrowth.
At school, there were never any practice rooms free so we sat on the floors of corridors, playing our shitty guitars. ‘Californication’, over and over, following some half-arsed tablature. The solo to Robbie Williams’ ‘Angels’ (how joyous I’d be if I knew ten years on a friend would make a vapourwave remix). I had no time for it–I was never coordinated enough for those licks and chords–but having the guitar in front of you was a kind of protection. You could talk all nonsense and pretend to passing teachers that you were doing work. As if they understood the mysteries of music. Regularly, the tech teacher would ask me, whenever I came to school with my trombone, if I was carrying a machete, an AK47. I nourished a kind of inward, low-level fury. Sometimes, they’d drop pennies at our feet for a laugh, as though we were busking. I wondered about all that copper and metal: where it went, eventually.
We wrote a song that ripped off the chords to ‘Brain Stew’ and my amp blew up someone’s boyfriend’s laptop. On weekends, there were sleepovers and we’d stay up till the wee hours, breaking apart massive bars of Cadbury’s Caramel while chatting to folk on MSN, Chatroulette, the laugh track of Friends or Father Ted in the background. There were only two buses home a day, and the rhythm of my Saturdays and Sundays was governed by that. I liked arriving home, sleepily, forgetting I once had a routine. It was wholesome to lie on your bed, listening to Mogwai, slowly sinking.
Occasionally, we went swimming.
There’s a MySpace still out there with all these photos, histories stripped of context. Many of them are in sepia, owing to some new effect I’d discovered on my phone. It was a slide-up phone, designed for playing music out loud. It was like I wanted every memory to be always-already history, taking those sepia pictures. You can’t tell our age, except from the expressions, the thinness of our wrists. It wasn’t that we were innocent as such, it was just that we didn’t care at all. It was written on our faces, this not caring. Soon to be fun, let’s see.
Every lyric iteration of html inevitably fades. What minimalist temple I had designed, stamped with diamond symbols and Crystal Castles mp3s, has since crumbled. It was probably a rip-off anyway. Wanting to look like Uffie, wanting to be cryptic, aphoristic. Coveting emotions as metaphoric fruit. All those bulletins, midnight reveries stolen from time on the family PC, are deleted. The endless, self-questioning quizzes. We learned more about ourselves, about each other that way than we ever did in a PSE lesson at school. We trod a dangerous line, exposing our confessionals. Last time you cried, last time you kissed someone, who do you trust no matter what? Sometimes it bounced back in unfortunate ways.
This has been said / So many times that I’m not sure if it matters.
Kanye calls his kid Chicago. He has that song ‘Homecoming’, with the cute piano riff, a monochrome world. I get a kick out of every library book that was published in Chicago. I have no idea what it means. The pages are dull and yellow, the text swims in a sepia sea. I can’t listen to those albums again without feeling some predictive force, a face from the tarot. It’s like every fast food ad has a burger that looks identical to the last, as though every diner uses the same stock photo database. All our desires grow uniform, in the envy of hair and boys and all consumables. Circling back. Do you think about me now and then?
In Ayr, there are twin roundabouts bordering the station. I always got lost, trying to drive through both of them smoothly. I always came back round, caught in the westward trajectories of the next, the lights from Morrisons carpark smouldering into a school night sunset. Mostly I miss the booze and the dunes, the clandestine sense of just being there, cutting about in front of the ocean. Cutting out time as a fact of the water, the light; sirens cloying the air behind us.
ONE need not be a chamber to be haunted,
One need not be a house;
The brain has corridors surpassing
It seems silly to write about one’s love for a house. After all, houses are inanimate things; they can’t feel or think, can’t love you back. It’s a bit materialistic, a bit capitalist perhaps, to love one’s property. Still, houses aren’t just houses. We are brought up in this world to experience ourselves through things. Not only is this the sociological and psychological consequence of living in a world where we define ourselves through the symbolic order of possessions, but it is also the personal, lived experience of assigning meaning to that which surrounds us, the structures and spaces in which we spill our being. What’s more, the very act of dwelling is charged with the problem of desire. We constantly pursue ownership and control over that which we occupy; constantly assigning possession, marking territory. As Karl Marx said, ‘the felt need for a thing is the most obvious, irrefutable proof that the thing is part of my essence, that its being is for me and that its property is the property, the particular quality peculiar to my essence’: we are, through and through, the things that we own, desire, lose. Maybe it is our seemingly irrevocable need for things that dooms us to a certain emptiness, a loss that prevents the fulfilment of the self.
The old Lacanian equation of desire as relying on lack. Maybe we love things more when we lose them. We start to think if we ever really had them in the first place; we question the possibility of possession altogether. In the void we clasp at meaning, like a baby blindly seeking nourishment.
When I was just three years old, my parents, my brother and I left a cramped cottage in leafy, small-town Hertfordshire for a three-bedroom, two-garden semi-detached house in Ayrshire, Scotland. Land of agriculture, Burns, Buckfast and teenage pregnancy. My first day at school, a couple years later, and I did not understand why everyone kept saying aye, still thinking they were making bizarre expressions of the first person pronoun, rather than simply saying yes. Ken was another strange one. Scotland was foreign and I was even more foreign. I spent most of my childhood trying to grapple with my Englishness, working out who the hell I was and what’s more, who did I want to be? Toning things down to avoid being bullied…but really, deep down, did I want to be different from anyone else? Slowly, the older I got, I felt the bright Scots words trickle into my vocabulary: hanek, gads, glaikit, wee, Ned, jakey. When my cousins visited, I found myself wishing I had the purity of that sweet, Hampshire accent, instead of my own brand of weird hybridity. When friends at school made jokes about Scotland’s superiority, their hatred of the English, the need for their country’s freedom, I felt that wavering sense of otherness, an instinctive need to protect my ‘origins’. As a child, England meant family; it meant going home and being ‘free’. Days out in the summer holidays to the sun-sparkly cities of Brighton and London; the suburban beauty of Milton Keynes in autumn. I liked how I was the only one in my primary school class who wasn’t born in Irvine hospital. When you’re a kid, you kind of like to be special.
Maybe it’s terribly ironic that I would grow up to become a pretty staunch supporter of Scottish independence; someone who works in a whisky bar and identifies more with the social milieu of Kevin Bridges’ standup than that of Austen novels, who cut their teeth drinking Frosty Jacks instead of White Lightning, who fell in love with a wasted seaside town instead of London, and spent inordinate amounts of time listening to endearingly miserable Scottish folk bands over whatever was ‘hip’ in Hoxton. When did the change happen? At what point did I stop mourning my lost English childhood, with its (probably false) promise of sunny summers, middle-class comforts and extra bank holidays? It was long before I started to associate much of England with the heartlands of UKIP and Brexit, long before I realised that Scotland did things differently (socially and politically) to the rest of Britain, and that this was a very good thing.
I guess part of it was realising I didn’t really belong in England either. I couldn’t play the cool and demure English rose, not all the way. For one, with the lack of sun up north, my naturally blonde hair faded, and I’ve now settled on a Celtic shade of copper red. Back then family members would point out queer things I said, like when I relayed stories about folk ‘battering’ each other at school, or how it was ‘pishin’’ it down with rain, or my periodic and derisive expressions of ‘haneck’ whenever anything unfortunate happened. My brother and I would amp up our ‘Scottish’ banter whenever we were down south, cracking jokes and putting on our rough Ayrshire accents the same way any Brit does abroad. I started to realise that I sort of loved the strangeness of Scotland: the Ceilidh dancing we had to learn in P.E, the pervasive aura of folktales, of haggis and kelpies; bottles of Irn Bru that I was forbidden from drinking as a kid, the stern broad Scots of the man on the tape who announced the beginning of every French Listening paper. I wasn’t sure how well I fit in, but I liked it anyway. It started to feel like home.
In my hometown of Maybole, there is a strict policing of difference. The smoke plume of neds at every bus stop will be the adjudicators of any risqué fashion you choose to indulge in. If you wore black and a slick of thick eyeliner, for example, they were sure to enquire whether you ‘shagged deed folk’; if you wore a miniskirt you were a ‘wee hoore’; if you were a guy who had slightly long hair you were a ‘poof’; skinny jeans made you – perhaps the ultimate insult – ‘an emo’. In our school, there was the Mosher’s Corner, the Farmer’s Corner, the Smoker’s Corner, to name just a handful of territories whose policing often bordered on the militant. In first year, I witnessed a friend being shoved headfirst into a spiky hedge because he tried to ‘invade’ the Farmer’s Corner. At the Mosher’s Corner, which took a couple of years to gain full acceptance, you were pelted with stones by bored and angry first years, or scolded by irate P.E. teachers, who had to pass through the area and always liked to pull you up on inane details of uniform. Don’t tell me I can’t wear my stripy knee socks to school when that guy’s cutting about in a tracksuit.
In the midst of this battlefield of identities, is it any wonder I loved my house? The one place where I could be whatever I wanted? Whenever we had to write our address down at school, I relished scribbling down the house name, Daisybank, with all its pastoral resonance. Compared to all the places I have lived in Glasgow (room such and such, flat 1, 2, 3 etc), having a house name is a proper luxury. It was on the road to Turnberry Golf Course; ten minutes walk from the Ranch caravan park. I had a pal who owned a dairy farm nearby, and the woman a few doors down bred collie dogs. For some reason, we always seemed to live beside ministers. In a way, Maybole is the epitome of rural quaintness: it is famous mostly for its former glory as a cobbler’s paradise, for being the meeting place of Rabbie Burns’ parents, for having a relatively crap golf course, a sixteenth-century castle and once upon a time a couple of lemonade factories. You’re ten minutes drive from the sea and surrounded by vibrant green hills studded with pretty villages. The air is fresh and the water tastes great. There’s even a train line.
Still, it’s difficult to appreciate all that stuff as a teenager. I started to dream of Glasgow as this mythical solution to all my problems: a place of cosmopolitanism, where people read poetry, played in bands, and didn’t care what anyone thought of them.
It was only when I moved away from home, got a flat in the city, that I realised the extent of my weird sense of belonging to this silly wee town where technically I had no roots.
The last time I properly cried was the day I said goodbye to Daisybank and Maybole for the last time. I paced round the empty rooms, hearing the silent creak of the floorboards, memories passing by me as fleetingly as moths, leaving me with this overwhelming sense of grief. It was like saying goodbye to the entirety of childhood, the last eighteen years of my life, all at once. Unlike most people, we didn’t move around much and this was our home all that time, through thick and thin, good times and bad. I realised how protected I had felt by the presence of the house, its strong sandstone walls, the elaborate latticework of memories that had wove themselves into every structure, every smell and texture and object.
I sat on the train back to Glasgow, staring at the late summer scenery pass behind me, feeling like I had severed a limb.
I don’t know what it is that made me feel that way. Maybe it was the garden: the pond we made with water reeds and frogspawn pinched from the lake at Culzean (the pond in which at my sixteenth birthday party, my friend lost his Buckfast bottle), the faint scent of the lilac tree and its treasure trove of bluebells in May, the memories of bonfire nights, Easter egg hunts, performing original plays; the August weekend when a friend and I climbed the rowan tree and picked every red, gleaming berry – each one to our childish eyes as precious as a ruby. Maybe it was the peace sign my Mum’s ex-boyfriend mowed into the front lawn. The lingering whiff of failed baking experiments that still haunted the kitchen, popcorn burnt to the bottom of the pan, bowls dissolved in liquid heat, vague explosions in the oven (the door of which had to be constantly propped open by a chair). The mice that lived in the piano, the washing machine that shook so violently we had to put a brick in it.
The bike rides up into the Carrick hills; the hysterical impersonations of bleating sheep, chasing chickens and pheasants off the roads. Feeding lambs in spring, horse-riding and jumping off hay bales. Long walks with friends, where we deconstructed the universe as the sun bled its final light behind the Kildoon monument.
The summer we painted the wall of the den at the back of the garden, purple and orange, and I got black floor paint, thick as molasses, on my brother’s leg. He was about six and it didn’t come off for weeks. The concrete steps I fell down once and grazed my side so badly I could hardly move. The cities we drew with chalk on the patio, until the rain came the next day to wash them away again. The nights of mild teenage trauma, when I crawled into the space beneath my bed to calm myself down. All the people that came and went, who knocked on the back door or else rang the bell at the front. Afternoons alone in the corner of my room, hunched over chord sheets and trying to play Paramore songs on guitar. Parties with gin served in secondhand teacups, with contraband vodka smuggled in Coke bottles, with the perpetual background flicker of my frozen iTunes library, which everyone cracked a shot at.
Halloween parties with ersatz cobwebs strung from every surface, bowls of punch and fistfuls of body glitter; dubstep thundering from the upstairs study.
The secret room next door to the bathroom which we never discovered, because you had to knock the wall through. Sometimes, when I was lying in the bath, I liked to think about what was on the other side. What wild and weird stories I could fathom from that dark place of possibility? You could see the skylight in the garden and I thought maybe someone had died in there and the previous owners had decided to seal it in.
