The opening lines of Less Than Zero by Brett Easton Ellis convey numerous bits of seemingly casual information, all of which are meticulously designed to intrigue us. We understand that the wealthy young male protagonist is from Los Angeles and is being picked up from the airport by Blair, a friend of his, who enjoys recreational drugs. We don't know why the narrator is coming back to town, but it may have something to do with Muriel, a girl known to both he and Blair, and who may be anorexic. The passage seems to lead us to this one question: who is Muriel and what is she to the protagonist and to Blair? But even before we get to this question, there are minor queries about the narrator's trip that intrigue us. What did happen with the drunk couple sitting across from him on the plane? Why does he have mud on his jeans? Where did his travels begin? How did he stain his shirt and tear the neck of his vest? Does it have anything to do with the drunk couple? And to top it all off, Blair utters “People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles.” under her breath to the narrator. And inside his head, and ours, it becomes a riddle. What is it? An existential metaphor? An annoying enigma that defies meaning? A coded message from a friend? The narrator's curiosity mirrors ours, and this helps us to identify with him. We want to know more. We want to read on. We are hooked.
"People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles. This is the first thing I hear when I come back to the city. Blair picks me up from LAX and mutters this under her breath as her car drives up on the ramp. She says, “People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles.” Though that sentence shouldn’t bother me, it stays in my mind for an uncomfortably long time. Nothing else seems to matter. Not the fact that I’m eighteen and it’s December and the ride on the plane had been rough and the couple from Santa Barbara, who were sitting across from me in first class, had gotten pretty drunk. Not the mud that spattered the legs of my jeans, which felt kind of cold and loose, earlier that day at an airport in New Hampshire. Not the stain on the arm of the wrinkled, damp shirt I wear, a shirt which had looked fresh and clean this morning. Not the tear on the neck of my grey argyle vest, which seems vaguely more eastern than before, especially next to Blair’s clean tight jeans and her pale-blue T-shirt. All of this seems irrelevant next to that one sentence. It seems easier to hear that people are afraid to merge rather than “I’m pretty sure Muriel is anorexic” or the singer on the radio crying out about magnetic waves. Nothing else seems to matter to me but those ten words. Not the warm winds, which seem to propel the car down the empty asphalt freeway, or the faded smell of marijuana which still faintly permeates Blair’s car."