Lafcadio Hearn despaired of capturing the charm of Japan and perhaps it is the elusiveness of that quest that causes Danny Ott, the hero of Brad Leithauser’s Equal Distance, to dwell at such length on his impressions when he disembarks at Kyoto. Hearn, self-conscious about being short, felt less like a gaijin, a foreigner, in Japan than he did in the West, but Danny, a do-gooder from Harvard Law School on the Wall Street track, seems to regard being tall and fair a form of patriotism. He is nostalgic for the lost entrepreneurial spirit of America, and defends its messy democracy over the dark discipline behind the Japanese economic miracle. After all, Dad works for Ford Motor Company, and Danny often has a rush of feeling for his home town, Detroit, when he rides in a Japanese car.
Novels set in distant places give us expectations not unlike those we have of travel writing, and often the distinctions are blurred, as in, say, the way the low life of Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward is depicted in John David Morley’s recent Pictures from the Water Trade. But Equal Distance turns out to have little to say about shiken jigoku, the “examination hell” of Japanese law schools. Though Danny arrives with language tapes and good intentions about his year abroad as an assistant to a distinguished professor, the absence of the grind is an unsettling state of freedom for one who cannot remember a time when “he had not been enrolled in school.” Danny passes the hours thinking back on his life stateside, and Kyoto becomes a backdrop for a story of coming of age or finding self-knowledge, things Danny calls “progress.”
When the Handsome American is not planning ahead to his third-year paper on the “interlaced relationship of law and punishment and responsibility and free will,” he mourns his grandfather, worries about the Reagan–Carter election, the hostage crisis, the impending divorce of Mom and Dad. He also wonders why he can’t get over his first true love and whether his adolescence is “still pursuing him.”
Oh, the whole notion of manhood was an interesting issue; he had adeptly managed, as demanded of him, to refer to the girls in his classes as women, and even to think of them as such, but the guys remained guys, not men. Men for Danny were still the professors, or, less distantly, the people who came to interview from the law firms…. Men were still primarily those dapper figures who had entered the game of buying cars, trying to beat taxes, earning a living.
Brad Leithauser is a poet of remarkable delicacy and skill, yet the voice in Equal Distance seems irresolute. As a result, everything, down to the tatami mats, must have its day. Danny’s numerous asides, however sweetly intended, have much to do, too, with the shapelessness of the book. His inner weather is conveyed in passages that remind one of an alpha-rhythm trance induced by staring at a tank of fish or a painting by Sotatsu.
The air smelled marvelous—preponderately of pine, but with a hundred other odors tucked in below. It was amazing just what a pure gold—as if flushed completely of any vestige of green—some leaves could assume in the right angle of the sun; with others, their green made greener, you’d swear they had to be wet to wear such a gloss. At each of their path’s bifurcations, Danny, moving on a heady tide, felt himself contrarily tugged, a frustrating but familiar sense that each path not followed meant some rare and irreplaceable loss—some vista missed, some harmonic clump of trees, some rare conjoining trick of bird-flash and -cry. It was an old desire, a yearning to hold in his hands a sort of comprehensive map of loveliness (Mother Nature’s very own) which would guarantee he missed not a single gemmed toadstool.
Leithauser means to suggest an unfolding in a youth who previously has been too busy doing the right thing. Instead of giving Danny’s exploits an atmosphere of gentle discovery, the novel’s cheerful expansiveness about fleeting sensations—sex, the taste of sake, a joint furtively smoked in a train WC—has a leveling effect. In today’s novels about youth’s romance with its sensibility it is hard to pull off with a straight face those scenes in which the hero comes down with what James called “an aesthetic headache.”
Such innocence as Danny’s cannot long go untested. He meets Greg, a precocious roué who has been floating around the Far East. Greg is Southern (aristo), Harvard (College), and self-destructive in a predictable, summer-stock fashion. He is also extremely talkative. “You’ll find I have a great sense of style.” They share a “common frustration with the ineffable,” which they believe separates them from other pink-faced tourists, and drink into the small hours. Greg spins “crazy philosophical monologues” of “vast” assertions: “Postcoital depression is worth it.”