Previous owners. It’s strange, when you settle so deeply into a house, you think you are the only person to have ever lived there. I remember being about six years old and finding a little plastic doll under the gas fire once and thinking how disturbing it was to think of another young girl playing on the floor of the living room, as I was. The mere thought of her presence could only be a ghost to me, as transient and fantastical as the people on tv.
There was the man next-door who thought we were dirty hippies, but still gifted us with various vegetables grown in his greenhouse, and murmured a gruff hello when we were in the garden.
The long grass meadows out front across the road, where once we made snow angels in winter and walked the dog, where now there’s an estate of houses.
The home videos from when we first moved in: plastic toys scattering the grubby carpet, school friends garbed in 90s fashion (lilac or orange crop tops, white peddle pushers and velvet hairbands) draped over the ugly, velcro sofa. The dent in the wall from a misfired golf ball; the scorch mark on the carpet where someone dropped char from a shisha pipe. Places on my bedroom wall, behind the plaster, where I scrawled Green Day, then Cat Power lyrics; ‘star pupil’ and various Kerrang stickers that couldn’t be peeled off the wardrobe (also the Metal as Fuck sticker we stuck on the lamp, which I’m sure still lingers, irrevocably); the cupboard under the stairs with the camping gear, the old washing machine and the pervasive smell of must. As soon as you opened the door, you were simultaneously attacked by a falling hoover, a bag of tent pegs and a canopy of jackets.
Whole evenings and afternoons, lost to playing Sim City on the old computer. Waiting patiently for dialup to connect, doodling on wee notepads that my dad brought back from hotels on his business trips. Sifting through stacks of Standard Grade artwork, band posters, electric guitars, music stands, golf clubs, tennis rackets and folders of homework.
I could go on forever listing details. I guess it’s the nature of missing something that you link things together, this endless concatenation of memories. You think it would be claustrophobic, living in a small town, but one of the things I’ve always missed since moving out was the space. You could run up and down the stairs, pretend the floor was lava and jump from sofa to sofa in the living room, stare out the big bay windows not at a yard of bins and more buildings but at the rolling, sprawling countryside. Hear the jackdaws in the chimney, watch the butterflies flutter around the Buddleja, the sunflowers bloom in June after the dying of the tulips. Life had a rhythm; you paid more attention to nature: the creeping in of the spiders in September, the wasps in August that nested constantly outside my mother’s bedroom, to the point where her windowsill was a nasty holocaust of their dying bodies.
My childhood home was flawed. There was the icy drafts that blew in through the floorboards, the lack of a shower, the grit that sometimes spat out the taps, the sound of lorries trundling past, the toilet that struggled to flush, the kids out back that belted JLS songs as they bounced on their trampoline. Sometimes the roof leaked, we had to clean the gutters, the hot water stopped working, the carpet always slipped on the top step of the stairs. Somehow though, despite their irritation, these flaws were endearing. It’s different, I think, when you own a property compared to when you rent: when you own it, the flaws are just something you sort of live with, rather than demand your landlord to fix. When you explain them to guests, you’re only ever semi-apologetic. The embarrassing parts (the Alan Partridge lap dance postcard on the fridge, the broken oven, the cracks in the kitchen tiles which our friends and I used to take apart and reassemble like puzzle pieces, the precarious stability of the garden wall) become something you’re sort of proud of. It seems kind of absurd now to think that one time, in the middle of the night, our garden wall literally just collapsed, blasting bricks across the patio and shattering the wooden bench, sending its splinters as far afield as the neighbour’s garden.
Maybe it’s that shambolic charm that drew me again and again to Dodie Smith’s novel, I Capture the Castle, as a preteen. I wasn’t just obsessed with the lucidly beautiful voice of the young heroine, her story of unrequited love and the struggle to grow up amidst slightly meagre and crazy circumstances, but also her descriptions of the crumbling castle which her family called home. She describes her first impressions thus:
How strange and beautiful it looked in the late afternoon light! I can still recapture that first glimpse – see the sheer grey stone walls and towers against the pale yellow sky, the reflected castle stretching towards us on the brimming moat, the floating patch son emerald-green water-weed. No breath of wind ruffled the looking-glass water, no sound of any kind came to us. Our excited voices only made the castle seem more silent.
The image is imprinted on her memory, relayed back through her diary; as still as a flower pressed between the pages of a book, as the motionless water, a reflection of a very specific and idealised point in time, the fresh perception of this place that would become the crumbling though romantic ruin of a poverty-stricken home. It is clear that much of Cassandra’s descriptions of the castle are filtered through the discourse of fairytale, though in a knowing, reflexive way, that recognises the flaws of such fantasies. Her sister, Rose, will not be the perfect princess, English Rose though perfect she is; neither will she be the perfectly objective narrator. I just adore the scene when they are drinking outside the village pub: cherry brandy for Cassandra, bright green creme de menthe for Rose, to bring out the russet shades in her hair.
Sitting outside in the comparative paradise of my own garden, I enjoyed the traditional Scottish though equally vibrant liquor of Mad Dog 20/20 to season my youthful palette (unlike Rose, I don’t think my choice of tipple ever worked very well to seduce rich and handsome American suitors). I had the smell of woodsmoke in my hair, the wind coming in off the near-distant sea with a faint and familiar saltiness, the taste of health. There’s something so lovely about that nostalgia, when you can see yourself outside of yourself, picturesque in your childhood surroundings.
In a way, I guess I sort of thought as Daisybank as my castle. We didn’t have a mote, or a crumbling turret, but we had a garden of long grass and dog daisies and a steep drive that kept the floodwater out and the crazed night dwellers away (once, my mother parked the car on the road and some random jakes literally tipped it on its side, so she woke up in the morning to it pouring oil all down the street, like it was weeping sadness and blood). It’s hard to recreate that sense of absolute safety, of home — where all your memories have long seeped into the walls, where you first wept at a book, kissed a boy, got blackout drunk on whisky. All the birthday cakes and candles, the mean words said and the reparations. It’s like the house has witnessed the sweetest and darkest parts of ourselves and god knows it must be a burden to bear those secrets.
It’s kind of impossible for me to imagine the house with new people living in it. It’s even difficult to imagine Maybole without my family living there. You sort of stay in touch via Facebook pages, you have the odd dream about walking down the high street or buying a roll in the deli or sitting on the swings at Miller Park, but you can’t really imagine it just going on being. Like a kind of clockwork village, it stops in your mind when you’re no longer there; when your roots are sort of severed. When people I’d known a long time found out we’d sold the house, they talked about it with the almost the same level of sadness and compassion they would on discovering a close relative had died.
