Less Than Zero
Author: Bret Easton Ellis
Original Publication: 1985
#240 on “1,001 Books to Read Before You Die”
18-year old Clay has returned to Los Angeles for Christmas vacation after his first semester of college on the East Coast. He and his friends are all congenitally wealthy and spoiled scenesters. His mother hides in her room drinking and his little sisters ignore him. His Hollywood producer father attempts to connect with him over four-martini lunches, but ends up speaking little. While home, Clay tracks down his friends from high school to catch up with them. Blair, his ex-girlfriend, is still chasing him. Trent is now a male model. Daniel, whom everyone thinks is gay, had been at college with Clay and returned home with him. All of them, plus assorted other friends, have done nothing since high school save drugs, although several have spent disastrous first semesters in various colleges. Clay is particularly concerned with the fate of his best friend, Julian, whom no one can seem to find. Julian is rumored to be a serious addict now who is also dealing drugs.
Clay parties with his old friends day after day, and becomes increasingly distant from them. The more drugs, clubs, expensive outings and one-night stands he has (with both men and women), the more meaningless Clay’s life feels. He recalls his past obsessions with disaster – collecting newspaper clippings of rapes, murders, and accidents. Although his friends encourage him to stay, Clay decides to return to college at the end of the break. First, however, he vows to track down Julian to see if the rumors are true. Julian, sadly, may be beyond help.
When Less Than Zero came out, it was held out by the baby boomers as what was “wrong with Generation X”, and Generation X decried it as “promoting ugly stereotypes.” Perhaps most disturbing (to me), Ellis has been credited in a way with inventing the Kardashians and Paris Hiltons of the world with his portrayal of wealth and narcissism amongst Hollywood youth. For me, the story had several fatal flaws. While I realize that the point Ellis may be trying to make is that these youth grew up in cynical environments, it didn’t ring true for me that the characters were so disillusioned with the world when they had seen exactly none of it beyond their own circles. The story might have worked better if the characters were coming back to Hollywood after their four years in various colleges, or were at least more than six months out of high school. The second flaw was that writing junkies effectively requires that they start out with hope, and that their hope is/has been slowly destroyed. None of these characters ever had any hope, anything meaningful in their lives, or any optimism at all. None of them have any experience with anything outside of themselves. For this reason, I failed to care very much about any of them. Rather than creating a relatable world filled with our friends and peers and thrusting us into it, Ellis has created the equivalent of a bad television show that we’re watching from well outside the perimeter. The third flaw was the writing – I’m being terribly nitpicky here because this was character dialogue – but Clay says “must of” instead of “must have” in one scene, and there are countless repeated clauses and other distractions. Rather than striking me as part of the world created for the story, it struck me as sloppy.
Fun Fact(s): The book was turned into a 1987 movie starring Andrew McCarthy as Clay, Jami Gertz as Blair, and Robert Downey Jr. as Julian. The novel was Ellis’ first, when he was 21 and still in college. He had this to say about it: “I read it for the first time in about 20 years this year—recently. It was so great. I get it. I get fan mail now from people who weren’t really born yet when the book came out. I don’t think it’s a perfect book by any means, but it’s valid. I get where it comes from. I get what it is. I know that sounds so ambiguous. It’s sort of out of my hands and it has its reputation, so what can you do about it? There’s a lot of it that I wish was slightly more elegantly written. Overall, I was pretty shocked. It was pretty good writing for someone who was 19. I was pretty surprised by the level of writing.” Ellis also wrote “American Psycho”, which also became a film.
Bother if: While the novel didn’t resonate with me, I suspect that it’s partially a factor of age, and that there are simply certain novels that one must read when they are the age of the characters. I’ll call it “Catcher in the Rye Syndrome”, if such a phrase has not been coined already. Ellis perfectly captures the discomfort of transitioning into adulthood by illustrating the precipice between the two. One passage that struck me is when Clay is eating Christmas dinner in a restaurant with his family, and flirting with a girl at the next table. The waiter brings out a phone so that the family can call Clay’s grandfather to wish him a Merry Christmas, and Clay muses that he doesn’t want to embarrass himself in front of this girl by shouting “Merry Christmas, Grandpa” into a telephone at the table. Clay is the only character with a shred of humanity, and I can appreciate the social commentary that Ellis is trying to make with the story.
Don’t Bother if: The story contains graphic depictions of drug use and abuse, almost entirely by underage characters. It also depicts rape, torture, prostitution, violence, and a particularly distasteful scene where the characters are abusing a 12-year old girl. The story is intended to detail the nihilistic excess of youth with more money than brains and no parental supervision throughout their lives, and it does. However, I was unable to relate to most of it from anything other than an anthropological point of view.