Best L.A. Novel Ever: Less Than Zero vs. A Single Man (Lost Souls Regional Final)
L.A. Weekly is determining the best L.A. novel ever by holding a tournament featuring 32 of our favorites in head-to-head matchups, until there's only one novel standing. For further reading:
*Best L.A. Novel Ever: The Tournament Brackets
*Best L.A. Novel Ever: More Matchups
If you're looking for sparse depictions of lost men wandering through their own spiritual crises with Los Angeles as the backdrop, then I've got a couple of books for you. Bret Easton Ellis' Less than Zero and Christopher Isherwood's A Single Man are starkly set apart by their eras and styles, but the basic premise, and the use of L.A. as setting and symbol for psychological desperation and emptiness, makes them far more similar than would appear at first glance.
A Single Man gives us one day in the life of George, a middle-aged British university professor living in Santa Monica who has recently lost his partner, Jim. The book, published in 1964, provides an incredibly well-rendered inner life, one tortured by grief and the burden of a gay protagonist who longs for acceptance, but also retribution. Told in a clipped, incredibly intimate present-tense third person, George's vanity and ego are laid bare, and the inner dialogue rings absolutely true. It's a book about aging and mourning, loneliness and the tragic futility of human connection. What I'm not sure it's about is Los Angeles.
In the middle of the novel, George takes a drive up into the hills, a drive that once thrilled him but now feels uncontrolled and scary. Even the view, which once gave him great pleasure, now only holds doom.
True, there are still a few uninhibited canyons, but George can't rejoice in them; he is oppressed by awareness of the city below. On both sides of the hills, to the north and to the south, it has spawned and spread itself over the entire plain. It has eaten up the wide pastures and ranchlands and the last stretches of orange grove; it has sucked out the surrounding lakes and sapped the forests of the high mountains. Soon it will be drinking converted sea water. And yet it will die. No need for rockets to wreck it, or another ice age to freeze it, or a huge earthquake to crack it off and dump it in the Pacific.It will die of overextension. It will die because its taproots have dried up -- the brashness and greed which have been its only strength. And the desert, which is the natural condition of this country, will return.
Alas, how sadly, how certainly George knows this! He stops the car and stands at the road's rough yellow dirt edge, beside a manzanita bush, and looks out over Los Angeles like a sad Jewish prophet of doom, as he takes a leak. Babylon is fallen, is fallen, that great city. But this city is not great, was never great, and has nearly no distance to fall.
This reads as a true and devastating critique of what was only the beginning of L.A.'s insane sprawl, and yet it is a metaphor for George's life without Jim and without youth. It's one of the only places in the book where the city serves as more than a setting, and its purpose is to give us insight into how George sees everything in his life, not into Los Angeles in and of itself.
On the other hand, Less Than Zero's protagonist Clay could as much be a metaphor for Los Angeles as the other way around. A college student returning to L.A. for Christmas in the 1980s, he sees his hometown with new eyes. As he stumbles through a haze of parties and banalities, drug-fueled days and nights and numb interactions with his parents and friends, we are given a devastating picture of the city, and there's a real sense that the book's characters are completely at the mercy of their environment.
In A Single Man, the only violence occurs in George's imagination, as retribution for the wrongs and bigotries he's encountered. In Less Than Zero, the violence of the city ruptures through the drone of the narrative, reminding us of the very real horror that's just under the surface of this sunny, superficial town.
These are both books that give us special insight into a time and place and personality, and in many ways A Single Man is a more honest book, with less manipulative intentions. But Less Than Zero's manipulation is also its strength. Where A Single Man humanizes a difficult character, Less Than Zero dehumanizes a generation and a city in order to bring them into shocking human focus. It's a more important statement about Los Angeles and a more impressive feat all round.
Winner: Less Than Zero
Previous matchups, from round one: