Clay, 18, returns to California from his New England college for a month over Christmas. He socialises and parties with his California friends, most of whom have parents who work in the movie industry or modelling etc. They could be clones: "thin, tan bodies, short blond hair, blank look in the blue eyes, same empty toneless voices" (p 140). These spoilt rich kids drink, party, take drugs and sleep with one another in a hedonistic lifestyle which seems to have no cares or consequences. As the book progresses we get glimpses of a darker side: bodies and souls that have been wrecked by drug abuse, payments required, violence and death. But almost nobody seems to care.
Clay hardly ever does anything; he almost always observes.
This book includes scenes I found very disturbing:
- The watching of a snuff movie involving children being tortured and mutilated; subsequently those watching enact a copycat gang rape of a minor
- The discovery of the dead body of a young man in an alley which is treated as a thing to go and see
- Drug debt leading to male prostitution (Clay's - paid - role in this is to observe the sex act taking place; reinforcing his role as the eternal onlooker)
The style of the book is an unstructured ramble which put me very much in mind of the work of Jack Kerouac in, for example, On the Road. The narrator, Clay, goes from party to party recording what occurs with the impartiality of a fly-on-the-wall documentary. There seems no 'story'. It is only after we discover the reason for Julian's repeated attempts to contact Clay that the Faustian theme emerges: there are dark and sometimes savage consequences for the way you live your life.
The documentary feel of the first part adds verisimilitude, as does the (typically American writers' habit of) regular name checking for consumer items.
The poor make occasional appearances as maids and bystanders. They are very much in the background like Bruegel characters in the corner of the eye, mutely making a point. They are often perceived as a threat:
- "I don't like driving down Wilshire during lunch hour. They always seem to be too many cars and old people and maids waiting for buses and I end up looking away." (p 32)
- "We pass a poor woman with dirty, wild hair and a Bullock's bag sitting by her side full of yellowed newspapers ... Blair locks the doors." (p 131)
The nihilism of this book (and not just in terms of the young people, or the extended California society, but in terms of the meaning of human life) is summed up in this exchange:
When we got into the car he took a turn down a street that I was pretty sure was a dead end.
'Where are we going?' I asked.
'I don't know', he said. 'Just driving'.
'But this road doesn't go anywhere', I told him.
'That doesn't matter'.
'What does?' I asked, after a little while.
'Just that we're on it, dude', he said.
Other moments to treasure:
- "I don't watch a lot of the movie, just the gory parts. My eyes keep wandering off the screen and over to the two green Exit signs that hang above the two doors in the back of the theater." (p 88)
- "'You don't need anything. You have everything', I tell him. Rip looks at me. 'No. I don't. ... 'What don't you have?' 'I don't have anything to lose'." (p 177)
- "The images I had were of people being driven mad by living in the city."
Brilliant and disturbing. Catcher in the Rye on cocaine.
September 2020; 195 pages