Author: Bret Easton Ellis
Publisher: Vintage Books
Rating 5/5 Stars
Less Than Zero is one of those books that I don’t know how to rate because its worth can’t be measured in simple terms of ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ It’s one that I don’t know how to recommend to friends because I can’t tell them that they’ll enjoy it, but I still think it should be read. What I can say without equivocation is that it is effective.
Less Than Zero is the second book by Bret Easton Ellis that I’ve read and while American Psycho was a thought provoking and often shocking experience, I think Less Than Zero is the better of the two and to really explain what Ellis does so well with the latter, I’m going to have to compare it to the former.
From reviews I’ve read of American Psycho, the message and meaning of the book was lost on some because of the extreme violence perpetrated by the main character. I’d argue that they were idiots for expecting anything different from a book with the word ‘psycho’ in the title, but that’s neither here nor there. The fact remains that Ellis’s commentary on the completely shallow and soul-sucking world of Wall Street/the quest for the ‘American Dream’ in the 80s fell on deaf ears of those who couldn’t handle the visceral images he described. I would fault him for embracing the shock value so hardcore that it muddied his message if I didn’t think that that was at least half of the point.
InLess Than Zero, however, Ellis uses a different tactic to get his point across and in so doing demonstrates his talent as a writer. Where American Psycho was frenetic and dense with the inner monologue of the main character, Less Than Zero is sparse and detached. It’s a quick read at just 208 pages, some consisting of nothing but back and forth dialogue with minimal description.
And that’s exactly as it should be.
The main character of Less Than Zero is Clay, a Beverly Hills rich kid who can’t relate to anything or anyone. It’s not that he doesn’t fit into his world, it’s that he’s lost the ability to be affected by it, to feel anything. Ellis presents us with a litany of causes – drugs, money, absentee parents, the glossy, flashy, shallow world in which he exists – but no one thing is the culprit for Clay’s state-of-being.
It’s just the way it is.
Ellis gives us the impression that Clay wishes things were different. Flashbacks to a previous summer in Palm Springs are sprinkled throughout the narrative and the reader is left to assume that Clay wants to go back to those supposedly better times, but those times don’t seem much better . Or maybe those flashbacks are really about showing the reader where Clay’s detachment and disaffectedness began.
That’s the brilliance of the book – you can take it to mean either or both at the same time.
One of the things I appreciated the most about Less Than Zero is that it’s not an anti-drug manifesto. While all of the characters are generally strung out on something – one in particular is in way over his head – Ellis doesn’t take the easy way out and claim that the drugs alone caused the problem. Clay does too much cocaine, but there are plenty of times where he doesn’t do any simply because he doesn’t want to. Drug use is a reaction to the problem, not a symptom or cause of it.
Ellis’s use of words inLess Than Zero is just as evocative as it is in American Psycho. I felt the desolation and detachment that Clay felt. I felt his numbness. Ellis ignores traditional rules of grammar to great effect in his use of run ons and sentence fragments. Clay’s life becomes a series of events that don’t affect him, they just happen around him. He has brief moments of being scared or angry, he describes a breakdown he has in his therapists office and again at his former elementary school, he musters up a sense of indignation over the gang rape of an underage girl that his friends – acquaintances, really, as he doesn’t feel enough for any of them to really call them friends – orchestrate and he has a sense of true horror and dread over the lengths his childhood friend Julian is willing to go to feed his drug habit, but he doesn’t do anything about it.
He just…continues on.
I didn’t get the impression that he doesn’t want to. He does. I think that Clay really, really wants something to feel different and to matter, but he doesn’t know what and he doesn’t know how to find it and even if he did, he knows that in the end it won’t matter. It can be lost and losing things is painful. One of the best passages in the book comes near the end between Clay and his ex-girlfriend Blair.
“What do you care about? What makes you happy?”
“Nothing. Nothing makes me happy. I like nothing,” I tell her.
“Did you ever care about me, Clay?”
I don’t say anything, look back at the menu.
“Did you ever care about me?” she asks again.
“I don’t want to care. If I care about things, it’ll just be worse, it’ll just be another thing to worry about. It’s less painful if I don’t care.”
The book culminates in a really horrifying day that begins with a quest to get money back from his friend Julian. Clay witnesses the worst of his world – Julian being pimped out to the highest bidder to cover his drug habit, the discovery of a dead body in the alley that his friends would rather mock and study in horrified fascination than call the cops about, and the gang rape of a twelve year old girl that disgusts completely disgusts him. Clay has countless opportunities to take himself out of the situation, but he doesn’t because – as he puts it – he wants to see the worst. He wants to know if the world can really be that dark.
What’s most striking about that day is the fact that the book doesn’t end there. It covers a few more days of Clay’s Christmas vacation from college and he continues to see all of the people who committed the worst atrocities on that day and they interact as if nothing has changed.
I could go on forever, pulling examples of what I found so fascinating about this book, but this review is already really long. I’ll leave you with what is said on the back of my copy of the book.
Set in Los Angeles in the early 1980s, Less Than Zero has become a timeless classic. The coolly mesmerizing novel is a raw, powerful portrait of a lost generation who have experienced sex, drugs and disaffection at too early an age, in a world shaped by casual nihilism, passivity, and too much money in a city devoid of feeling or hope.
That is not hyperbole. That is exactly what this book is. Less Than Zero is an experience. It’s not a book you read to escape or relax, it’s a book that you read because you want to be moved. To be affected.
In all of the ways the main character can’t.