Sympathy, Empathy… Epiphany

I just finished Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis—if not for my seminal epiphany, I’d say I wasted my time.

The story bored me to a dreary stupor as I read and if not for being spoiled on some of the wilder events later in the book I wouldn’t have finished it. My main takeaway from the book is the limits of empathy in storytelling and the proper use of sympathy.

To elaborate, sympathy, as I use it, is the ability to understand the feelings of another person whereas empathy is the ability to share those feelings.

My issue with Less Than Zero is the main character’s numbness to the world around him and his absolute boredom at every aspect of his life. His passivity to the actions of others round him and lack of emotion transferred that numbness to me as I read.

I was bored out of mind because I connected to the main character’s attitude and perception to his surroundings.

It’s a great achievement for a storyteller to have the audience connect with the protagonist, or any character, on a one-to-one basis and feel and/or think the same way. Boredom is a sharp limit of empathy as a tool in entertainment because it’s not entertaining.

For a good example of the power of sympathy over empathy, I’ll turn to The Simpsons episode: Bart the Murderer. When Bart misplaces his field trip permission slip to go to the chocolate factory, he’s sent to Principal Skinner’s office and assured he can have just as much fun as the rest of his class by licking envelopes for the P.T.A. Of course this isn’t the case as his tongue sandpapers on the envelopes, his speech becomes inaudible from lack of saliva, and the clock slowly ticks forwards and forwards and then backwards. All the while we’re treated to cutaways of his classmates enjoying the chocolate factory like the proverbial kids in a candy store they are.

Bart’s boredom and sadness is communicated perfectly, but it’s through the filter of comedy—juxtaposition and sight-gags to name a couple methods. If the audience was bored in the same manner Bart experienced, then they’d stop watching.

There are several varying ways in which a disconnect between the character and the audience can be used for effective communication. Not to slag on Ellis entirely in this piece, American Psycho does a great job of exposing Patrick Bateman for the deranged, petty, yuppie, selfish beast he is through this disconnect. As he elaborates on his love of milk-toast music and TV for the fifth or sixth chapter, we begin to hate him for the repetition. As he goes paranoid in a Jewish restaurant and starts cursing out the waitress, we laugh at his uncouth behavior after he’s expounded on proper manners and class for chapter after chapter. As he relishes in killing people and animals, we are horrified and think him a monster.

Ellis does correct his empathy problem in the last fifth or so of Less Than Zero but it’s too late. Throughout the story the main character (I’ve completely forgotten his name and don’t care to look it up) does a marathon spree of drugs and drinking which doesn’t affect him one iota physically or psychologically. This is about as boring as a story can get. Cocaine, booze, weed, etc.—nothing impacts the protagonist, which would be a good tool to elaborate on his frustration with the world if explored in a Baldr type way.

Compare this to The Outsiders, which I’m reading right now, where the simple cigarette calms Ponyboy’s nerves after being jumped by a rival gang. Compare this to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas where Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo attend the National District Attorneys’ Conference on Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs with heads full of mescaline.

Ellis managed to make something as serious and versatile as drug-use an underwhelming part of the protagonist’s day as well as an underwhelming part of my reading experience because the protagonist has an inhuman indifference to the substances and that doesn’t breath excitement in any direction.

I may not like what the Joker does to get across his philosophy to Batman and Gotham City but I, at least, understand him and why he commits his horrible acts. I don’t root for him, I’m not thrilled to be put in a terrorist’s shoes nor do I laugh manically once in them, but, from a distance, I can draw the lines between his desires and his ghastly jokes.

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