Short Story: Tone

ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE is scrawled in blood red lettering on the side of the Chemical Bank near the corner of Eleventh and First and is in print large enough to be seen from the backseat of the cab as it lurches towards traffic leaving Wall Street and just as Timothy Price notices the words a bus pulls up, the advertisement for Les Miserables on its side blocking his view, but Price who is with Pierce & Pierce and twenty-six doesn’t seem to care because he tells the driver he will give him fie dollars to turn up the radio, “Be My Baby” on WYNN, and the driver, black, not American, does so.

This is the opening to Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, one of those notorious novels that few people read anymore (the movie is more popular, and worth watching, but falls considerably short of the truly cold horror of Ellis’s prose). And, speaking of prose, consider Ellis’s tone in this near-breathless opening paragraph (which is a single, near-run-on sentence). The opening words, referencing Dante’s Inferno, describes an improbably literate piece of graffiti that is ‘scrawled in blood,’ – it’s only a fraction of a second later that the reader’s mind adjusts the mental image between Dante scrawled in blood and Dante scrawled in blood red lettering. It’s a subtle shift, but its indicative of Ellis’s prose style and also foreshadows his general method – implying something horrible and then dialing it back (including the pervasive ‘it was all a dream’ move). Also crammed into this opening sentence is Ellis’s unyielding realist familiarity; when he writes about Los Angeles and New York he often uses real places and locations, the names of real restaurants alongside fake ones, and so forth. The reader often struggles to figure out the metaphorical import of his references (i.e. ‘is this a cool part of town?’ and ‘is that a real artist or movie being mocked?’). This can make Ellis’s novels seem very real and knowing – and makes the horror concealed in them so much more terrifying, because they take place in a very realistic setting – and it also allows the readers to feel a sense of cool and knowing superiority if they are ‘in’ on his references. Finally, Ellis’s icy and amoral reportage: the cab driver is ‘black, not American’ and a wealthy banker – whose race is not given, which in Ellis usually means he’s wealthy and white – pays him simply to turn up the radio. The wild inequalities of race, gender, and nationality are more subtly implied here than elsewhere in the book, but – back to the point – Ellis simply describes the exchange without comment. Timothy Price does not ‘dickishly’ or ‘imperiously’ or ‘callously’ hand the cab driver the money, he simply does it. Judgement is on the reader. This is the effect of Ellis’s careful and sparing use of adjectives, which he inherits from Hemingway and even more-so from Edith Wharton. There’s more to say – always more to say, of course – about this opening, but I think you’ve got some idea of how heavily you can mine the first paragraph (or sentence) of a novel or short story for import.