RUTHLESS LITTLE THINGS. Elizabeth V. Aldrich. ExPat Press, 2021. 112 pages.
I don’t know if I’m going to be equal to writing this review. There is so much to Ruthless Little Things by Elizabeth V Aldrich that I can’t tackle it all and do it justice. So many quills of the porcupine, I can’t pet it safely.
Firstly, let me say that I read it all in one sitting; it’s 112 pages but contains a vastness and depth that is deceptive. I thought I saw an arc in the book, concrete-abstract-concrete, then the parabola turns to last minute zigzag. The book begins its parabola in a mostly straightforward narrative about a young woman living on the edge in the LA environment of drugs, sex, and partying. “It’s always a treat to wake up first at a house party,” the narrator says to us in a jaded aside. She steals drugs from her sleeping or absent fellows, bounces from location to location, talks with and fucks a rotating cast of (mostly) girlfriends and men, and seems to push the edges of the envelope of morality and shock. “There’s nothing worse than being on different chemical levels than the people around you; it’s much more fun having complete drug empathy,” she adds later. The appetite for drug use would kill a rhinoceros but the narrator comes back for more.
If this had been all the book was composed of, it would have been a fairly raw and honest depiction of the life of a person on the edge and living to die. We have read such books before, and they have value, but they can sometimes repeat and hit a very limited selection of cynical notes. Bret Easton Ellis’ Less Than Zero comes to mind, but pushed to an extreme.
But then the parabola bends. Starting in a section entitled “Cute Coke Psychosis,” the book roughly around this point veers into a kind of remarkable series of fragmentary prose-poetic (at times, straight poetic) meditations that reveal a startling depth beneath the veneer of drugs, sex, and burnout. The perceptiveness and thoughtfulness, more hinted at in the earlier sections, blossoms into abstract yet sharp focus in the middle of the book. “half of life is the discovery of limit; / and then with this worthless, self-limiting insight, / to painstakingly describe the compass of thought / only to find it closing in on you!” The heart of the book is full of such pithy aphoristic nuggets it’s hard to encapsulate them all in a short review. Another passage: “I guess…my last great fear is that i never had the strength of mind to devise a working principle / to hang my life on, an adequate pretense to frame my wavering silence. there’s no shot at redemption / as a study in contradiction, where i am is more than a multiple sin.” Then, in case you feel a soft-and-fuzzy aura leaking in, a fleck of the original character returns right below this: “anyone who has ever ventured to taste my soul spit it out immediately. i’m worse than lethal. / five minutes caught in a room with me and you’ll be begging to die.”
Another reason why I feel out of depth in this review: I can’t know what it is like to have this perspective on the world and other people, and am apprehensive to try to put it into words. At one fleeting moment in the book the narrator makes reference to having been diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder by a doctor who did not talk to her. The book did give me insight into past relationships I’ve had with women with BPD, I suppose: in my case the ex-gf had a very mangled set of outward-facing “points of entry” (I don’t mean physically or sexually although that was part of it); I mean in terms of how she related to other people especially emotionally and in terms of “love,” which in her case might have been a mythical beast brought down by arrows and spears long ago. I’m not saying the main consciousness of Ruthless Little Things was exactly like that but there was a resonance for me personally, a glimpse of otherwise elusive empathy for that ex, who drove me away in ritualistic conversational snares of repeated break-up scenarios. “what we’re really after is a hard-won, wholehearted rejection. only denial satisfies our cry for validation, in the end.” If this doesn’t correspond to the book (novel? memoir? object of destruction?) then I am sorely mistaken.
The parabola bends again as we are returned to the concrete world of the narrator’s life amongst the denizens of live-fast-die-young Los Angeles and beyond, the “real world” of bodies and nervous systems propulsed by speed, heroin, cocaine, etc. We experience a hangover from the poetic center of the book as we descend again into the world of the drugged guttersnipe. But then! in its final pages, the zigzag back to the aerie of introspection and insight occurs, propelling us like a ski jump out into the void to hang there, with a panorama and a knowingness, a relief to be away and a respect that we were just allowed into another person’s unique, at times humorous, at times deeply sad and troubling soul.