It was a bloody good house; I don’t think I’ll ever live somewhere as nice and homely again – or at least it’ll never be quite the same. There’s just something about the place you grow up in, a magical and elusive quality. I can start to describe it, the pink and orange light seen from the patio on winter mornings, the daffodils on the kitchen table, steam from the iron, the flicker of Sonic the Hedgehog games on the old television, the space under the desk where my dog used to hide on fireworks night; but then here I am again, slipping back into details. You can’t grasp it; it’s in all of these things. Like love. It’s supplementary, in the Derridean sense that it has no inherent presence or meaning: it’s just all the things you try to hold in place for a moment, the mesh of connections and space of interplay that forms, pliably, impermanently, when you try to grasp at the meaning.
Houses are, perhaps, more than houses. Every writer, every intellectual discipline under the sun has spent centuries debating the meaning of ‘home’, but perhaps houses themselves are equally strange and uncanny. What does a house mean to us after we have vacated it, stripped it of all the stuff that made it personal to us? Can it still be a home? I must admit, I don’t imagine myself living in my old house anymore; I can only see it as it was before. I can recall myself standing in particular locations: the feeling of waking up in my bed, or standing at the sink, washing up on a Sunday evening, watching the birds out the window. Yet when I try to think about how it might be decorated now, what the people inside are doing, I draw a blank. You can’t picture it like in the the Sims; can’t just imagine the drama of the lives within.
Many authors have anthropomorphised the houses in their books. They become characters in themselves, or at least acquire some kind of emotional or physical sensitivity to what goes on in and around them. Toni Morrison, in Beloved, describes the house, from Denver’s perspective, as ‘a person rather than a structure. A person that wept, sighed, trembled and fell into fits’: the domestic space is as much a character as Denver herself, it takes on the qualities of and indeed reacts to the events which take place within it. You know that eerie sense of dust settling, of silence and weightiness that falls upon a house after an argument? There’s something to it. An ethereal feeling, a kind of knowingness; as if the house itself could somehow be conscious.
Perhaps the most famous instance of an anthropomorphised house is that of the Ramsay’s holiday home on the isle of Skye in Virginia Woolf’s novel, To the Lighthouse. Woolf takes a hefty chunk out of her narrative to describe the process of decay that unravels the household in the Ramsay’s absence. Significant family events, such as marriage, childbirth and death, are confined to parentheses, while intensely lyrical descriptions of the details of the changing conditions of the household are given centre stage:
[Prue Ramsay died that summer in some illness connected with childbirth, which was indeed a tragedy, people said, everything, they said, had promised so well.]
And now in the heat of summer the wind sent its spies about the house again. Flies wove a web in the sunny rooms; weeds that had grown close to the glass in the night tapped methodically at the window pane. When darkness fell, the stroke of the Lighthouse, which had laid itself with such authority upon the carpet in the darkness, tracing its pattern, came now in the softer light of spring mixed with moonlight gliding gently as if it laid its caress and lingered stealthily and looked and came lovingly again. But in the very lull of this loving caress, as the long stroke leant upon the bed, the rock was rent asunder; another fold of the shawl loosened; there it hung, and swayed. Through the short summer nights and the long summer days, when the empty rooms seemed to murmur with the echoes of the fields and the hum of flies, the long streamer waved gently, swayed aimlessly; while the sun so striped and barred the rooms and filled them with yellow haze that Mrs. McNab, when she broke in and lurched about, dusting, sweeping, looked like a tropical fish oaring its way through sun-lanced waters.
I just adore this passage for several reasons. It’s full of poetic devices which bring the house itself to life: all the personification which renders objects and shadows and light into living, breathing things. The recurring consonance of the l sound which leads us, liltingly, through all sensory encounters; as if we, occupying and flying through the sentences, were as light as air, a travelling dust mote, surveying the situation. L is a flickering kind of sound, fluttering, leading onwards, somehow soporific. A line like this sends tingles up your spine: ‘the stroke of the Lighthouse […] came now in the softer light of spring mixed with moonlight gliding gently as if it laid its caress and lingered stealthily and looked and came lovingly again’. The sentences and descriptions flit between movement and stasis: the loving caress and the sudden shift of a rock, followed by a hanging, a loosening, a suspension. Everything seems to be swinging, swaying; the material of the house unfolds and unravels like a shawl. The zanily surreal image of the housekeeper Mrs. McNab trying to control the chaos in the manner of a ‘tropical fish oaring its way through sun-lanced waters’ is deliciously both amusing and vivid, conjuring a sense of the beauty of this interplay of order and decay. It’s a clashing sort of image, the vibrancy juxtaposed with the dulling surroundings, but the effect is to exoticise, just ever so slightly, the whole scene. We are invited to look closer, as if peering through a fish tank. This is more than just a house laying to waste in its owners’ absence. Real empathy is stirred for the house itself:all the ghosts that inhabit the walls, the absence that tears at everything. Objects and noises, the vacant trails where once human footsteps made their passage. Mrs. McNab, in all her matronly cleanliness, is but a colourful fish, pulling itself fleetingly through the reeds. All our efforts to clean up the world, to annihilate its disorder, are perhaps similarly slightly futile.
Throughout Time Passes, Woolf contrasts and holds together opposites: day/night, abstract/specific, growth/decay, movement/stasis, beauty/waste, absence/presence and life/death, to name a few. At once we lament the abandoned house, while also marvelling at the ‘power’ of nature’s ‘fertility’ and ‘insensibility’: the way in which dahlias, giant artichokes, cabbages and carnations continue to flourish amongst the house’s decline. She might as well be describing the inconsistencies and tensions within the psyche of an actual human character. Time veers between eternities and instances; the sheer significance of a death (here, Prue’s) is passed by fleetingly, another stain upon the already well-blotched backdrop of war, a different trauma to the slow, inevitable decline of the house. The writing here is both photographic and cinematic: moving through the stillness of random snapshots to the build-up and unravelling of a time-lapse. Isn’t that like life, like memory itself?
