Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Discussing Brett Easton Ellis' Less Than Zero

This novel was the subject of our blog this week, so here are my thoughts on this cult status novel from the 1980s

Less Than Zero is a novel in the ‘bildungsroman’ genre, a novel about the so-called ‘blank generation’. The term blank generation was coined by Richard Hell who released an album in 1977 called blank generation. Richard Hell described its meaning thusly, ‘it’s the idea that you have the option of making yourself anything you want, filling in the blank... It’s saying, ‘I entirely reject your standards for judging my behaviour’’. In literary terms, blank fiction refers to a ‘bratpack’ style group of writers whose subject matter - drugs, violence, commodities and youth culture - is presented using detached or disengaged rhetoric. Of these writers, Bret Easton Ellis is one of the most well-known and his debut novel, Less Than Zero, is considered a cornerstone in this genre of literature.

The novel is told using the narrative voice of Clay, a young man in his late teenage years or early twenties, who returns home from college and finds himself quickly re-immersed in the angry, disaffected, disengaged lifestyle of his high school friends whose prolific drug use and the associated lifestyle begins to pull Clay into a downward spiralling vortex of confused desperation.

In 2008, Ashley Minix Donnelly wrote her graduate thesis, Blank Power: The Social and Political Criticism of Blank Fiction and Cinema, focussing on ‘blank generation’ literature. Within that thesis which is published online, Minix Donnelly explores Bret Easton Ellis’ novel Less Than Zero.

This blog post will examine Minix Donnelly’s assessment of Less Than Zero, focusing in particular on her understanding of the novel’s representation of commodification, drug use and youth culture in relation to ‘the blank generation’, i.e., the wealthy generation of 1980's youths (those in their late teens and early twenties,) growing up in LA.

Minix Donnelly makes the point that often ‘blank literature’ is ‘intended to motivate a complacent audience and ignite passion in American readers against the injustice faced by their fellow citizens’.  This idea can certainly be applied to Less Than Zero. If a society has a dominant set of ideas and values that are seen to be shared by the majority of members within that society (organic culture), then examination of Less Than Zero provides an excellent opportunity to counter such a perspective. Less Than Zero offers what one might describe as an anti-culture perspective, that of a group within society whose ideas and values are in direct conflict with the dominant values of the culture within which they exist.

In addition, Minix Donnelly suggests that the debauchery that is often found in ‘blank fiction acts as a cautionary tale that serves to promote the current values of society by showing the malfunction of society if people deviate from those values. She agrees with James Annersley’s view in Blank Fictions: Consumerism, Culture, and the Contemporary American Novel, referring to his suggestion that ‘the violent, destructive and decadent’ nature of this genre is intended to represent ‘the apocalypse culture’ of the late 20th century’.  Minix Donnelly suggests that the ‘overwhelming sense of hopelessness’ that is prevalent in the genre is to be explained in this way, and it is certainly my belief that her theory can be applied to Less Than Zero, when one considers the political and ideological backdrop against which the novel is set.

In the U.S. during the 1980s the dominant culture was bred by the embracing of right-wing politics (those of the Reagan administration), which included the celebrated era of consumerism, of which the Yuppie is perhaps the most easily recognised symbol.  This new and exciting era was especially well received given that the US was only just beginning to rise from the ashes of ‘Cold War Culture’, a period prior to the era of commodification when a sense of responsibility and seriousness was the dominant ideology.  However, the era of consumerism was not regarded as the answer to a progressive society by all Americans.  Whilst ‘Cold War Culture’ had been countered by the rise of the 1960's and 1970’s angry youth in what has come to be known as the punk era, the 1980s dominant culture was countered by the ‘blank generation’, the 1980s angry youth who set out to buck against what they perceived as ‘mainstream’ ideologies that they felt did not represent who they truly were.  (It is fairly ironic that it would in fact be this generation who would, in just a decade or so, feed into the idea of commodification more than any generation before them, through their total immersion in – and subservience to – the information age.)

This doesn’t mean that Less Than Zero is not a valuable work of literature or that it does not give an accurate reflection of life for some of America’s youth at that time.  I would indeed argue to the contrary:  Danny Bonaduce, a college student at the time of Less Than Zero’s publication, was very clear in his autobiography that he and some of his fellow students felt that they were the characters about whom Ellis was writing. Less Than Zero offers one perspective, which is particularly easy to recognise due to the first-person narrative that acts as a sort of ‘stream of consciousness’ of the protagonist, Clay, one of LA’s angry youth.  What we must recognise however, is that it is only representing this section of society, and however small or large that group is, the book cannot be considered to represent the very many of sections of society whose views, or ideologies differ from – and in many cases directly oppose – those represented in Ellis’ novel.  This does not mean that the novel is unworthy of critical reflection, which  is a view that Minix argues is often taken by critics who struggle to separate the content of blank fiction literature from its context and thus consider work in this genre as ‘superficial works of popular culture’. Indeed Less Than Zero continues to be regarded as an edgy, stark piece of literature and one worthy of respect in its field.