They meet and pursue Carrie, who is in Japan on a kind of rich girl’s sabbatical. She hitches her wagon to the affable achiever instead of to Greg because Greg is “bad intense.” The “conservative” or “parental” in Danny comes out, but he cannot dissuade Greg from a life of subsidized dissolution. Homeward bound, Danny has accepted his parents’ divorce, and is relieved that the firm that has been courting him has found a suitable Park Avenue sublet in which he can install Carrie. “It will all work out.”
Why Japan for this story of love and anxiety among the Doonesbury generation? Maybe it’s just for the hip of being on location, so to speak. And not just anybody can afford the trip. Things Japanese are sort of fashionable right now, but Danny’s courtship does not gain much from the exotic setting. He and his friends might as well have met at a sushi bar in Manhattan. Even the Great Adventure, Equal Distance seems to say, turns out to be just another road on which to chase the American Dream. But Leithauser writes as if he is caught up in nostalgia for the ritual of the year abroad, and his narrator has not much distance from and little humor about the hero.
Everything is filtered through Danny, and yet Leithauser has set him up as such a vessel of decent opinions that not much can happen to him. Small wonder that Greg, the doppelgänger, does most of the talking. When Danny remarks that he is saddened to think of the United States one day losing its economic preeminence to Japan, Greg responds that the Japanese are right to peel fruit, but finds that it’s “pretty much of a dog’s ass country.” It is, however, “a fabulous place to get drunk in because they’ve built themselves a toyland…. All these businessmen, these little boys, these Peter Pans.” Japan is a “humorous mirror” that “beats America in the one-on-one Crassness Competition.”
Here were all these non-Caucasian faces, and yet the people weren’t beggars, they weren’t sifting the feces out of their drinking water. They were builders of shopping emporia, importers of designer jeans from France!… It was just as though you’d gone from America to some country inhabited only by blacks, or Hispanics, or some other group you’ve always had to feel guilty about, and you found they were richer than you were. Were drinking Chivas-Regal in front of their big-ass color televisions.
The scene ends abruptly, without the expected reflections from Danny. One can’t help suspecting that the author has spared his hero having to identify himself one way or the other, as if Leithauser had taken on the anxiety of a publicity agent who whisks his client away from a sticky microphone.
Perhaps Danny’s naiveté is not entirely deliberate on Leithauser’s part. Early in the novel, Danny, like most Western visitors, is struck by the dualism of Japanese culture, by the apparent contradiction between Japan’s “spirituality” and its “knack for machinery.” Similarly, he, “a young man of extraordinary ardor,” gets nowhere chatting up Japanese girls because he gets the local c’mere-kiss-off signals wrong. What appears to be unrestricted is in fact off-limits.
Danny notes Japan’s “regimentation,” its “fascination with schedules and timetables,” but thinks nothing of his own “characteristic lawyerly penchant for lists.” He reads, as they say nowadays, a “system” called Japan, but does not question his own assumptions. That does not seem part of Leithauser’s intentions for Danny’s character. Notions are sometimes treated not as being in Danny-san’s head, but as attitudes in the world at large:
Either unconscious of the American stereotype of the Japanese as a camera-mad people or grandly indifferent, [Mr. Tanizaki] took dozens and dozens of photographs.
Who’s conforming to type? In Beauty and Sadness Kawabata observes two American couples on a train eagerly taking photographs as they approach Mt. Fuji only to turn their backs to it when it comes into full view.
Nevertheless Equal Distance gives an unaccustomed picture of American youth abroad. Danny and his friends are not Zen-struck free spirits. They have none of the rebellious enthusiasms of, say, the Canadian girl in Sarah Sheard’s charming recent novel Almost Japanese. (“I sawed the legs off my bed and dresser and took to eating on the floor.”) The novel is about Danny’s acceptance of his parents’ values, not his rejection of them, not even his challenge to them. His biggest worry in wooing Carrie is that he has only a middle-class background to offer. Despite its Bildungsroman tone, the novel is mostly a portrait of the acceptability of conventional class aspirations among the young.
Something stronger than the term “autobiographical novel” is needed to describe the mood of many of the recent works by the new generation of writers—maybe Diane Johnson’s phrase “fiction of the self” is best. Not only do young novelists for the most part write very close to their experience, but these days, more often than not, the self has been idealized, in the way people demand that the camera return an air-brushed image of themselves.