‘Some days in late August at home are like this, the air thin and eager like this, with something in it sad and nostalgic and familiar’
— William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury
Maybe home is all about the seductiveness of boredom, the comfort of merely occupying space. Maybe its familiarity is what contains an inherent sadness: a sense of loss stemming from that which we cannot regain, despite our close spatial proximity. Like someone you love but who has changed, irrevocably, drifted out far beyond your reach. Like lost innocence and joy, the way we were before we knew certain things; before life happened, in all its terrible narrative beauty. Quentin’s reflections in The Sound and the Fury have a degree of universal application. Late summer and early autumn; the turning of the seasons, the fading of the year. We spend more time indoors as the air thins to a coolness; we retreat into the safety of houses. Each year, we think back to blackberry picking in gardens, cooking soup on the stove, going back to school. One of my favourite (and pleasantly simple) opening lyrics, from Stornoway’s song ‘Zorbing’: ‘Conkers shining on the ground / the air is cooler / and I feel like I just started uni’. It’s details like that that send us home. Reminders that time moves in loops; that constantly we are living through our memories, mixing the strange and new with familiarity. You don’t necessarily need a specific physical location to be ‘home’. Maybe it’s more complex and slippery than that. Sure, I miss Daisybank like hell, but it’s the details I miss most, and like everything else, with age they acquire that golden, treacly glow of nostalgia. Maybe I don’t need to be Scottish or English or anything at all. I just need to find home. Then I can begin again.
Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
the world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.
There is a time for the evening under starlight,
A time for the evening under lamplight
(The evening with the photograph album).
Love is most nearly itself
When here and now cease to matter.
Belle & Sebastian are one of those bands that give you a warm, fuzzy and nostalgic feeling. As much as they’re often lazily attributed to the cultural realm of the ‘indie kid’ or the ‘Glasgow hipster’, this neglects the fact of their wider popularity. They are, after all, a band who’ve been around for over 20 years now. I’ve played their tunes in the restaurant where I work and witnessed middle-aged folks who look like they’re off to a Springsteen concert humming along to ‘The Boy With the Arab Strap’. Their songs have popped up on plenty of popular tv shows and films (‘I Don’t Love Anyone’ on Girls, ‘I’m a Cuckoo’ on The Inbetweeners, ‘Piazza, New York Catcher’ in Juno – to name just a handful).Like a sweet, familiar honey, their music just sticks to you, whether you wanna spread it on your toast or not. Sure, they get a lot of hate: their songs are cloying, the singing a bit too saccharine at times, the lyrics silly, the sound the same on each album. I’ve heard them being called ‘beige’ music.
For me, Belle & Sebastian make pastel coloured music. I don’t know, maybe it’s a touch of the old synaesthesia but I’ve always imagined their songs awash in delicate shades of blue and pink, green and yellow and orange – a bit like the colours of sorbet. They’re just the perfect summer band. Some bands it’s easy to have a colour for, or even a texture: Mogwai are deep deep green and black, LCD Soundsystem are bright, shiny white, Mac DeMarco all denim blue and dirty mustard yellow, Kate Bush is a luscious kind of cherry red, Bjork is all the hues of a pearl, Tame Impala are psychedelic greens and blues and oranges, Aphex Twin is ink black, but sometimes yellow, blue or bubblegum pink. In the same vein, Belle & Sebastian to me are all about pastels, sometimes a wee bit brighter but never beige, except when it’s that classy kind of chino beige that you might see paired with a yellow blouse and pink ribbon. I want to be dressed up with a funny hat, a mini skirt and retro sunglasses when I listen to them. Something lilac, a stick of ice lolly. Hell, maybe even rollerblades. I find myself immersed in the stories of the songs; I sort of want to be a character in one of them – a lost twenty-something with her school days long behind her, figuring out how to deal with the world and enjoying living in the city.
Listening to them involves a kind of camaraderie: you’re sharing the world with them, with all the voices of each song’s narrator; sharing Stuart Murdoch’s hazy, romanticised version of Glasgow, the lives of the quirky characters he writes into his lyrics. The musical arrangements in their songs vary between stripped back and fragile, sometimes very much Smiths-influenced (inherently, B&S are an ‘urban’ band, right?), with pretty melodies adorned with piano, acoustic guitar, maybe a bit of bass (‘We Rule the School’, ‘It Could Have Been a Brilliant Career’, ‘Dress Up in You’ – these are some of my favourites), to zany and fun and maybe even lovably chaotic, with some of the earlier songs sporting surf rock guitars (‘La Pastie De La Bourgeoisie’) or (in the early days, Cubase-arranged) electronic numbers (‘Electronic Renaissance’, or, later on, the near seven minute ‘Enter Sylvia Plath’ which frames its tribute to the late great poet inside a Europop epic), as well as the Beatles-influenced ‘chamber pop’ (of which they share the influence mantle with Camera Obscura) – see, for example, The Life Pursuit. Their songs are often self-conscious, writing about the importance of losing yourself in books and songs (the final song of Tigermilk, ‘Mary Jo’, references the fictional book that titles the album’s first song: ‘You’re reading a book, “The State I Am In”’), referencing themselves, other ‘indie’ bands (Arab Strap being the most obvious), creating this whole dreamworld of literary and musical references which itself becomes the fantasy world of the songs. When you listen to them, it’s impossible not to lose yourself slightly to this pastel-saturated universe. It’s not just twee; it’s bittersweet happiness, nostalgia, personal and cultural reflection – they began making music in the 90s, after all. That’s why I smile when I see someone sporting a wee Belle & Sebastian tote bag or t-shirt: you know there’s someone else out there who shares that sweet and silly, slightly sad but hopeful little world.
In a way, they’re a band for the underdogs. They cut their teeth on the Glasgow open mic circuit, with its crowds veering between adoration or ruthless indifference. Every Saturday, under the guise of various band or solo arrangements, Stuart and his pals would appear in the Halt bar on Woodlands Road (sadly it no longer exists) – you can read all about it in bass/guitar player Stuart David’s memoir, In the All-Night Café, which geekily delves into early musical experiments, the songwriting process and all the crazy moments that brought the band together in their formative year. So yeah, it’s worth a read if you’re a B&S fan or even just a musician. It’s important to remember that the band produced and recorded all their early songs (came together, essentially) at Stow College’s now slightly legendary Beatbox course, which at the time was more or less a course that unemployed musicians in the area took to ensure they kept receiving the dole: ‘From what I could tell,’ Stuart writes of his first impression of the course, ‘[Beatbox] was a total shambles. Just scores of unemployed musicians sitting around in a dark, airless labyrinth, doing nothing. […] I wandered around on my own trying to work out what was what, while people scowled at me, or just stared blankly into space. A thick cloud of cigarette smoke pervaded the place, and something about the absence of daylight and the lack of fresh air made me wonder if the place was actually a detention centre set up by the government to incarcerate all the people they’d caught using Social Security benefit as an arts bursary’ (In the All-Night Cafe, pp. 10-11). This is probably an impression of college hallways and classrooms that most young adults of Generation X or millennials growing up in Britain can relate to: the flickering strip lighting, the apathy amongst both staff and pupils, the sense of suffocating bureaucracy, of life in suspension. And yet out of that dark and maybe even Kafkaesque environment, sometimes the magic happens. People come together and make the best of things – it’s inspiring.
