Less Than Zero (1985) Review

Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis

Book Review

By Jeffrey Kieviet

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“Here is a weird one for you…”*

Less Than Zero is a snap shot of LA. A few weeks in the City of Angels, surrounded by sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll, without a care in the world and nothing to lose. It is difficult to identify a central “story.” Like Ellis’s other works, it is written in a fast paced, free-flow-stream-of-consciousness style that seems to give as much import to the stain on a shirt as the corpse in the alley. The skeleton of the plot would be about a young man, Clay, who is home on winter break from his university in New Hampshire (Camden, the college the students in Rules of Attraction also attend [the interconnecting world Ellis creates is as intricate as the characters who inhabit it]). While home, in bright and sunny Los Angeles, CA, he meets up and hangs out with old friends, acquaintances, one-night-stands, drug dealers, pimps, etc. Ya’know, the usual. And he might want to reconcile with his girlfriend who is now his ex-girlfriend but she doesn’t know that and, honestly, he might not know for sure either.

Ok, strike that. It isn’t so much the skeleton of the story as the cartilage; the soft, malleable essence that sets the characters on their path of decay.  Julian is missing for most of the book; between Rip & Trent & Spin I couldn’t tell who was a drug dealer and who was a friend (although I guess that’s all interchangeable in Clay’s world); and I couldn’t care less about Blair, Clay’s “girlfriend,” because half the time he’s shacking up with other girls (or boys). So what does that leave us with? Just Clay. We’re stuck in his head as he drives around his life of luxury despising every minute of it. A reoccurring message of the book is “Disappear Here,” an enigmatic script Clay spots on a billboard as soon as he arrives back in town, and that is what he tries to do. Or at least he feels the city is forcing him to; a subconscious reassurance that going away to college, away from his divorced parents, shallow sisters, and decadent friends, was the right choice.

In one of my English classes lo so many years ago, we read a short story in David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews With Hideous Men. The tale told of a young boy about to venture off into the real world, leaving his family behind. Regardless of the real reasoning behind what actually happened in the story, the way my teacher broke it down was as follows: the kid made up some horrific incident about his parents in order to justify his want/need to fly the coup and start his own life. This seems to be the case with Clay; regardless of how similar he is to those around him, how much petty love is shared between them, no one can do right by him. Wallace’s story was called “Signifying Nothing.” Which sounds like a direct homage to Brett Easton Ellis’s motif.  Not to say he has nothing to say.

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For those of you unfamiliar with Bret Easton Ellis’s work, he’s the author of American Psycho, the book that made Batman. You may also recognize the name from a series of controversial tweets that recently created chaos in the twitter-sphere. It should teach us all a valuable lesson: if you’re going to cybernetically shout a bunch of sexist remarks about a beloved director, make the chauvinism subtle and articulate. Which is something he loves to do. He creates characters that hate men for being men and women for being women. He attacks from all angles and with a delirious rambling diatribe that raises questions without offering answers. Yes, Kathryn Bigelow is the attractive ex-wife of James Cameron, who can put together a badass action flick with heart, but would she receive the academy’s accolades if she was a dude? Probably, considering she’s got us convinced she’s a good looking lady. All of a sudden the Titanic-guy was married to a she-male, Lana Wichowski has less competition, and the entirety of Hollywoodland is thrown into upheaval. Wait, where am I?

On the back of the book is an author’s photograph of Ellis, all baby faced and red cheeks. The skinny tie & fashionable suit portraying as much a view of the early 80’s as the pages within. He wrote the book when he was only 19, and published it at 21. One could assume the characters in the book are based on real people Ellis grew up with. It could practically be his diary from his first break home from school. Young Bret, coming back home to his disillusioned parents, he goes out night after night with his apathetic friends, only to have the two people he “cares” about (Julian & Blair) constantly out of reach, even though both are there because Clay has pushed them away. I mean Bret.

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Skinny tie, but loose collar. Cool, but care free.

My guess is as a writer searching for the meaning of “why,” Bret went off to college where he experienced some strange, new things, strongly questioned his sexuality, became terribly confused, went back home where he couldn’t explain to his parents because they were ignorant and stuck in their own superficial existence, wants to go back to his ex-girlfriend because of social standards, lusts after a boy he wishes would be open to experimenting, and goes back to school none the wiser. Not that this is the story of the novel, and it could be all made up. I hope some of his work is completely fiction because American Psycho was absolutely, obscenely, horrifyingly graphic and gruesome.

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I. Am. Batman!

And you can see the beginnings of what this writer would eventually produce. A snuff film at a party & a bound, prepubescent junkie was only the tip of the psychotic iceberg floating in this man’s mind.

In researching the novel, I found that the title is taken from the Elvis Costello song “Less Than Zero”. Clay has a poster of the musician hanging in his room, so when he’s drunk or hungover or doing whatever kids did in the 80’s, he’s under the unyielding gaze of Elvis Costello. Like most of my generation, I was introduced to Mr. Costello by Austin Powers in The Spy Who Shagged Me. He’s got a groovy style that I like described as the punk of folk. The chorus of the song mirrors aspects of the book, but the rest of it is about a British fascist that I’d never heard of before but I guess that’s how folk rocked it back then. There’s also a sequel to the book, named after Costello’s “Imperial Bedrooms.”

I’ve been looking around for a copy of the movie, so if anyone’s got the goods and wants to host a movie night, let me know. I’ll bring the popcorn. A young Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) plays the drug-addled Julian & the goofy guy from Weekend At Bernie’s takes a dark, dramatic turn as the brooding Clay. It has got to rank as 80’s as Valley Girl & Howard the Duck.

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The chick from “The Lost Boys,” one of the bad guys in “Weird Science,” and the star of “Mannequin.”

At the end of the day (or Christmas break), Less Than Zero presents a world unique to special city for a hyperbolized generation. Bret Easton Ellis’s distinct voice narrates the story through the eyes of a hopelessly lost young man; life whirling around the sharp curves of Mulholland, driving as fast as he can with nowhere to go. His work grows over the years, but with a solid foundation like this, his subsequent novels build to even more complicated relationships and darker recesses of deviant humanity. I don’t expect it to remain on my bookshelf for long. Like most good books it’ll get forcefully lent to a friend, never to be returned, leaving empty space next to Ham on Rye and Invisible Monsters.

*The opening of “Signifying Nothing” in Brief Interviews With Hideous Men by David Foster Wallace

It physically hurts to read this book. Good luck.
It physically hurts to read this book. Good luck.

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