Less Than Zero

A successor novel raises two questions. There’s a possibility that the sequel will not nearly be as good – will be so bad, in fact, that it overshadows the better work, and taints forever our memories and appreciation. (Think Paradise Regained, or This Life +10.) However, the point of a well-realised character is that we wonder what they are doing long after the book has ended, and it’s a temptation that drags both reader and writer back to the old watering hole.

A potential American Psycho sequel fascinates because the narrative was so wrapped up in popular culture, places and signifiers that were dated before the first draft was written. Never quite accepted as literary, it’s a book popularised word-of-mouth by clubbers and autodidacts and the appeal still holds. In a recent essay on Hemingway, Slate’s Nathan Heller wrote that ‘Although people often assume the strongest, most enduring authors are those whose work is taught in universities, it’s actually the high-school canon that’s the best marker of cultural esteem and literary immortality.’

On a late night Twitter session author Bret Easton Ellis had great fun tossing out ideas. The 2012 Patrick Bateman would be an LA hedge fund manager, he would ‘complain about Spotify and the Cloud and Tumblr … but he would find victims via Blendr while listening to Beyoncé and OAR… [Bateman would] post pics of murdered girls on Facebook and either no one would notice or post ‘Fuck yeah’.’ According to Ellis, Bateman would admire the Kardashians, The Celebrity Apprentice and The Help; fans of the extended essays on Huey Lewis and Whitney Houston will be happy to know that Bateman is still a keen music critic, having penned a ‘very long dissertation about Coldplay’s oeuvre… His favourite song being ‘Fix You’.’

Another story that I’ve been interested in over the last week is the release of a cache of emails, written by the Syrian dictator’s inner cabal while his forces pounded civilians with tank, artillery and mortar fire. Last year Vogue published a flattering profile of Asma al-Assad, wife of the tyrant and ‘a thin, long-limbed beauty with a trained analytic mind who dresses with cunning understatement.’ This article was placed by a US lobbyist hired by the Ba’athists (Assad’s Syria is apparently ‘a secular country where women earn as much as men and the Muslim veil is forbidden in universities, a place without bombings, unrest, or kidnappings’) and the only remaining copy of the piece is on a regime fan site devoted to Assad.

The Atlantic has an excerpt:

The first impression of Asma al-Assad is movement–a determined swath cut through space with a flash of red soles. Dark-brown eyes, wavy chin-length brown hair, long neck, an energetic grace. No watch, no jewelry apart from Chanel agates around her neck, not even a wedding ring, but fingernails lacquered a dark blue-green. She’s breezy, conspiratorial, and fun. Her accent is English but not plummy. Despite what must be a killer IQ, she sometimes uses urban shorthand: “I was, like. . . .”

The emails make fascinating reading because of their complete insularity and seeming unawareness of the civil war and revolution outside the palace gates. In over three thousand documents the Assads chatter about America’s Got Talent and Steve Jobs; Assad at one point serenades his wife with an obscure country and western song downloaded from iTunes; Asma al-Assad racks up five-figure bills in online shopping binges.

From the story:

The emails appear to show how tens of thousands of dollars were spent in internet shopping sprees on handmade furniture from Chelsea boutiques. Tens of thousands more were lavished on gold and gem-encrusted jewellery, chandeliers, expensive curtains and paintings to be shipped to the Middle East. While the country was rocked by Assad’s crackdown on dissent, his inner circle was concerned about the possibility of getting hold of a copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II, or a new chocolate fondue set.

On 19 July 2011, Asma al-Assad could be found placing orders with her cousin Amal for jewellery made by a small Paris workshop. She requested four necklaces: ‘1 turquoise with yellow gold diamonds and a small pave on side’ as well as a cornaline, ‘full black onyx’ and ‘amethyst with white gold diamonds’ of similar design. Amal replied that she would ‘launch’ the order in mid-August with a view to getting it done ‘by mid-September’. On 23 July 2011 Asma said she didn’t mind the delay and added self-deprecatingly: ‘I am absolutely clueless when it comes to fine jewellery!’ She signed off as ‘aaa’ with: ‘Kisses to you both, and don’t worry, we are well!’

The big picture doesn’t often impact in the Assads’ correspondence and when it does the tone is dismissive. Assad’s father-in-law sends him half-arsed propaganda ideas and media rebuttals that could come straight out of an amateur Islamist or antiwar website. The Syrian President shares a YouTube clip where regime supporters appear to reconstruct the battle of Homs with a toy car and some biscuits. There’s a suggestion in an email dated December 21 2011 of a New Year party in Omayyad Square – this on a day that 111 civilians were slaughtered in Idlib.

The deaths of an estimated 8,000, the torture, suffering, violence and chaos doesn’t seem to affect any of them on a human level. A sense of not just indifference, but seeming unawareness, strikes anyone who reads the cache. Louis XIV is supposed to have said ‘L’État, c’est moi’ – the world is mine. For the Assads the reading could be more solipsistic and terrible: the world is me.

I don’t know why I thought of this story in connection with American Psycho. Perhaps because the Assad cache reads like ‘Ozymandias’ rewritten by Bret Easton Ellis.

Can the glamorous Mrs Assad guide Syria on the path to democratic reform? (Image: Atlantic)


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