However, in some ways Less Than Zero is in fact offering the same kind of mainstream approach as, for example, the movies of John Hughes.  Hughes’ films are very often seen as ‘the voice of a generation’, and it is certainly true that for some of that generation that is exactly what they were.  However, it is utterly false to suggest that any of Hughes films completely represent every member of that generation, or that they represent any one person’s entire ideology, viewpoint, or values.  Rather, his movies reflect one or some aspects of life in some parts of America for some people who predominantly belong to a particular generation. In the same way, Less Than Zero can be seen in this light regardless of its dark and at times uncomfortable content, and therefore, whilst I appreciate the novel for its representation of one aspect of 1980s culture, and whilst I hold it in high regard for its literary value, I do not see Less Than Zero as the voice of a generation, instead I consider it to be an enjoyably dark, yet still rather mainstream, ‘coming of age’ novel.
Bonaduce, D., Random Acts of Badness: My Story (U.S., 2001), p.62
Annersley, J., Blank Fictions: Consumerism, Culture, and the Contemporary American Novel (London, 1998) p.108

Wednesday, 6 April 2016

As part of my American Studies degree, I am taking a module called Researching America in the 1980s.  Each week we are asked to make a blog post on a particular subject, and I thought it would be quite cool to post those blog posts here so that visitors to my blog can get a sense of what I'm doing. This week we were asked to post on a representation of an identity issue related to race from the 1980s and comment on its meaning at the time and its legacy today.  Here is my post on this subject...

Civil Rights became one of the pivotal aspects of American culture during the 1960s following the implementation of the Civil Rights Act 1964.  It continued as a key issue throughout the 1970s. As the 1980s loomed, many hoped that the new age of racial equality had dawned, and racial injustices such as the principal of ‘separate but equal’ in American law were past.  In reality, the 1980s saw riots, serial murders, muggings, kidnappings, rapes and murders as constant examples of the continuing racial tensions across a divided America.
  Whilst racism was rife throughout the whole of America, in Miami, a city with a high percentage of black people of whom many already lived in poverty stricken circumstances, two episodes of civil unrest as a result of perceived racial inequality served as bookends to the decade and highlight the little progress towards true equality that was made during the period.
  In April and May 1980, six white police officers were acquitted by an all-white jury in a case of horrific brutality that resulted in the death of Arthur McDuffie, a black father of two who was riding a motorcycle with a suspended licence. Four of the officers had chased and then beaten McDuffie into a coma whilst he was handcuffed and on the ground, and subsequently lied and falsified evidence, with the assistance of two other police officers.  Their acquittal was seen as evidence of institutionalised racism and Miami became the backdrop to some of the worst rioting American had witnessed since the Civil Rights movement had taken hold in the 1960s.  Over the course of four days, eighteen people were killed, three hundred and fifty were seriously injured, and eight hundred arrests had been made, as well as damage and destruction to the city amounting to $100 million.  Many parts of the city had literally been burnt to the ground, and the levels of destruction and violence during the rioting were such that they are still shocking today, for example, with instances of people being deliberately locked into burning cars.
  Miami never really recovered.  Three thousand jobs were lost as a direct result of the riots.  Whilst federal financial assistance was given, it was nowhere near enough for the city to rebuild.  Miami spiralled into decline, and thousands of its citizens moved away, adding to the difficulties the city already faced in trying to start afresh.
  In January, 1989, just as the city was preparing to host the Superbowl, an event which was to signal new beginnings and draw a line under its difficult past, the city saw yet another spate of rioting which began following an eery reflection of the events of 1980.  On this occasion, it was the death of two young black men, 34 year old motorcyclist, Clement Lloyd and his passenger, Allan Blanchard, at the hands of an Hispanic Miami police officer, William Lozano, who was following Lloyd because of an alleged traffic violation, which served as the catalyst to rioting throughout the city.  With many press agencies already in town in preparation for the Superbowl, the event quickly made national and international news, and yet again the world woke to images of Miami with burning press vehicles and buildings serving as a backdrop to yet more pictures of looting and violence. Following the deaths, a federal Civil Rights investigation was launched to answer the question of why a black man had been shot dead for speeding, and manslaughter charges were brought against Lozano.  In this first trial, Lozano was convicted of the men's manslaughter, however the FBI's efforts were short-lived because the conviction was overturned on appeal with Lozano having served no time in prison.
  The Lozano case also left a very significant legacy which would almost certainly impact on the future of American justice in such cases, and perhaps speaks to the question of why, in the twenty-seven years since the Lloyd and Blanchard deaths no prosecutions have ever been brought against white or Hispanic officers whose actions have resulted in the deaths of black people.  Following Lozano’s acquittal, Judge Fernandez- Rundle declared that prosecutors would no longer be allowed to inform jurors of information around police procedures and training.  This precedent has essentially acted as a carte blanche for officers to use ‘deadly force’ if they believed that they or someone else ‘might’ be at risk from a suspect, with little fear of consequence.
There have been numerous occasions in the nearly three decades since that have reflected the injustices of these cases, but without a doubt, these two events, occurring as they did in the same city under such similar circumstances and marking the beginning and end of the 1980s, highlight the difficulties that existed in the fight for equality throughout the period.

