by Bret Easton Ellis
200 pages, Picador, 2006 (New edition)
Review by Paul Fenton
I've read a few of Bret Easton Ellis's later works (American Psycho, Glamorama, Lunar Park), but had never read Less Than Zero. Then I saw his soon-to-be-released novel was a follow-up to Less Than Zero. I ran a quick mental scan to verify I hadn't seen the movie (unless I love a movie to bits, I'm reluctant to then read the book on which it was based), confirmed that I hadn't, and so decided it was time.
Less Than Zero was Ellis's debut novel. It's a slim volume, coming in around two hundred pages, which is probably to be expected for a debut. The first-person narrative is provided by Clay, a sexually and morally and motivationally ambiguous man-boy who has returned to his LA home on Christmas break from college in New Hampshire. His friends have also returned to LA, or have otherwise never left. They all bear an eerie similarity to Clay, even the girls. You could probably play musical names halfway through the story, swapping Clay with Blair with Julian with Daniel with Trent, and still not significantly disrupt the flow.
As I read, I found myself thinking: this is a lot like Glamorama. And American Psycho. The title hints strongly at the nihilistic consumerism which penetrates every page of the book; and frankly, it started to piss me off at a very early stage. And then it didn't. I will now try to explain what I mean by that, and probably fail.
I can see how reading his books in chronological order of publication would probably have had a very different effect on me. American Psycho and Glamorama both had plots, or if not clear plots then at least some kind of binding concept to hold together all the detached banal observation indulged in by the main characters. In Less Than Zero, the detached banal observation *is* the binding concept – the problem is, I don't know what it's supposed to be binding. Looking at it with hindsight goggles, it appears to be the book where Ellis set out to establish his thematic premise and style, which is:
You suck. I suck too, I think, maybe. I don't know. Hey, do you have any spare coke? I ran out and my dealer just OD'd at a bisexual gangbang. I like your shirt. Is it Calvin Klein?
This is the kind of message we get from Clay's narration, a disconnected replay of conversations and the illicit entertainments of the over-privileged rich youth of the 1980's. They go to clubs. They go to parties. Boys sleep with girls, sleep with boys, sleep with girls, they do drugs, and have fun with their toys … you get the picture. One gets the impression they're the kind of crowd who might ritualistically sacrifice a virgin if there was a chance it might crack their apathy. These people scared me, they really did.
And perhaps that's why I started to like it. Because towards the end, Clay begins to show signs, brief glimpses, of a desire to redeem himself. When he told his psychiatrist he wasn't going to see him any more, and to go f**k himself, I nearly cried. Then I politely told the large lady wearing stiletto heels that she was standing on my foot, and she got off, so I was able to compose myself and continue reading. I'd like to say I was moved in some way by Clay's character, but really, the guy is an emotional black hole, even when he's riled. It's like he and all his friends have had their souls botoxed.
It is the kind of book which improves when given time to settle in. Like a fine wine. Or a cheap wine. Or the new Gorillaz album. And if the constant references to brand names and band names and films ("Temple of Doom" is mentioned numerous times, often in conjunction with "Betamax", which is a really daft brand-name when you think about it … why not Alphamax? It's like they *wanted* to be second-best) and coke and sex and bad fashion are a sticking point, just keep in mind: it was the eighties, and the style gurus keep threatening an eighties comeback, so you might want to consider reading this as sociological preparation. I think I saw some legwarmers the other day, either that or someone with really fat ankles.
Do I want to see how Clay and Blair et al turned out in middle-age? Yes, I think I do. I'm hoping they're all grown up, responsible-like, and their kids are selfish waster Gen-Y's who are only interested in pissing away their parents' money on parties and booze and drugs and fashion and wholesale consumerism. Yes, the eighties are back, and this time it's personal ...