People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles. This is the first thing I hear when I come back to the city. Blair picks me up from LAX and mutters this under her breath as her car drives up the onramp. She says, “People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles.” Though that sentence shouldn’t bother me, it stays in my mind for an uncomfortably long time. Nothing else seems to matter. Not the fact that I’m eighteen and it’s December and the ride on the plane had been rough and the couple from Santa Barbara, who were sitting across from me in first class, had gotten pretty drunk. Not the mud that had splattered the legs of my jeans, which felt kind of cold and loose, earlier that day at an airport in New Hampshire. Not the stain on the arm of the wrinkled, damp shirt I wear, a shirt which had looked fresh and clean this morning. Not the tear on the neck of my gray argyle vest, which seems vaguely more eastern than before, especially next to Blair’s clean tight jeans and her pale-blue T-shirt. All of this seems irrelevant next to that one sentence.
Coming out of Whole Foods’ parking lot today reminded me of this, the opening of Bret Easton Ellis‘ 1985 novel Less Than Zero.1 “People are afraid to merge…” There’s a sense of entitlement to space that people in Florida at this moment (including, especially, Snow Birds; they’re here…) have that is paradoxically matched with their frigid distaste for actual contact with others which, para-paradoxically, melts if the cashier at the check-out seems genuinely friendly or kind.
Less Than Zero picks up where Catcher in the Rye leaves off and traces a related narrative timeline, and that’s cute. I mean, in comparison to Invisible Man that follows the narrator from a similar late/post-high school moment deep into actual adulthood, loss of innocence and then what, right?
When I graduated from high school, I remember buying four books because they had good reputations and great covers: The Stranger (we’d read The Fall junior year); Pale Fire (which, I dunno… I was ambitious then?); The Virgin Suicides (my sentimental favorite); and Less Than Zero. I’d seen the movie and liked the despair.2 What is it about semiconscious Western youth and an attachment to existential dread? The book was even better than the movie for driving home that feeling, though. And it shaped my view of Los Angeles, the rich, and December forever. I’ve described it as ‘arid’, the same word I use to describe The Handmaid’s Tale and the climates of New Mexico, the hills above Malibu, and the Fort Jeudy peninsula, all places that I love. The writing is parched, if that makes any sense.
Or, perhaps not. At what point do we stop melodramatically returning to our homes in the sun from our Eastern colleges for Winter Break? What changes that pattern? Can the pattern change? I wonder because the humidity is dropping, the days are shorter, and the psychological muscle memory for this time of year, the feeling of returning to something quaint after being somewhere profound, is activated right after Thanksgiving.
I imagine that marriage and/or kids trigger a different sort of pattern…
- This isn’t how the movie based on the book begins. Which, why the hell make movies based on books if they won’t hew to those books in anything more than spirit?
- Less Than Zero, 1987, Theatrical Trailer
- or rewatch, alas
- And, for Christ’s sake, stay away from Whole Foods’ parking lot (and the Los Angeles freeways); those people are crazy!