On the front cover of a little paperback by Bret Easton Ellis is the blurb "One of the most disturbing novels I've read in a long time.—Michiko Kakutani." Given that I don't know what she'd read at the time, it isn't clear the words mean anything at all, but I am sure that if they mean something it is different from I would mean by them.
One thing I find disturbing about Ellis' Less Than Zero is the title, since there is a continuum of real numbers that are less than zero. What I do not find disturbing are the behavioral issues, which are pretty standard for the human primate in the US, though most don't have sufficient resources or time to indulge in so much self-medication (but note that all are now able to procure prescription equivalents if they wish, assuming they have medical insurance). Rather my concern is that this extended home room report "what I did on my Christmas vacation" would be taken seriously, let alone become a national best seller. Scratch the second comment, since what makes the best seller list in a nation of functional illiterates is not relevant enough to be disturbing.
According to the blurb, Ms. Kakutani found that the book "possesses an unnerving air of documentary reality." To which I can only respond that so does my unwritten story regarding the solitary fruit of the lone black futsu that grew in my garden despite the drought, only to be attacked by a marauding possum. Did it survive? This question is as compelling as any regarding the characters in Ellis' book which reads like a rich kid's parody of Manchild in the Promised Land.
To try to sell this morality tale on a higher plane, the blurb on the back cover trumpets the characters' "absolute moral entropy," as if such a meaningless phrase adds intellectual tone to a book about human primates with "too much money." Which leads me to wonder how much money is too much and what sort of entropy is meant? Topological, measure-theoretic, algebraic or some other variant? To modify the precisely defined noun "entropy" with an adjective as devoid of significance as "moral" is to indulge in a game of jumbled strings of syntactically correct symbols without semantic content.Worse, consider the phrase, "They" (this lost generation of which the novel is supposed to be a powerful portrait) "have experienced sex, drugs, and disaffection at too early an age..." which makes me wonder when we will see a movement in Congress to establish a legal age limit for such experience.
To be disturbed by trite morality tales regarding primates who share a common ancestor with the chimpanzee is silly, indicative of a serious character defect, no matter whether the primates live in Los Angeles or on the banks of the Orinoco River. Seen as what they are biologically, the characters in this novel form a subculture of primates who are much like the rest of their lot except they possess more liquid time and exchange commodity and live in a cultural milieu that deviates from other superstitious primate subcultures across the US, most especially those of the mid-west and south with a behavioral code supposedly based on Xtian superstitions. Would anyone care if the setting were the rural human primates of South Carolina whose fifteen year old females drink moonshine and copulate with males twice their age? Same thing, except perhaps less pretentious regarding "culture."
What is truly disturbing is that the daughter of the man who authored "On equivalence of infinite product measures" would write such nonsense as part of a book review. Perhaps it would be more useful for her, and the people who waste their time reading drivel like Ellis' novel, to ponder the relationship between Kakutani's theorem from the paper cited above and the theory of infinite convolutions of E. R. van Kampen ("Infinite product measures and infinite convolutions," American Journal of Mathematics, volume 62, 1940, pages 417-448, especially proposition 6 on page 421).
I suggest, however, the paper "Entropy and singularity of infinite convolutions," Adriano M. Garsia, Pacific Journal of Mathematics, Volume 13, 1963, pages 1159-1169. If you can't read that, perhaps you ought to start with something more basic, like Richard S. Ellis' (no relationship I presume) Entropy, Large Deviations, and Statistical Mechanics. You would certainly learn more about morality in the human primate than from the other Ellis. But probably you are not smart enough or educated enough or both to read this stuff, so it would be better to stop using meaningful big words like entropy of which you have less than zero understanding. There are enough meaningless words like God, immoral, the Market, good and evil that you don't need to trivialize words that have semantic content.
As for the book itself, perhaps the funniest line is when the mentally deficient narrator Clay tells us he is going to the Saint Marquis with his boyhood friend Julian to "see the worst." The worst being that Julian will turn a trick with a man. These young primates are overindulged if that is the worst. Julian is over fifteen, so what's the harm? It's a job. And it isn't as if it would be the first time Julian had sex with a fellow primate of the same gender. Besides, how many of us get to take our boyhood friends to watch us at work?