For me, it’s also inspiring that Stuart Murdoch is actually from Ayr. The only other celebrated artist I can think of off the top of my head that hails from Ayr is none other than Robert Burns, so yeah, it’s been awhile since the place has been put on the map, artistically speaking. Belle & Sebastian are usually associated with Glasgow (especially the West End), but for me it’s important to remember their humble beginnings. Ayr still has a pretty cool music scene in terms of acoustic nights in local pubs, but there’s definitely a dearth of actual decent gig venues, especially when it’s producing so many talented musicians through, for example, the well-respected Commercial Music course at the UWS Ayr Campus (see for example Bella and the Bear and the wonderful Shanine Gallagher).
ANYWAY, back to Belle & Sebastian. I wanted to talk about Tigermilk as an example of their oeuvre in general – as the raw, often forgotten diamond. It’s their debut album, though I actually came to B&S first through If You’re Feeling Sinister, having picked it up from Fopp when I moved to the West End for university and decided a B&S CD was a good way of immersing myself in local culture. Tigermilk reminds me of that lost and lonely summer feeling, walking around the city killing time before going to work, worrying about all the books I had to read before September, the people and things and memories I was in love with, that paranoid and desperate desire to write myself and indeed keep writing. It’s a lo-fi sort of album; it feels sweet and magical in that simple way, and you can tell that it marks the moment when the band discovered they had something special going on.
Sometimes the lyrics are a wee bit strange and surreal; the cast of characters Murdoch evokes in his lyrics can be pretty bewildering. The band’s slightly surreal vibe is indicated by the cover art for Tigermilk: a black-and-white picture of Murdoch’s then girlfriend, Joanne Kenney, apparently breastfeeding a toy tiger. Then take a look at the lyrics to ‘My Wandering Days are Over’ for example: ‘Six months on, the winter’s gone / The disenchanted pony / Left the town with the circus boy / The circus boy got lonely / It’s summer, and it’s sister song’s / Been written for the lonely / The circus boy is feeling melancholy’. You’re never sure if the characters are metaphors for existentially pained middle-class indie kids (lost in the job market/lost in the adult world circus of mad capitalism??), or actual protagonists in B&S’s musical universe. That’s the poetry of it – you get to decide. It all sort of makes sense, this girl with spiky black hair nourishing a toy tiger; sure, you can take it as symbolic, but it’s also just intriguing and slightly controversial enough to draw attention to a debut album.
One of B&S’s unique selling points is the whimsical fictions they weave through their ‘brand’ as a band. Take, for example, the sleeve notes to Tigermilk: they detail a cute little tale about Sebastian and Isabelle, the namesakes for the band.
Sebastian met Isabelle outside the Hillhead Underground Station, in Glasgow. Belle harassed Sebastian, but it was lucky for him that she did. She was very nice and funny, and sang very sweetly. Sebastian was not to know this, however. Sebastian was melancholy.
He had placed an advert in the local supermarket. He was looking for musicians. Belle saw him do it. That’s why she wanted to meet him. She marched straight up to him unannounced and said, ‘Hey you!’ She asked him to teach her to play the guitar. Sebastian doubted he could teach her anything, but he admired her energy, so he said ‘Yes’.
It was strange. Sebastian had just decided to become a one-man band. It is always when you least expect it that something happens. Sebastian had befriended a fox because he didn’t expect to have any new friends for a while. He still loved the fox, although he had a new distraction. Suddenly he was writing many new songs. Sebastian wrote all of his best songs in 1995. In fact, most of his best songs have the words ‘Nineteen Ninety-five’ in them. It bothered him a little. What will happen in 1996?
They worked on the songs in Belle’s house. Belle lived with her parents, and they were rich enough to have a piano. It was in a room by itself at the back of the house, overlooking the garden. This was where Belle taught Sebastian to put on mascara. If Belle’s mum had known this, she would not have been happy. She was paying for the guitar lessons. The lessons gave Sebastian’s life some structure. He went to the barber’s to get a haircut.
Belle and Sebastian are not snogging. Sometimes they hold hands, but that is only a display of public solidarity. Sebastian thinks Belle ‘kicks with the other foot’. Sebastian is wrong, but then Sebastian can never see further than the next tragic ballad. It is lucky that Belle has a popular taste in music. She is the cheese to his dill pickle.
Belle and Sebastian do not care much for material goods. But then neither Belle nor Sebastian has ever had to worry about where the next meal is coming from. Belle’s most recent song is called Rag Day. Sebastian’s is called The Fox In The Snow. They once stayed in their favourite caf’ for three solid days to recruit a band. Have you ever seen The Magnificent Seven? It was like that, only more tedious. They gained a lot of weight, and made a few enemies of waitresses.
Belle is sitting highers in college. She didn’t listen the first time round. Sebastian is older than he looks. He is odder than he looks too. But he has a good heart. And he looks out for Belle, although she doesn’t need it. If he didn’t play music, he would be a bus driver or be unemployed. Probably unemployed. Belle could do anything. Good looks will always open doors for a girl.
You’ve got it all here: the playful and ultra twee imagery ‘(she is the cheese to his dill pickle’), the hint of queer culture and crossdressing that sometimes runs through B&S songs (‘This was where Belle taught Sebastian to put on mascara’), the DIY elements, the spatial immersion in Glasgow’s West End as a kind of leafy wonderland where people own pianos in airy rooms overlooking gardens. It’s honest and cute and totally unashamed, totally uninterested in being cool. Compared with the stylised, rock’n’roll swagger of Britpop, this album (originally released in 1996 then rereleased in 1999) is so refreshing. The tale of Belle and Sebastian is a short story, more than an explanation of the album’s lyrics or ‘concept’; it’s a bit ambiguous, a touchstone for all the other B&S characters who populate later LP – it’s perhaps, most importantly, an indication of the band’s consistent literary bent.
‘Sebastian was melancholy’. Well, melancholy is probably the overriding emotion on Tigermilk. Melancholy being that feeling of sadness, yearning and inexplicable loss. An indulgent feeling, a languid and probably narcissistic feeling that is almost pleasurable despite lolling around in the negative. Freud, in Mourning and Melancholia (1915) famously distinguishes mourning and melancholia thus: ‘In mourning the world has become impoverished and empty, during melancholia, it is the ego itself’. Mourning is about the loss of a specific object, whereas melancholia is a vaguer feeling, a depression with no apparent or obvious source, a swallowing up of selfhood into narcissistic darkness. One of the reason’s I really like ‘I Don’t Love Anyone’ is its in-your-face rejection of the Coca Cola style let’s-all-hold-hands-and-be-happy version of love, the assertion of personal endurance and the often denigrated value of independence in a world where we’re all supposed to follow the crowd: ‘But if there’s one thing that I learned when I was still a child / It’s to take a hiding / Yeah if there’s one thing that I learned when I was still at school / It’s to be alone’. I was that kid who sometimes liked to walk around the playground alone, making up stories in my head – adults just assume it’s because you’re being bullied but there’s a golden value to imagination and it’s easier to forget that as an adult, easy to forget that sometimes you need time out from your friends to be in your own mind.
