Re-reading Bret Easton Ellis’s ‘Less Than Zero’ As an Adult

Prompted by editing this essay about the Less Than Zero film and by fortuitously coming across a copy of the novel in a thrift store, I decided to re-read Bret Easton Ellis’s debut book, Less Than Zero, which was published in 1985. I first read it as a teenager in high school, and it sort of blew my mind. I was working at Waldenbooks in the mall then, and the novel seemed to come out of nowhere; it just appeared on the shelving cart one shift as if it were my destiny to read it. It played to all of my aesthetic proclivities then, all the bad ideas I ever had as an aspiring fiction writer: Write about apathetic teens doing lots of drugs and having sex indiscriminately; dump in a lot of inscrutably allusive pop-culture references; strip the prose of all lyricism and substitute a brutalist stream of consciousness, with the trick that the consciousness you’re streaming is so devoid of reflexive insight that it comes across as aleatory and affectless. This would best capture the existential reality of youth boredom, which of course, as all teenagers knew, was the most significant problem confronting society in the Reagan years.

Even as a 15-year-old, though, I had a hard time imagining any adults reading the book or taking it seriously. It seems very much a young-adult novel, dependent on the reader’s fascination with and general lack of perspective on the world of haute dissipation it depicts. Lots of vicarious thrills and chills for a teen: it depicts a world in which parents are always absent, money is never an issue, drugs are always plentiful, and everyone is down for sex with everyone else. People o.d. and parents have abdicated all responsibility, but that just sets an appropriate backdrop of extremity; they don’t constitute real problems. The only real problems revolve around whether or not you can really open up to a friend. For adults, it’s all a bit silly. You don’t envy the characters, certainly, and you don’t even pity them. At best, it has the junk appeal of MTV’s nano-soap-opera Undressed, which was clearly inspired by Ellis’s vision.

The plot of Less Than Zero follows Clay, the narrator, a college freshman who has come home to Los Angeles for his winter break from college back east. Though it isn’t spelled out, he seems to be the son of wealthy entertainment-industry figures, and his friends are drawn from the same milieu. Though cognizant of no agency of his own, Clay finds himself involved in scenes of what the author apparently regards as steadily increasing shockingness, starting with a casual homosexual tryst, moving on to heroin shooting-gallery parties, a snuff-film viewing session, some gay prostitution, and finally a kidnapping and rape of a prepubescent girl. In between these meant-to-titillate scenes are some maudlin accounts of childhood memories (including the obligatory undergrad-workshop dead grandmother) and some slice-of-ennui observational passages of teens hanging out at pool parties, snorting fat rails and club hopping, hoping to spot members of X or the Go-Go’s. (My favorite is a scene in which Clay, hanging out with several of his interchangeable friends at a sushi restaurant, is told that rockabilly will be the next big thing — “and not those limp-wristed Stray Cats either” — and that anyone who’s anyone has to read The Face. As a teenager, I took that last injunction literally and struggled to track down copies of it — Waldenbooks did not carry it, alas.)

Though it certainly succeeds in conveying a paradoxical mood of angsty apathy, the book’s writing at the sentence level is fairly uneven — not all that surprising considering Ellis’s age when he wrote it, and the eagerness to rush the novel out as some sort of unexpurgated view on youth decadence. Its frequent badness was likely regarded as a badge of its authenticity. Less Than Zero‘s shocking incidents are generally unconvincing, and melodramatic despite the faux detachment. They read like exploitation-fiction cliches, only told in an approximation of the style of Raymond Carver or, more obviously, Joan Didion circa Play It as It Lays. And even though all sorts of unconscionably horrible events take place, the main conflicts structuring the novel are surprisingly mundane: the narrator’s mixed feelings about losing touch with his best friend and breaking up with his high school girlfriend. These are expected to carry significant emotional freight for readers even in the midst of snuff films and raped 12-year-olds. It seems extremely bizarre to say the least for Clay to walk out of a room in which his high school buddies are raping someone, snort a quarter-gram of cocaine, and then pout earnestly about his girlfriend dumping him. It makes it seem as though the depravity might be all in his head or something, weird scenes inside the gold mine that serve as projections of Clay’s alienation. But such a reading seems extremely speculative, counter to the explicit intent that we take all the action literally and lament the moral turpitude.

The incongruous tonal juxtapositions foretell the way in which Ellis’s later novel American Psycho shifts from gory murder scenes to dementedly positive reviews of Genesis records, but they also betoken a lack of control, or perhaps an editorial hedging against making the novel’s characters repellent to the core as they were probably intended to be. I suspect Ellis’s ploy was not at all different from American Psycho, whose narrator, I think, is supposed to be Clay’s brother: choose a monstrous, contemptible personality type (the spoiled film brat, the Wall Street banker) and have them narrate their own vapidity while having them participate in cartoonishly evil scenarios with no sense of their own moral culpability. But it seems like he was told to leaven Less Than Zero with mawkish passages (often set entirely in italics) that imply Clay has feelings we are supposed to empathize with. It would have been a much more successful book, I think, if Clay had no redeeming interiority, if there really was no there there, especially after all of Ellis’s hamfisted repetitions of slogans from billboards and snatches of conversation: “Disappear here”, “People are afraid to merge”, etc. In a better book, he would endorse these slogans unthinkingly rather than be unnerved by them. Or better still, he would register them without noting how appropriate they were to his condition, and then the reader would have something to do. As it stands, Ellis explicates too much, and much too implausibly.