Nor is the novel devoid of hope. I mean, at least Clay fires his shrink and doesn't join in the gang rape of the bound and drugged twelve year old. At least that victim is a girl. And dude, he does lose his fear of merging.
Personally I wondered how it could be that the author neglected a comparison of the skill as fellators of Clay, his quasi-girlfriend Blair, her mother, her father, her father's boyfriend, and the actors in the epic gladiator productions produced by Blair's father. And why not add Clay's mother and sisters? I can see a contest in the glory holes of un-air-conditioned Palm Spring's gas station bathrooms on a blazing summer day while a blast furnace wind howls outside the cinder block shelters.
I remember Christmas of 1968 very well. It had been a peaceful day without rockets or mortars or firefights. I sat alone in the triage Quonset hut reading a novel. One medevac came in that day. I was first to meet it. An old couple and a young woman, likely their daughter, huddled on the left side at the back of the CH-46 as the ramp lowered. On the metal deck beside the young woman lay a wide-eyed porcelain doll dressed in baby girl doll clothes. When I lifted it by the arms I saw it wasn't a doll, but an infant with an empty head. As I stared into the cup that had held a tiny brain, I swear I could see the back of its eye sockets. Carrying it to the DOA shack, as I exited the chopper pad an onlooker said something like "If that's the worse thing you'll see..." As the chopper lifted off, the crew chief kicked the brain off the ramp and a stretcher bearer went out with a dust pan and broom and swept it up off the asphalt and threw it in the garbage. It wasn't close to the worst thing I'd see. But I have wondered ever since what happened to that infant without a mark on her.
I remember a young woman who came in naked and black with grime and dirt, a hole in her stomach. Maybe she was fourteen or fifteen; it was hard to say. A VC nurse they said. Shot in the abdomen. Marines had found her on a sweep and sent her back to the Battalion Aid Station where the physician and his corpsmen had gang raped her, dirt and stomach wound and all.
One night at the dump at the base of the Marble Mountains with flares drifting down illuminating the side of the desolate crag, low-flying chopper gunships searching with spotlights, there burned a lone Jeep pickup. Beside the burning truck lay the bodies of some Navy guys pulled free, charred and looking dead except for one still noticeably breathing who had a little fire in the cavity in his thorax. He wasn't long for the world, going fish-eyed as I watched. But it was those damned kids again, two little girls this time, on stretchers in back of a jeep. Neatly eviscerated as by a concussion from an explosion, exactly as they'd described it in Corps School, each sporting a little mound of gut exposed through the bloodless slits in their bellies. I directed the jeep to our hospital down the road, wondering what two little kids had been doing out at night in this place where there were no streetlights to tell them when to come home. Where finding yourself in the light of a flare could mean death by gunshot. Perhaps remotely detonating a mine to kill the sailors patrolling the dump?
I suppose a more apposite memory would be the six or seven inch, finger-thick, brown ascaris wriggling from the anus of a young Marine. Extend the memory to a vision from the Pink Eiga of Japanese film directed by someone like Mitsuru Meike with perhaps the lovely Rinako Hirasawa sucking the worm from the young man's butt-hole. Then consider the relationship between n-holed donuts, irrationality and ergodicity. Not even Pynchon would touch that one. Still, one could ponder the loss of holes as a function of rational relationships among frequencies. Can you say conditionally periodic and degenerate?
Ellis' novel would make a totally awesome script for Clay's ex-girlfriend Blair's father to produce. Maybe it already did and I, like, totally missed it.
Jim Chaffee is an old guy who writes about what he knows: sex, violence, mathematics and dumbasses. His first science fiction pieces were weapon systems proposals to the Air Force. These days he's pondering which country will be best for immigration to escape the coming US military state. His crime novel, São Paulo Blues, which pisses off a lot of people who read it, is available at The Drill Press, where you'll find details regarding this book and others by authors such as Tom Bradley, Robert Levin, John-Ivan Palmer and Mickey Z. It also publishes three online journals in English and one in Portuguese.