Bret Easton Ellis sure does like Joan Didion

Many years ago I happened across an arcane bit of knowledge. And afterwards, although I was never able have it substantiated, I stuck by it as true. I tried to do my part to pass it along, but I don’t think any one listened – arcane and unbelievable it must have been.

One blistery night, while warm 80 mph winds wrapped through the eucalyptus trees, downing potted plants and poolside umbrellas, cutting electricity, I was stranded at a friends’ house two blocks from my own. A friend of the mother of my best friend told me that these winds weren’t always called Santa Ana’s, but were originally known as Santanas. Didn’t seem like too far of a stretch. So, I thought, every body has it wrong. I’ll correct people when ever it comes up. So I did, but no one ever cared. Arcane, unbelievable – I guess.

Despite this night, when I couldn’t travel the two silly blocks home because there was a good chance a tree or power line would fall on me, I always considered these localized autumn winds to be fortunate. First off, they are generally offshore winds — as in, they will come from land and blow towards the ocean. As an avid surfer, I was fully aware that this was one of the few times of the year when it blows in such a way. Offshore winds will catch the lip of the wave as it is about to break, thus holding the lip up and preventing it from breaking. The swell continues toward shore until the water becomes so shallow that it’s impossible to hold up any longer. The wave then breaks with much more force than usual, with the lip curving down in an unusually hollow arc and the offshore breeze pulling stray mist up off the lip and out toward the islands on the horizon (er, in Santa Barbara). In addition to that, the nights – the time when the winds blow strongest – would be transformed. It becomes warm outside, there are often high white clouds flying past. It doesn’t feel like night time any more. It becomes something entirely different: prime time television loses it’s appeal, bed-time doesn’t matter. I’d sit outside in shorts and t-shirt, watching leaves fall through scattered moonlight, listening to the wind whistle through the cracks in the windows.

It wasn’t until I read Joan Didion’s collection of essays and articles, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, that I realized that, to many in Southern California, these winds are a frightening beacon. Although I’ve always been aware of the increased risk (and damage) of fires during these days, I was surprised to read:

…the hot dry Santa Ana wind that comes down through the eucalyptus windbreaks and works on the nerves. October is the bad month for the wind, the month when breathing is difficult and the hills blaze up spontaneously. There has been no rain since April. Every voice seems a scream. It is the season of suicide and divorce and prickly dead, wherever the wind blows.

Of course, Didion is being dramatic (not unusual) and is setting up a story about a seemingly normal housewife who on a gusty Santana night drugged her husband, drove him into a ditch, and then set the car on fire. But a few more allusions to murder rates and bizarre behavior during this time of year are made throughout the collection. I was too young to notice local headlines when I lived in Los Angeles, and by the time I had my autumns in Santa Barbara the positives out-weighed what ever negatives this wind might have carried. My house never burned down, a tree never fell on my head, I was never bit by a rattlesnake.

This gloomy depiction of exciting warm winds is mirrored in Bret Easton Ellis’ Less Than Zero, a novel about yuppie industry kids slouching around L.A. during Christmas break. Ellis makes many references to the panic and paranoia that would set in during the Santa Anas. Most of the narratives are set to memories of the past, when doors would be double-bolted and the house felt like it would implode. Coyote howls or human screams would carry by in the night, too quickly to really get a handle on, and in the morning mysterious things would be floating in the pool.

So, I was thinking as I read Less Than Zero that it’s either an easy device to pick and use in order to set a tone in a narrative that’s based around Southern California, or it’s a known anomaly that I was oblivious to (or both). And then, one page after the protagonist experiences a bit of deja vu, there’s this here bit of dialogue (pg. 113):

“Some guy propositioned me today,” Rip is saying, walking into the living room. “He just came up to me in Flip and offered me six hundred dollars to go to Laguna with him for the weekend.”

“I’m sure you’re not the only guy he approached,” Trent says, coming out into the living room and opening the door that leads to the Jacuzzi.

Now I thought I was feeling the deja vu. Before starting a book I will often flip to a random page and read a few sentences, and then when I finally get through to it I will often have a vague memory of having read it before (I have no real good reason for doing this, except maybe to induce deja vu). But I know that I never did that with this book. I soon remembered having heard a similar bit of dialogue in Slouching Towards Bethlehem. It came from the article of the same name, an article about young runaway hippies in San Francisco (pg. 110):

She is telling us about somebody who propositioned her yesterday. “He just walked up to me on the Street, offered me six hundred dollars to go to Reno and do the thing.”

“You’re not the only one he approached,” Deadeye says.

Oh, but it doesn’t stop. Slouching features a random woman passed out on the floor of a room. “Deadeye says she’s been sleeping for twenty-four hours.” We later find out she was sick for a week, and they eventually took her into the hospital and she was diagnosed with pneumonia (we find that out on the same page as the quote about being propositioned). Zero (on the same page as the quote about being propositioned) has the protaganist hanging out in a room with a random boy passed out on the ground. “‘Oh, that’s Alan, I think. He’s been there for like two days.’ ‘Just leave him alone. He has mono or something.’

Speaking of mono, Slouching contains this description of a character (pg. 102): “Vicki dropped out of Laguna High ‘because I had mono.’Zero follows it up with a character who (pg. 102) states, “‘See, I got mono and dropped out of Uni and just hung around.’

I guess I was just off track while living in So. Cal. I got mono at six – much too early to know that it indicated my time to drop out, or even to know that it is a kissing disease – and I nearly died (maybe). Even though I went to the hospital every day to get blood work, it took three weeks to be diagnosed, and I missed school for six weeks. But I got a stegasaurus Transformer from the ordeal.

I find these similarities between the two books to be remarkable. The ideas (the near-direct quotes) were either flagrantly taken by Ellis, with the assumption that no one would notice, or else they were being (less-flagrantly) used as subtle references in order to denote mirrored landscapes. The bratty yuppies of Zero, twenty years later, are indeed 18-year-old kids, foregoing traditional ambition and the right track for unadulterated, lazy pleasure. They are indeed separated from their parents (though it is now the parents – the ex-hippies – who have abandoned the kids), and they use their freedom and lack of philosophy or goals to create their own care-free niche within society. Of course, in other ways the Beverly Hills offspring of the Hollywood elite are the antithesis of the Haight-Ashbury hippies. There is much less risk; they haven’t turned their backs on education or psychiatry; they are numbed by wealth and stability into untrauma – into undrama – and so they can’t figure out what, if anything, they’re reacting to.

(I could probably go on, but, well, no one will read this and I’m not getting a grade or getting paid, and I think I’ve made a point or two.)

But if any one reads this, feel free to comment. Edit: Thanks Bookslut! I guess some people will read this.

Edit from an earlier date than the edit above: After a teensy bit of research, it appears that Ellis is a devoted fan of Didion. He frequently refers to her work as a major influence on his early stuff, especially Less Than Zero (see Ellis interviewed by Jaime Clarke).

6 thoughts on “Bret Easton Ellis sure does like Joan Didion

  1. You get an A- for that observation. myabe it was an intention lift but sometimes i think we internalize things that affect us or we identify with, especially with writing. is ellis from la?

    my friend was reaching into her trunk to get a “mists of avalon” book when a huge tree branch broke from a very tall tree and fell on the trunk crunching her back a bit. the wind can do violence and is a powerful metaphor. there is also the arabian dust wind that is know to cause hallucinations and violence. it is more anthropomorhized though. they talk about it in “the english patient”.

  2. Yeah, Ellis is from l.a.
    I realize the wind can directly cause destruction, but I’m less sure about it carrying spells of evil on its back (metaphorically). I guess people can get frightened by it and then act irrationally. And I guess you can make a metaphor out of almost anything. But personally I found the wind to add personality to the relatively staid climate of so. cal. There’s something about the warmth of it that calms the nerves of the violent torrent (to anthropomorphise it — but, of couse, I also mean that it both unnerves and calms me). Think how different it would be if it was freezing wind. You’d be cowering under covers, fruitlessly avoiding any contact with it. The Santa Anas invite you feel it, and then, yeah, it might smack you across the head with a branch.

    Also, the passages about being propositioned are too similar to just be a symptom of an internalized idea. Ellis was like 20 when he wrote this, and I’m guessing he just lifted a few small, insignificant details that he felt would fit well in his story. I question whether I would have noticed it if I hadn’t read these within weeks of each other.

  3. Have your read Ecology of Fear by Mike Davis? I think you’d like it. I’m in love with L.A.’s legends and mythology. Day of the Locusts, Crying of Lot 49, Chinatown, Lady in the Lake — all of these have in common the malicious comforting buzz of LA’s inherent, undefinable evil. Just reading about the Santa[ A]nas brings up all of these ideas I have about LA. Oh, Mulholland Drive was another one (the Lynch movie).

    Did you see Wedding Crashers? That movie lifted a lot from Coming to America.

  4. Hrm, yeah, I didn’t realize that when watching Wedding Crashers, but I can think of a lot of similarities. Also of note: my sister is convinced that Owen Wilson looks like a lesbian throughout that movie. I didn’t catch it, but she’s obsessed with the idea. I’ll probably be watching it again soon.

    Out of all those books noted above I’ve only read The Crying of Lot 49. I’ve seen Chinatown, and I’ve read Raymond Chandler, who seems to depict a similarly sunny and seedy LA. I also like reading about LA’s mythology. That’s why I picked up Didion in the first place. I’ve been meaning to read Ecology of Fear.

  5. The Ellis/Didion thing came out in the reviews back when Less Than Zero came out. It was a little dustup around the book, as I recall.

    It even made it into an episode of “Law & Order: SVU” where two of the detectives interview an author who was an analogue of Ellis, and the accusation and Joan Didion are mentioned. “Joan Didion is a close personal friend,” the Ellisian character says.

  6. Thanks MSM. I kind of figured that it had been noticed when Less Than Zero came out — mostly because of how often the two authors are mentioned together. But I couldn’t substantiate it. Nor did I know the extent of what’s been noticed. But I did hear that Spy Magazine used to comment on his similarities with Didion.

    I’ll look for that SVU episode. Sounds interesting. I wonder if Ellis was friends with Didion when he was 20 years old and writing Less Than Zero.

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