Lack of authorial distance implies identification with or at least approval of the characters. The new generation will not be remembered for its irony. Newsweek1 announced the arrival of the young urban professionals, the “restless vanguard of the baby-boom generation,” and with them came a rhetorical style that cast strategies of upward mobility in the jargon of a “personal growth” movement. Much recent fiction by young writers reflects the same radical departure from the popular image of youth of the Sixties and Seventies. In the fictional worlds of contemporary youth it is hard to find a single character with money problems.
The hero of Jay McInerney’s Ransom is déclassé, not poor. When the novel opens in 1977, Christopher Ransom has been in “inclement, ancient” Kyoto two years and hasn’t seen the Temple of the Golden Pavilion. He has “drab semi-employment” at a wobbly outfit where he teaches English to Japanese businessmen. He is one of those young people who love to discipline themselves, and, like Danny Ott, he runs in the morning along the Kano River. Ransom’s discipline, however, is more punitive. No pain no gain. His routine is centered around his dojo, or karate school, one that doesn’t usually accept gaijin. Ransom has much to prove to his sensei, or teacher, and, as one would expect, to himself as well. “He didn’t just want to be good. He wanted to be transformed.”
Whereas Danny Ott is at a loss in Kyoto but knows what he’s about when on American soil, Ransom has come to Asia “looking for freedom in the homeland of fatalism…something more vital than the pallid choice of career.” He is disgusted when he sees Kojak in lip-synched Japanese because “his father was one of those listed in the credits.” It seems that Ransom can’t forgive his father for leaving Manhattan and his promise as a play-wright for California and the loose life of the television director and producer. Ransom’s mother died of cancer when he was fourteen and he blamed his father’s career and girlfriends. “I hate his cynicism. He turned his back on the things he used to believe in.” Ransom remembers that his father “got” him into Princeton by donating to the university “a very considerable sum.” He is oppressed by “fatherly letters” and keeps checks from home in the bottom of a drawer. “He didn’t want the old man’s baksheesh.”
Ransom exhibits the antihero’s knack for attracting trouble. It finds him at the “Buffalo Rome,” a blues bar where he satisfies his need to hear English. “Dharma bums” and other expatriate souls who suffer from “Asia Burn” wash up there after “bleary months on the subcontinent.” Ransom meets Mey-Van, a k a Marilyn, a Vietnamese refugee and nightclub singer. To protect his best friend from Marilyn’s jealous fiancé, who is a gangster, an oyabun in the yakuza, Ransom allows her to pretend that he is her lover. This sets in motion a chain of melodramatic events that ends in violence and death.
Charles Newman observed in a recent study, The Post-Modern Aura, that the literary genre of the moment is the scenario, and Ransom has the atmosphere of a work whose influences are cinematic rather than literary. Some scenes—a ski trip to Matsumoto, a dive between boats of pelican fishermen after a chase—are also shots, and Ransom, if anything, is a stuntman. But the plot is forced and complicated, and McInerney tends to use up his considerable fictional drive just to keep the strands from getting tangled. Shifts in point of view are not wholly successful, and the ongoing action is interrupted by flashbacks that are meant to explain the origins of Christopher Ransom’s discipline and penance.
The flashbacks reveal that a woman he had met and lost at Katmandu in 1975 he found again near the Khyber Pass, along with a college chum of his. The border between Afghanistan and Pakistan was “a place without law.” He became a party to their desperate drug smuggling. “He had allowed her to do this to herself. For this he had to accept responsibility, and for the rest of it.” He blames himself for their deaths. The only alternative to his monastic life in Kyoto in his prewar house of mud and lime is his father’s loathsome success. However, instead of explaining Ransom these flashbacks add to the novel’s ambiguous combination of tone, part thriller, part spiritual quest. Perhaps Chris Ransom is meant to be wildly contradictory, the “morally taut and resolute” karate expert one moment, the grief-stricken drifter the next.
McInerney offers a variety of secondary characters, most of whom seem present simply to illustrate how cool Ransom is as a gaijin-at-large. Japanese students frequent the Buffalo Rome “to cop some cool from the gaijin.” A Japanese ad exec assures Ransom that gaijin are “glamorous.” Ransom-san, accustomed to scrutiny, knows this—and more. His landlord reveres him; he is besieged by teenyboppers who mistake him for Charlie Watts; he recalls a rally where he was rumored to be Tom Hayden. His knowledge of Japanese gives him an edge:
The thickness of their Kansai dialect and the distortion of the echo obscured the conversation, but Ransom gathered they were talking about him.
Gaijin are bigger, one said, standing up, but Japanese are harder.
This, Ransom knew, was the common wisdom.
The laughter of women carried from the other side of the partition. The men eyed Ransom suspiciously: they knew he had come to steal their daughters and their sisters. These two were old enough to remember the Occupation. Ransom assumed an innocent expression—Nobody here but us eunuchs.
McInerney lets his hero one-up paranoid journalists, clumsy narcs, humorless Trotskyites, tattooed bullies, eventually even his sensei. He broods about the “twisted English” in Japanese advertising and conversation, sets his pupils up for comedy routines in English class. McInerney’s first novel, Bright Lights, Big City, was antic with mischievous humor, but in Ransom the bad-boy jokes are predictable and intrusive, as when a Japanese band sings “Stormy Monday”: “The eagle fries on Flyday.” Though Ransom thinks that Japanese television is so trashy someone ought to “save Japan from the Japanese,” though he can envision streams of Datsuns and Toyotas invading American shores, he appears to have come to one of those private understandings with Japan, able to take the satori and leave the video games.
The defeat in Vietnam hangs over the macho craziness of the novel. A deranged former marine is determined to fight Ransom to the death for no reason other than that upper-class guys like Ransom have been giving him the business all his life. “Everything was real when you knew you could get your teeth smashed in, your balls delivered express to the back of your throat.” An excessive amount of the novel is taken up with descriptions of how Ransom learns to take punishment during sparring practice. “When he inhaled, he drew the ache into a fine, hot wire extending from his side up into his right arm.” Ransom is spoken of as ” ‘a nonviolent samurai warrior,’ ” ” ‘in training for the afterlife,’ ” but his combat readiness, we know, cannot go disappointed. What suspense Ransom has comes from the confusion of who is after him: the deranged vet or the gangsters. Ransom begins to “watch his back” and suspects that he is under constant surveillance. “In Japan everything is some kind of omen.”
Unfortunately, McInerney resolves the plot by means of a deus ex machina that undermines the novel and strains verisimilitude: Marilyn turns out to be a Korean actress hired by Ransom’s father to lure him out of Japan and back to California. Would it really be so easy for a Korean actress from the States to pass herself off as Vietnamese? In any event, Ransom Sr. counted on his son’s chivalry. The problem is that the familiar father–son conflict, here, is not particularly convincing. Ransom is made to seem priggish and self-righteous when he goes on about “the old man.” It is as if McInerney lost his nerve and had to reduce a story of intrigue in Southeast Asia to a schoolboy’s adventure-fantasy, something dismissive, even if inadvertently, of the theme of the Vietnamese refugee that McInerney raises.
The fathers in David Leavitt’s collection of stories, Family Dancing, crave the same freedom their children do and often beat them to it. They are frequently away on business trips, or remarried to a graduate student, a wife’s best friend, or they stash a mistress up the road. In “Danny in Transit,” a stockbroker quits his job, moves in with a man in Greenwich Village, and ships his son off to a prep school when the boy’s mother has a nervous breakdown. “I’m just not ready for him yet,” the freedman protests.
These stories, that is, those that are about boys, are very much of their historical moment—post-Stonewall and pre-AIDS. There are no guilty conferences with shrinks, as in the TV adaptation of Laura Hobson’s Consenting Adult, no anguished cries against fate, as in the TV movie An Early Frost. These upper-middle-class families have more need of Miss Manners’s advice on what sleeping arrangements to make for a son and his friend than they do of APA reports. The young men themselves feel some nostalgia for the closet as a form of adolescent privacy and coming out is remembered, if at all, as a somewhat awkward family council. “It’s O.K., honey,” which indicates the distance traveled since the furtive prairie fires of The City and the Pillar.
