There was something evil in the glow of the room’s blue lights. I felt the weight of the man on top of me. He could no longer move. His eyes were closed. I stared long into his face. I realized that I wanted him. I wanted the passion he had until a moment ago. I wanted his shoulders, which were quite muscular for his age, and his naturally tan face. I got out from under his body, sat in a chair, and lit a cigarette. I had to wait like this until he fell into a deep sleep.
It was raining outside.
— The Kingdom, Fuminori Nakamura (trans. Kalau Almony)
I’m currently going back through the first 75 ms pages of the novel, making notes and essential line edits, and putting in reminders of the edits people have suggested to me here and on Wattpad. This has been a great experience so far and I’m excited that Chapter 10 will be done before long. Since I’ve never written a science fiction novel before, much of this is new in process as well as substance. Keep the emails and comments coming and thanks for reading. ~ Michael
Like most who went to college in the early 1990s, I had the misfortune of first encountering Less Than Zero and thought it was okay in a rich-kids-get-the-blues-and-make-bad-life-decisions sort of way.’ work indirectly via the movie adaptations. I rented
James Spader was simultaneously cool yet annoying. And that pretty much characterized my opinion of Ellis’ sensibility for a few years. The people he wrote about were outside my experience; though, I’d known a few self-entitled wealthy narcissists at my private high school in San Diego—daddy owned a boat and mommy took valium, that sort of thing. But what I didn’t realize was that I had been reacting to the oversimplified (maybe clichéd) Hollywood tropes that had been extracted from his writing—a serious case of lost in adaptation, particularly for Less Than Zero and Rules of Attraction.
During my MFA, my professors were so determined to dismiss Ellis—I thought, mostly out of jealousy—that their vitriol actually piqued my interest. I went through everything he had out at the time—Less Than Zero, Rules of Attraction, American Psycho, The Informers, Glamorama, and Lunar Park. I read them with an eye for plot structure. I paid attention to his use of short chapters and perspective shifts. But mostly I apprenticed myself to his idiosyncratic first person voice. I think that’s his strongest stylistic quality as a fiction writer.
Consider this beginning to one of Lauren’s chapters in Rules (and note the Hemingway-esque beginning in media res via “And”):
And it’s quiet now, and over. I’m standing by Sean’s window. It’s almost morning, but still dark. It’s weird and maybe it’s my imagination but I’m positive I can hear the aria from La Wally coming from somewhere, not across the lawn since the party is over, but it might be somewhere in this house perhaps. I have my toga wrapped around me and occasionally I’ll look over and watch him sleep in the glow of his blue digital alarm clock light. I’m not tired anymore. I smoke a cigarette. A silhouette moves in another window, in another house across from this one. Somewhere a bottle breaks.
And it continues this way. The entire chapter is a long paragraph—not atypical for the novel or its predecessor, Less Than Zero. The speaker’s voice—her tone, how she frames her perceptions in words—shows more about who she is than what may or may not be taking place in the physical setting. Just as each voice-driven passage sets up a rhythm using long and short sentences to evoke the personality of the speaker, the lengths and arrangement of the chapters does the same thing on a larger scale. By the end, we realize that the novel works not only because the main characters (speakers) have fully formed implicit arcs, but also because the novel itself has a vocal arc. Rules weaves each of the character arcs together to push beyond their particular experiences and make a broad statement: this is what’s happening to your children, America. Or, maybe, this is what happens when you give your child a gold card and send her off to college.
The broad message is what it is: disaffected youth with too many resources, upper-class dry rot. We can watch any movie about the idle rich and enjoy the cliché of the vacuous aristocrat. In my opinion, those things are less important than what we can learn by paying attention to Ellis’ writing style. He has been put down for having a trite, narrow message (and for his off-color comments on social networks and the media), but I think we definitely miss out on what’s great about his work if we let those things take precedence over the writing itself. When I want to solve a problem using voice and I don’t know how to do it, he is one of my teachers.
Winter was coming. Now it’s here. Not the snow, but the cold dark and the daylong mist that stays on top of this mountain around the clock. I work on my novel for four hours every morning in a room large enough to hold a Fokker F-27. I have a little space heater that warms the side of my leg. Most days, I wear a blanket and a red watch cap to keep from trembling.
It’s a nice place. Enormous in every way. Sparsely furnished. In summer, if you’re quiet, you can hear the wind in the trees rise like surf. My uncle had a Japanese architect build it for him in the early 80s. My uncle went crazy in this house. He’s still alive in a facility down in central California. My cousin goes to see him and he thinks she’s my late aunt.
The house is situated near the top of the mountain but angled so that wind currents will naturally flow around it, creating an extra buffer of silence. Sometimes, the coyotes on the other side of the hill yip for a while and their voices sound like dogs and babies laughing together.
I’m lucky to have this time between things, but I don’t suspect I will be staying here much longer—maybe a month, maybe less. The regular occupants will be returning soon. They’re oblivious (or try to be), but for me the ghosts of my aunt, my mother, and my grandmother stand in the doorways of every room.
My spiritualist aunt died of a brain tumor in the upstairs room where I’m sleeping. She was a medium when she was alive, practiced automatic writing, channeling, held séances. My grandmother read the candles, apple skins, could read a deck of playing cards and tell your future. My mother could, too.
They all died in sad ways, not peacefully, not with dignity. They were good people—hard-edged but also kind. I miss them and all the old folks I knew as a kid. They’re very much with me these days. I see their faces in my mind’s eye. I hear my mother and sometimes see her in my dreams. But it’s nothing special.
If ghosts do exist, I hope I join them when it’s my time. If they don’t exist, I hope I don’t, either. It’s like that when the only family members you’ve got left are more interested in forgetting than remembering those who used to care for them. Who’s going to remember the old folks if I don’t? They were mechanics and housewives and small business owners. The marks they made on this earth were slight. And now they’re buried and gone. It’s as if they never existed. But I remember them all and think about them often. I believe they existed for a reason.
So I’ll be going soon. I don’t know where. Somewhere interesting and meaningful, I hope. Christmas is coming around again; though, I don’t much care for it. It’s a holiday I could do without. For the time being, I have an old chow to keep me company while I figure out the next thing. I have my novel to finish and my online classes to teach. And during the day, if it isn’t raining, I might go stand outside in my blanket and listen for some coyotes.