A lot of Tigermilk is about trying to negotiate personal identity in an often problematic adult world with few opportunities for anyone vaguely creative. It’s worth quoting a hearty chunk of ‘Expectations’ to demonstrate this:
Monday morning wake up knowing that you’ve got to go to school
Tell your mum what to expect, she says it’s right out of the blue
Do you want to work in Debenham’s, because that’s what they expect
Start in Lingerie, and Doris is your supervisor
And the head said that you always were a queer one from the start
For careers you say you went to be remembered for your art
Your obsession gets you known throughout the school for being strange
Making life-size models of the Velvet Underground in clay
In the queue for lunch they take the piss, you’ve got no appetite
And the rumour is you never go with boys and you are tight
So they jab you with a fork, you drop the tray and go berserk
While your cleaning up the mess the teacher’s looking up your skirt
We’ve all known (or been ourselves!) the weird kid obsessed with music, inviting abuse with every strange word spoken. Wear something black, a bit of eyeliner and you’re inviting folk to ask you if you “shag dead folk”. There’s always the one of many that has a whole collection of cool things to say, to contribute to the world, but ends up in retail, in a call-centre, maybe waitressing. Again, Belle & Sebastian are the band of the underdog, the folk (and there are a lot of them) who slog away at day jobs but don’t give up on their dreams – whether those dreams involve becoming a star of track and field, a model, artist, musician, writer.
Tigermilk, then,isn’t just a melancholy album; there are some feel good moments, such as ‘You’re Just a Baby’, which features handclaps and a nice rock’n’roll beat with a simple, serenading refrain: ‘You’re just a baby, baby girl’. Fundamentally, Belle & Sebastian are a pop band, and a damn good one at that. Stuart Murdoch recently wrote and directed his own film, God Help the Girl, which more or less demonstrates his near-religious philosophy of pop music, as the character James (fittingly played by the singer from pop/electronic band Years & Years) proclaims:
A man needs only write one genius song, one song that lives forever in the hearts of the populous to make him forever divine. […] Many women and men have lived empty, wasted lives in attics trying to write classic pop songs. What they don’t realise is it’s not for them to decide. It’s God. Or, the god of music. Or, the part of God that concerns Himself with music.
This is some fairly interesting religious imagery coming from a singer (Murdoch) who has always been openly Christian. And of course, the hyperbolic emphasis on music’s divine significance here is perhaps a cheeky dig at the ego of the pop star, but it also touches on the importance of universalism for pop. It’s easy to consume, it should transcend generations, it should be technically perfect – the satisfying work of a ‘genius’. But good pop, as Belle & Sebastian demonstrate, isn’t all bubblegum songs about loving your sweetheart – it also has that spark of something else. For me, B&S capture a very specific experience of existential bewilderment in the modern world, combined with the right amount of romance, comedy, storytelling and a healthy streak of cynicism. God Help the Girl is twee as hell, but it’s also a loving portrait of Glasgow, of the early days of being in a band, the freedom of summer days drifting down the canal with the world shining bright around you. It’s maybe also a portrait of unrequited love. And, crucially, it transforms that cliche, the power of music, into something sparkly and fun as well as serious and uplifting – it is a musical after all. Its ambiguous ending, with the heroine (significantly called Eve – more religious imagery!) finally leaving the city and on a train ride to London where she intends to try and make it ‘alone’ after her existential rebirth and artistic awakening in Glasgow, is perhaps its strongest point – it’s a feminist assertion of personal creative desire as opposed to remaining tied down to the things your friends want.
Once again, Murdoch puts complete faith in his slightly damaged protagonists; he encourages us to just trust our creativity. Maybe that’s why I love Belle & Sebastian so much, because sure, their songs are mostly golden, pastel-hazed pop, but it’s not that simple; they embrace that wavering, magical and sad place between warm dreams and cold reality, and represent all the poor souls who live there in that limbo, such as the eponymous heroine from ‘Mary Jo’: ‘Your life is never dull in your dreams / A pity that it never seems to work the way you see it’. And even though such songs are full of melancholy, you’re still treated, as in an Arctic Monkeys song, to some brilliant lyrical candy: ‘Cause what you want is a cigarette / And a thespian with a caravanette in Hull’. So maybe that’s the special element, the thing that makes the everyday divine, that elevates the ordinary into a valid subject for pop music. And maybe, pleb that I am at heart, that’s why I love it.
It was the summer of being totally numb. I woke up every morning with the sensation of being dragged down some strong gulf stream, warm and foggy and going nowhere.
I smoked cigarettes leaning over the harbour wall, watching the waves curl over the lisp of the sand, gathering in little billows. I worked a job at one of the out of town supermarkets, driving my car around in the day, stacking shelves at night. I worked from midnight till dawn, driving home as the birds sang and the junkies collapsed into their hellhole flats. I sort of enjoyed the boredom, the routine sense of drifting; the way the hours and days just dissolved away. I had a vague sense that something had to happen by the end of the summer, but never paid much attention to prospects of the future.
The doctor put me on these antidepressants, you see. I don’t know what they were supposed to be doing, but they made me very numb. I felt weightless, as if my skin wasn’t my own. There was an agitation, a twitchiness to my existence. I couldn’t help scratching, shivering. I worried the sores that rose in welts on my arms. Every time I tried to eat, I felt nauseous. Only the cigarettes helped.
I was getting through thirty a day, a pack and a half, that summer.
Then I met Oliver. I used to know him, years ago, at primary school. I was standing outside a club, watching the thin blue moon disappear into dark clouds, watching some sixteen-year-old kid throw up on the pavement across the road. Oliver came out of nowhere, wearing this flamboyant shirt, a shark-tooth necklace, his hair wiry and long. I don’t know how he recognised me; I barely recognised him. I wanted to melt into the wall.
But then we started talking about childhood. I guess it seemed like forever ago, this whole other world of messy innocence. The games we used to play, running over the fields, throwing clumps of hay at each other. Days out with the school, teasing one another over the contents of our packed lunches. We walked around town all night, waiting for the sun to come up, sitting shivering underneath a slide at the park, sharing a half bottle of vodka.