The cat has long been out of the bag for most of these families and Leavitt’s shrewdness is to make The Love That Won’t Shut Up just another wild card in the family deck. In “The Lost Cottage,” for instance, Lydia and Alex Dempson plan to divorce but they spend the summer on Cape Cod one last time because of the children. “They hold onto the cottage as a principle, something which persists even when marriages fail, and other houses crumble.” The “children,” of course, are adults. The daughter is a lawyer, one son does oceanographic research with his girlfriend, and the younger son has had a series of temporary jobs in Manhattan where he devotes “most of his time to exploring the city’s homosexual night life.” But he is off-duty from the bars, just as his sister has taken time off from her court cases, and they are all “speechless spectators” of their mother’s humiliations.
The prodigal, in Leavitt’s work, is restored to the family bosom because no one is in a position to throw too many stones. In a sense everything has already happened; the stories are about fallout, adjustments, losses, fear of the “unspoken being spoken.” Leavitt fully exploits the convention of family gatherings as volatile occasions. Most of the stories are centered around returns, reunions, the ways by which the fleeting years are gauged. “Out Here” presents three sisters, one married, one a spinster, one a lesbian, who meet to “haggle about bank accounts, trust funds,” and to dispense with their father’s things. The title story relates a party two remarried parents give for their son’s graduation from a “third-rate” prep school. “The chopped liver in a heart shape! Those schvartzeh caterers put the chopped liver in a heart shape!” Beneath the platitudes, grievances and resentments simmer. The unhappy daughter is a kind of comic saboteur, whose best friend is also her brother’s boyfriend.
Leavitt is best with a small cast, when not too many sides of the repetitive story clamor to be told. In “Territory,” the most assured story in the volume, Neil Campbell discovers that most but not all of him can go home again. It is not possible to always revert to the way one was at home. “I have returned nothing; I have simply returned.” He remembers his mother as a lifelong activist, but he also remembers a parade during which he saw “pain in her face, and then, briefly, regret. That day, he felt she would have traded him for any other son.” He resents his mother telling him “little sad stories” of dolls broken in her childhood, of stolen lunches, because they make him feel like one of the boys who made her cry as a girl.
Now is the time for drastic action. He contemplates taking Wayne’s hand, then checks himself. He has never done anything in her presence to indicate that the sexuality he confessed to five years ago was a reality and not an invention. Even now, he and Wayne might as well be friends, college roommates. Then Wayne, his savior, with a single, sweeping gesture, reaches for his hand, and clasps it, in the midst of a joke he is telling about Saudi Arabians. By the time he is laughing, their hands are joined. Neil’s throat contracts; his heart begins to beat violently. He notices his mother’s eyes flicker, glance downward; she never breaks the stride of her sentence.
Neil can struggle against his claustrophobic guilt, but he cannot integrate his two worlds. His mother is upset by his “shenanigans” outdoors with Wayne, and she flinches when Neil tries to put his arm around them both in the movies. “I’m very tolerant, very understanding, but I can only take so much.” No matter, Neil and Wayne are carried off by a jet into the sunset.
Leavitt’s young men seem to operate on the assumption that most other people are envious of their fun. In some of these stories, young women are given the unhappy part of confidante, or agent of Cupid, which leaves them alone, on the outside, or cast as incipient fag hags, as in the case with the girl watching her two friends in “Dedicated.” Mostly, however, the young men in these stories are not reconciled to the family so much as they are free within their class. The boys bickering by the heated pool in “Dedicated,” each with an upscale job, seem to illustrate a prophecy made by the social philosopher Guy Hocquenghem after the murder of Pasolini:
The traditional queen, likeable or wicked, the lover of young thugs, the specialist of street urinals, all these exotic types inherited from the Nineteenth Century, give way to the reassuring modern young homosexual…with mustache and briefcase, without complexes or affectations, cold and polite, in an advertising job…opposed to outlandishness, respectful of power….
A stereotype of the legal homosexual, integrated into society, molded by the establishment, and close to it in his taste…replaces the baroque diversity of traditional homosexual styles….