Arthur McDuffie

Clement Lloyd

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

We rescued a hedgehog!

For the last few days the boys (our dogs, Archie and Kiko) have been going bonkers every time they go in the garden, so yesterday evening my mum went to investigate and discovered that there was a little hedgehog trapped under our garden gate. We were a bit scared for a while as he didn't seem to be moving, but eventually we realised that he was alive so it was all action stations as, based on the dogs' behaviour we suspect he had been stuck there since the middle of last week.

After we freed him we mashed up half a pouch of Pedigree Chum and gave him a bowl of water.  Well the little piglet got stuck in and devoured the lot, so we gave him the other half of the pouch!  We then snuggled him into a little safe space for the night, leaving him with a box and lots of leaves in case he wanted to build himself a little shelter, and the plan was that this morning I would take him over to the fields behind our house.  

I am happy to report that this morning he was snuggly nestled into the box, and hardly visible under all the leaves!  I was so pleased.  I feel like we saved the little fella!  

Here's a little video I took last night of Piglet having some food.  I'm afraid it's not a very good film but you can see (and hear) that he's tucking in nicely to his doggy food dinner...

After all the excitement, we said our goodbyes and then Nelly and I took him (still nestled into his little nest-box) to the local nature reserve and released him.  We went back about an hour later and his box stood empty, hopefully this is a sign that he was happy to head off into the wilderness, and we keep our fingers crossed that he will do well and have a happy little life.

Monday, 4 April 2016

This might be a good time to introduce you to my brood.  My very small house is quite a busy little house and I like to think of it as the Centre of the Universe!  It is occupied by one granny (my mum), one mummy (me), one stinky teenager (my daughter, Nelly), a hamster called Cornelius, a Pomerhuahua called Archie, a Japanese Chin called Akihiko (Japanese for bright prince - we call him Kiko), and a cat called Billie (she's a girl, named after Billie Piper)!  It's relatively mayhemish at all times, but I love it!  

Nelly has an ASD diagnosis which brings a lot of laughter into the house, and occasionally a little stress!  She's obsessed with Harry Potter and Autism!  She does incredibly well at coping with ASD and with the world, and she brings a great deal of joy into many, many people's lives.  My mum is a type one diabetic, she's not in great health physically but she is always on form mentally - she is smart and funny and sharp as a tack.  She is also the most contrary person I have ever known and has an instinctive inability to ever do anything she's told! Archie the ginger pomerhuahua came from a rescue centre when he was one and although he was only a pup he had suffered very badly, which means he is a total bag of issues and drives us all crazy!  The cat is of the opinion that she runs the household, the hamster thinks he's Houdini and Kiko our black and white chin just can't quite believe he lives in this squashed madhouse - he's certain he belongs in a temple in Japan!

Saturday, 2 April 2016

A lovely day

Since 2003 I have worked every year at Glastonbury festival as a campsite steward. I am part of an amazing team of friends and the festival is my happy place - yep, even when it rains!  However this year the excitement level has been upped as my lovely daughter, having turned eighteen, has been invited to join our team, so I will get to share the experience with her and I cannot wait!

Today we drove to Street in Somerset so Nelly could do her first Glastonbury training session, and for me it was obviously a refresher, but in fact it was the best training we've had because it was run by such a lovely chap.  

It was so nice because lots of our team were there to do the training, so Nelly was introduced to some new faces and we had a nice chance to catch up before the festival - and to hear some exciting baby news for one of our Glastonbury friends, too.  

After the training we called in to visit our team leader who lives nearby, and again, had a lovely chance to catch up on the gossip and start building the excitement and anticipation for Glastonbury 2016.

As well as all this Glastonbury excitement, I also experienced  a Frankie and Benny's restaurant for the first time - and will definitely be going back - not sure how this has managed to elude me for all these years!  

All in all, a really lovely day...  Glastonbury baby!!! 

Friday, 1 April 2016

I made a card today!

I know that doesn't really sound all that exciting but it is months since I had an opportunity to sit down and design a new card.  I was propelled into action because a friend moved house, and I wanted to deliver a nice card and some nice bubbly (she's a Prosecco fan!) for her to enjoy once she had moved in. It was especially important to me to make a really personal 'new home' card, as this move was not really her choice and so she was feeling very emotional about it.  I wanted to make something that would give her a sense of belonging to her new place. This was the end result...

It was so nice to be crafting again, and especially nice to dig out some of my Tim Holtz crafting tools.  My mum is a Stampin' Up! demonstrator, and I just love the SU! stamps and tools, so these days I tend to stick with their products, but I am a massive Tim Holtz fan too!  

I have lots of essays to do over the next few weeks, but once they are out of the way my plan is to spend my summer doing lots of card-making and lots of reading.  Happy times ahead - and hopefully for my newly moved friend, too!