He gave me his number, refused the cigarettes I offered. Said we should talk again, but he had to go to work.
I never did text him. I went straight home, teeth chattering on the bus, then lay in bed all day, staring at the ceiling. I couldn’t sleep. I kept thinking about the person who used to run around those fields, laughing and shrieking, throwing wads of hay and falling back into the soft long grass. I smoked so much my room was a grey, tarry haze. At some point I must’ve slept.
I woke up and the world was brighter, clearer. The smoke was gone. I drove to work and the strip lights of the supermarket glowed in my brain, the colours of all the signs and products seeming ultra saturated, a pleasure to stare at. Everything felt so intense, so real. I guess I was feeling again. It was a joy to just touch things, finger the labels of tins and packets, brush my feet over the vinyl floor.
I’m not even sure I took down the right number. I never did text him.
It was a joy to stand over the bridge on my break, watching the cars pass on the dual carriageway, biting into something sweet, maybe a donut, maybe a piece of carrot cake. I didn’t think about falling over that bridge, about smoking a cigarette. I thought of Oliver, of the little girl asleep in the backseat, going nowhere through the night. Falling asleep on someone’s shoulder. That sense of safety. I don’t remember much else about how I felt, but I know that something had changed, even though in the end I didn’t text him.
I guess it was just that in those 24 hours, I’d forgotten to take my antidepressants. For once, it felt good to go nowhere.
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.
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.
‘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?”
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.
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.
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.
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.
Exams and I have a fair degree of history together. From that fateful first day in third year when I waited anxiously outside a gym hall to sit my Standard Grade English, to desperately scouring the labyrinth that is Glasgow Uni, trying to find my Honours English Literature exams, or waiting in the rain outside the OTC building, trying not to get run over by passing cars as rain splashed onto my notepad, exams and I have gone through hell and back together.
And they’re a funny thing, exams. Subject to much controversy too, especially in recent years with the dominance of technology over almost all other forms of learning and examination (who hands in a handwritten essay these days? is it even allowed?). Exams suddenly seem awfully old-fashioned. Individual (wobbly) desks, ink spilling everywhere, people writing with fury in an echoey hall. It seems a strange idea, to sit you in a room at the end of the year, thrust a piece of paper in front of you and force you to desperately pour out something resembling an essay in response to a set of unseen questions. I’ve thought about them long and hard over my time at school and college and uni, and come up with some pros and cons:
The fear forces you to study, to recap the information learned over your course.
The early stages of studying can be fun. You’re relearning and rereading, and in the process making interesting connections between texts, based on a more mature understanding of the course gained from reflection.
It can be an opportunity to shine, to show that you can come up with something original in a very short space of time.
You learn the value of concision.
If the questions are well-designed, the exam can be a true test of your analytical abilities and skill for quick-thinking – there are not many other times when you have the adrenaline necessary to formulate a coherent piece of writing in such a short period.
It’s nice to realise that you’ve learned chunks of poetry by heart. Even if they begin to slip away fairly quickly once you’ve left the exam…
Risk of being a memory test. While remembering and recalling information is important for lots of subjects from law to physics, English Lit and other humanities subjects is often about critical thinking skills rather than just remembering ‘data’ aka quotes. Lots of students memorise whole essays and go into the exam, then shoehorn and regurgitate what they’ve stored in their head. Sometimes this works, other times it ends badly. Either way, it isn’t testing much more than your ability to write fast and repeat.
Anxiety. This is a real problem for some people and can really hinder their performance in an exam, even if they’ve studied hard.
Breadth vs. depth. In an essay, with the advantage of time and access to material, it’s a lot easier to formulate a response which balances careful close reading and discussion of relevant secondary criticism and theory. In an exam, it’s too easy to fall back into the trap of plot summaries, even though you’re perfectly capable of analysis. Exams don’t always reflect your ability to synthesise material, or the extent of the research you’ve done.
Too much weighting. In my degree, exams are worth 50% of each course grade. There’s a lot of stake in those two hours, and if you have a brain freeze or something goes wrong, you can really drag down all that hard work you put in during the semester.
There are probably lots more, but here are the ones that immediately spring to mind. My solution would be not to scrap exams entirely, but to use them more effectively. Perhaps have mid-term close reading tests, which would examine your ability to respond ‘naturally’ to a text and your critical skills, rather than just your memory. Maybe also a 25% end of term exam, replacing the other 25% with another 3000 word essay. Maybe it will go that way in the future with credit standardisation; some universities don’t have exams for English Literature at all. The problem of course is that unlike subjects such as law and medicine and business, exam conditions are more unlikely to be part of any aspect of a future career sprung from a literary subject. While some jobs will require you to do set tests e.g. solving financial problems as part of the interview process, you are unlikely to encounter something like that in journalism, academia, publishing and so on. An essay with a deadline seems more akin to the work English Lit tends to lead to.
I can’t remember the worst thing that’s ever happened to me in an exam. There’s always that brief five minute panic when ‘your questions’ haven’t come up, and you have to radically rethink your answers and quickly choose a question; but usually in turns out in the end, and often the most spontaneous answers get the best mark. I guess one of the hardest exams I’ve ever done is Higher Music Listening. I mean, it shouldn’t be, but it just seems to be this horrible trail of riddles, where you have to discern different instruments out of tangles of sound in a very short space of time before the clip stops playing. Also, because you have to maintain concentration as a room of people listening to the same tape, your brain gets pretty muddled. And you can get distracted: I was so excited when the tape played The Strangler’s ‘Golden Brown’ that I made such a hasty decision about which rhythm change it contained that I put the wrong answer down. The coding sections of Higher Computing were also tricky, and writing four essays in an hour and a half for Higher Modern Studies is always the bane of your fifth year existence. Every student in Scotland who did languages will probably remember the terrifying voice that blasted the announcement about this being the STANDARD GRADE FRENCH LISTENING exam through the crackly stereo at the back of a gym hall, with all the aggression of someone holding you up in an armed robbery.
There was a golden moment towards the end of my last exam, when I realised there was less than ten minutes to go, and I was onto the conclusion, and soon that would be me – done forever. I definitely wouldn’t say that I’ll miss exams (hopefully, I’ll never have to do one again unless I decide to take up driving), but there’s something completely rewarding about the adrenaline rush and the nerves and the exhausting release afterwards that seems pretty unique. A bit like doing the Olympics, but for your brain (and your wrist). To anyone who still has exams to sit, good luck and remember it’s not the end of the world; and ultimately, they are always going to be a somewhat artificial test of your ability!
(Also, I’d love to hear your thoughts on whether exams are a good means of assessment or not for literature-based subjects).