Screen unreality

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Describing Bret Easton Ellis' novel Less Than Zero as "Catcher in the Rye for the MTV generation" is hardly fresh observation any more. Ellis' 1985 modern classic stands undeniably in nihilistic coming-of-age tradition, in its content, narrative structure, the use of voice, to name a few similarities. It's easy to see why many readers make the comparison.

It is perhaps the second part of this cliche, the MTV generation, which is more interesting.

In narration of Bret Easton Ellis' Less Than Zero, there seems to be particular attention paid to presence of television and the characters' interaction with screens. References to MTV pop up every other scene, and Clay regularly comments on and describes the content. On occasion he mindlessly watches a televangelist because he can’t be bothered to watch anything else.

The recurring motif of television is certainly more than descriptive. The sparse prose of the novel means that its singular features are all the more selective. It certainly seems unusual to reference TV so much in a book.

One of the dominant themes of the novel is that of the superficial, both in form and content. In form, in the way that Clay's narration focuses on the surface details of characters and contains very little introspection or original thought, rather just an account of things that happen and a record of the dialogue. In content, in that Clay picks up on certain recurring themes which indicate his preoccupation with how things appear, such as his attention to whether people are "tan" or not, and the extent of his own sun tan. Further to this, the motif of the television takes on new significance.

As modern readers we are of course even more sensitive to the idea that TV is staged, orchestrated, in our culture of reality shows and drama which poses as authentic despite the obvious production choices.

On another level, the references to television seem to underscore the book's themes of passivity and boredom. The characters seem to act without real reason, because there is nothing better to do, rather than because they are motivated in any meaningful way. As we experience Clay's monologue, we are exposed to his boredom, and how his actions seem to be entirely without reason. He just does things.

In a way his lack of motivation is a great flaw in the novel: since Clay doesn't make any meaningful decisions, we don't learn very much about his character and his (absent) choices do not drive the plot forward. Indeed, it feels that he going through the motions of a story that already exists, there is no real sense of agency.

The book still acts as a comment on the boredom of hedonistic youth, underscored by the image of the television. Ironically, a device for entertainment has come in some ways to embody lacking creativity as the viewer is sucked into passive past-time of consuming the screen because there is nothing better to do.

In one especially unsettling scene we see Clay and some of the characters watch what seems to be an amateur porno which takes a violent turn with a chainsaw. The film sequence is described as the female performer becomes more of a victim. The boys who watch the film appear numb to its apparent horror, and Clay himself is largely unmoved, describing the scene in the same affectless tone as he describes everything else in the book.

Here we see the numbing effect of TV, as well as it's disjuncture from reality. Trent defends the realism of the film, hoping that it is real. A nameless boy also comments "you can't fake that". The visual image creates a trusting reality. As they say, seeing is believing.

Our modern world is coated in screens. We are surrounded by images which create our impression of the world, and our unreality. Even though we are aware that the thousands of adverts and polished social media feeds do not represent fact or truth, we can’t help but look at the image and partly think “you can’t fake that.” Whereas the characters of Less Than Zero live in a world of occasional screens, today the screen is ever-present in the home, in waiting rooms, on buildings, in our pockets, on the walls of the underground. There’s no escaping these surfaces which project their reality.

The screen, whether television, desktop, tablet, phone, has been sometime hailed as a window to another world, and rightly so. In the same way that a window allows you to see a view, it also acts as a barrier to the scene itself. You are limited to witness from the one side of the glass. How acutely aware of the limitations of the screen-as-window we now are.

Despite the gap of three decades and overwhelming technological advances since the millennium, Less Than Zero is still very much a novel of our time. The recurring motif of the television speaks to our generation, full of interactive screens and the proliferation of TV channels. The references to television in the novel heighten the superficiality of Clay's narration, and in the age of Instagram and hashtags, we have become hypersensitive to the idea that the screen, whether TV or phone, only shows the surface of something.

The novel serves as a reminder of how the screen forms a divide between reality and projection, and potential for the image of the screen to inform truth, and perhaps even displace it.