And everyone will fuck in his own social class, the dynamic junior executives will breathe with rapture the smell of their partners’ after shave.2
Not all the stories in Family Dancing are about sons and lovers though each concerns parents and children. When they are not about boys holding hands in public, Leavitt’s stories revolve around illness, mainly the Big C. Mothers make dinner and drive themselves to radiation therapy; mothers overcome the fatigue of chemotherapy and tend to the child who misbehaves from an instinctive fear of change. A parent’s death is becoming the theme to replace sexual initiation as the rite of passage in contemporary fiction about youth.
Leavitt’s America is entirely Manhattan, Connecticut, or northern California, a country of professionals, choices, and ample resources with which to hold body and mind together. The place Bret Easton Ellis describes is more prosperous, the brave new world of the children of Bob, Carol, Ted, and Alice, of MTV on day and night, of checks made out on Christmas morning as an afterthought, of parents in Japan, Rome, Barbados, or Hawaii, or parents whose whereabouts their children ascertain by flipping through pages of Variety.
This is not really a punk novel (the title comes from Elvis Costello’s Trust). There are no crash pads, safety pins, monumental mohawks, buzz cuts, or rock bands in the garage. The outrageousness is all in the lack of restraint, in the consumption. This is light years away from New Wave’s roots as depicted in The Punk (1977), the underground novel Gideon Sams published in London when he was fifteen. Not that Less Than Zero lacks violence. But it depicts the casual violence of kids toward themselves. The novel is not about youth lost in the world. In fact, Ellis’s characters have no contact with the world. The eighteen-year-olds of Less Than Zero keep apartments with Jacuzzis on Wilshire just to be close to class, but no one attends. USC is the “University of Spoiled Children” and then there is “Jew.S.C.” and “Jew.C.L.A.” Mostly the kids hang out and nod out in many mansions from Beverly Hills to Malibu to Palm Springs. They are on their own so much that the book resembles a Peanuts cartoon—the adults seem to speak from off-frame. These kids are alone with Pac Man and large wardrobes, alone except for nameless, faceless Hispanic maids or blond hangers-on who seem to answer doors only in briefs with tan lines showing. The aim of life is not to miss a beat while crying, mainlining, snorting, skin-popping, or free-basing to keep from laughing, as in been-rich-so-long-it-feels-like-poor-to-me.
The narrator, Clay, is home from college in New Hampshire. He looks up his old friends, all of whom appear to be blond and privileged and high on coke, but not really enjoying anything. They drive in Porsches or Mercedes from seedy club to posh joint, and manage to never connect. “I realize for an instant that I might have slept with Didi Hellmann. I also realize that I might have slept with Warren also.” Sex is no big deal. Clay and his friends prefer to talk about bands, drugs, cars, who fainted from anorexia, and who’s a creep. The premise is dangerously narrow—the self-destructiveness of kids with too much time and money. But Ellis has a remarkable ear and the repetitive evenings have a cumulative effect that comes solely from his language.
It’s a Saturday night and on some Saturday nights when there’s not a party to go to and no concerts around town and everyone’s seen all the movies, most people stay at home and invite friends over and talk on the phone. Sometimes someone will drop by and talk and have a drink and then get back into his car and drive over to somebody else’s house. On some Saturday nights there’ll be three or four people who drive from one house to another. Who drove from about ten on Saturday night until just before dawn the next morning.
The style police are after Clay and his friends with a vengeance. They wear the right sunglasses, English Beat T-shirts, Fear, Heaven, or Billy I dol T-shirts. They drink Champagne Kirs, smoke cigarettes, order but do not touch Fatburgers with chili, take ludes, Valium, Nembutal, or Desoxyn to come down from coke or Preludin. They sun themselves in polo gear at the beach clubs and throw fits when they can’t get change for a one-hundred-dollar bill at the arcade. They crack up over JAPs who drink too much Tab, over guys who pump gas, and, of course, at spics. Clay doesn’t like to drive down Wilshire during lunch hour because there are “too many cars and old people and maids waiting for buses.” Attitude requires ruthless cool, Less Than Zero seems to say. Perhaps there is a bit too much self-conscious cool, but then that is the prison Clay is trying to make sense of.
