"Less Than Zero" by Bret Easton Ellis

It took me nearly thirty years to finally getting around to reading this novel. Had I read it at the time of its release (1985) I don’t know what I would have thought of it. It was a huge deal at the time and Bret Easton Ellis was being touted as a “new voice of a generation”, and quite specifically,my generation (Ellis is only about two years older than I am).  At that time, the trials and tribulations of ultra-wealthy Los Angeles post-high school kids would have meant absolutely nothing to me and perhaps of this perception I avoided actually reading the book for many many years. But of course curiosity got to me, as well as other people’s recommendations. Thirty years on, I’m obviously in a much different place than I was then, when I was still a rebellious-minded 19 year old. I figured distance would allow me to look at this with a fresh perspective. 
 
In 1985, I was about the same age as the characters in the story; characters with names like “Clay”, “Trent”, “Rip”, and “Blair”. Having spent a lot of my teenage years hanging around the East Village and the Lower East Side in New York City, these characters and their life experiences couldn’t have been more far removed from my own experiences. Social class certainly has a lot to do with this as well. The characters in this novel are, as I said, ultra-wealthy and ultra-spoiled. Their parents are filmmakers, Hollywood directors, magazine editors, or in some way involved with the high life in Los Angeles. They all live in plush mansions, have swimming pools and own the most (then) modern gadgets, and they all attend the “good” schools. They spend their time going to clubs, going to parties, eating and drinking in expensive restaurants, all of them, dysfunctional and drug addled - coke, the main drug choice. I couldn’t have been more removed from this social scene. 
 
The story revolves around the narrator, “Clay”, who returns to Los Angeles after having been away at college in New Hampshire. From the beginning you can see that he has changed somewhat from being away - although four months away from home wouldn’t seem long enough for an individual to “change” all that much. However once he begins reconnecting with his friends little by little you begin to see how detached he is from them, although he suffers from the same issues that most of them suffer from. The characters in the story are utterly self-absorbed and obsessed with fitting in with their peers, where one little “faux-pas” such as wearing the wrong article of clothing could be get you ostracized. As noted earlier, they spend nearly all their time going to clubs, parties and doing massive amounts of coke. Their parents are largely absent, or if not totally absent, completely disconnected from what their kids are doing, preferring to care only about themselves and their lot in life. Here is where the “generational” theme comes in - the idea of being “lost”, troubled, and completely ignored. 
 
Ellis’s style is minimalistic, stripped down to its bare bones. Written in the first person present tense, it almost has the feeling of a journal as “Clay” meanders through his four weeks at home before having to return to New England for the next semester. The style is engaging enough to keep the reader interested in wanting to know what’s going to happen - and it is towards the last third of the novel where the story takes a decidedly dark turn. Suddenly, all the tediousness and emptiness of the characters actions starts to make sense and the story that is actually being told begins to unfold. Here is a group of young people who are totally without a moral compass, so self-absorbed that they have no ability to empathize with the plight of others, or even show the least bit compassion to those that are supposed to be their friends. And herein lies the crux of what the novel is about. It is a “generational statement” and even though these characters are from well off families and have everything they could ever want, there’s still a sort of “emptiness”, this giant hole in their lives where they can’t quite figure out what their purpose in life is. In spite of it all, they are lost, rudderless, dysfunctional - yet no one cares - not even themselves. 
 
This is the second book by Ellis that I have read. I started with what was considered his “Magnum Opus”, the controversial “American Psycho”, a novel I had a tough time getting through due to its tedium and the main character’s obsession with designer clothing (which was pointed out nearly every other paragraph). This, to me, is by far a superior novel and for those who have never read Ellis, this would be one to start with. In the end, I enjoyed this novel very much. It’s a very good read and although it may seem a little “dated” now, it doesn’t take away from the story being told. It may even be a source of nostalgia for some, being that it is picture perfect of the time in which it is set and Ellis does a wonderful job in capturing that. Recommended. 
 
 
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