The music’s loud and there are a lot of people dancing and the entire floor smells like beer and sweat and gasoline. The new Icicle Works single comes on and a couple of The Go-Gos are there and so is one of The Blasters and Kim says that she spotted John Doe and Exene standing by the DJ. Alana starts to talk to a couple of English boys she knows who work at Fred Segal. Kim talks to me. She tells me that she doesn’t think that Blair likes me much anymore. I shrug and look out an open window.
Duran Duran music comes from Clay’s mother’s room; he doesn’t know who’s in there with her, his kid sisters watch porno flicks on the Betamax, and he thinks that he’ll be cured if he can only see “the worst.” The worst is not the live rats a local band tosses to its fans. The worst has to do with voyeurism, exhibitionism, and the self-destructiveness of Clay’s friends.
Muriel holds the syringe and Kim whispers, “Don’t do it,” but her lips are trembling and she looks excited and I can make out the beginnings of a smile and I get the feeling that she doesn’t mean it.
In Parachute one of Clay’s friends doesn’t bother going to a booth to try clothes on; outside a club they find the dead body of an unknown youth and stick cigarettes in its mouth. Some of Clay’s friends are rumored to be dealing bad smack to junior high school students, another borrows a fifteen-thousand-dollar snuff film. Yet another chum has a twelve-year-old girlfriend tied up and shot up on his bed for the enjoyment of his friends. When Clay feebly protests he’s told: “What’s right? If you want something, you have the right to take it. If you want to do something, you have the right to do it.” Clay leaves town when he discovers his best friend is selling himself to support his smack habit. Less Than Zero is not pornographic, though it uses the pornographic method of inviting the reader to voyeurism. Ellis is at pains to free his narrator of any stain by inserting passages of longing for happier summers with his grandparents in Palm Springs, by making Clay appropriately queasy, and by including brief scenes with an authority figure, a shrink, who is, predictably, a fool. Endless, aimless hanging out does not require justification, but Ellis does not seem to want to place the narrator too far beyond the pale.
A recent Gallup Poll concluded that the number of books sold to Americans between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four dropped 6 percent from last year.3 This raises the question of who is reading Less Than Zero and other works in what could be called the youth-novel genre. It’s hard to believe that any of the hyped-up kids outside rock clubs like CBGB or Save the Robot want to be home reading about MTV viewers, and in this sense some of the works written by the young must truly be messages for the grown-ups.
Youth has dominated popular culture since the Beatles. Some analysts now predict that the baby boom generation will become the most important voting bloc for the next twenty years.4 Does this mean that by the next election people who can recall the Davy Crockett fad will be crowding in the same boat with voters born in 1970? A part of the Sixties legacy is the tendency to view youth as a homogenous group, as if it were a permanent class. No one seems to get kicked upstairs into adulthood anymore and those involved in the youth industry or dependent on the image seem like committee members who vote themselves into office year after year. How long can Mick Jagger go on? As long as he likes.
Man and boy stood cheering by,
And home we brought you shoulder- high
David Leavitt published an article recently about “The New Lost Generation” in Esquire,5 rather in the way Joyce Maynard came forth more than a decade ago to explain youth after the generation of the Sixties had moved on to greener pastures. “We hit our stride in an age of burned-out, restless, ironic disillusion,” Leavitt writes of his generation. “We don’t pretend we’re not wearing costumes.” Leavitt convincingly describes the difference in sensibility between those who grew up in the Seventies and those who came of age in the Sixties. What Leavitt does not say is that the Sixties, with its moral imperatives and social consciousness, imposes something of a burden on the young who have followed.
It is not so much that contemporary fiction by young writers describes a reconciliation between the young and society, as that that fiction defies nostalgia for the Sixties and insists on its own distinct and separate identity. These novels are written from the inside of youth, not about it. The slang and drug of choice may differ, but the tone today is not far from that of the generation of This Side of Paradise, the atmosphere of romance.
May 29, 1986
“The Year of the Yuppie” (December 31, 1984). ↩
“Schizo-Culture,” Semiotext(e) (September, 1978). ↩
Quoted in Publisher’s Weekly (February 14, 1986). ↩
David Boaz, ed., Left, Right, and Babyboom: America’s New Politics (Cato Institute, 1986). ↩
May 1985. See also Bret Easton Ellis’s “Bennington Blues,” Rolling Stone (September 26, 1985). ↩