Wealth, excess, a lack of purpose, and constant stimulation. Bret Easton Ellis tackles what toll these things may take on youth in the 80s. Less Than Zero is his first novel, and in it we follow characters who meander around Los Angeles, drinking, getting high, having sex, and spending money as if cost poses no boundary. But this lifestyle has led them to a mindset of never-ending boredom and loneliness. There is seemingly nothing anymore that can interest them, except for the extreme. This Less Than Zero review and analysis will contain some SPOILERS until the last paragraph.
Clay has returned from college to Los Angeles for a break. He is picked up by his girlfriend Blair and arrives home to an empty house, left only with a note that his mom is out. The novel progresses through drug fueled house parties, scenes as clubs and bars, night drives, and dinners with friends or family. But through all of this, few characters (especially Clay) show no signs of life or enjoyment despite the high levels of stimulation. So these characters then seek out new and more extreme forms of pleasure in order to reinvigorate their moods, and they find them in the worst of places: violent snuff films, rape and torture, playing with dead bodies, and self prostitution. And although Clay does not participate in these acts, he seems to find something in them which piques his interest.
Less Than Zero focuses on how the excess of wealth and stimulation in youth will induce nihilism and a sense of purposelessness. It opens with the line “people are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles”. Instead, they’d rather stay on the side roads, in familiar neighborhoods, never veering off into something new. In the opening pages of the novel, the kids are all doing the same. Now back from college they are spending money on the same drugs from the same dealers, attending parties one after the other populated by the same people and same events. They have the same discussions: did you see me in this magazine, did you see her in that music video, and the ever asked questions, what do you do?
But no one cares. Clay, the main character, meanders about in a seeming daze. He finds no enjoyment because he has already experienced it all. He can’t experience love or hate because he has numbed his mind with endless stimulation. Instead, as the novel progresses, we learn that the only thing he finds new and exciting is when he sees the extreme. For example, when following Julian around as he is forcefully prostituted, Clay thinks “I want to see the worst”. In the following scenes, no matter how disturbing the rapes or the dead bloated body are to him, these scenes of the extreme are the only things that evoke any sort of emotion.
What Ellis always does well is drawing me into the world of his characters and making me experience their plight. The endless scenes of parties are somehow equally fun and monotonous to get through. With the book’s length, I enjoy reading it, but any longer would make it drag on. This, though, is the purpose. It shows how the characters are experiencing the same thing – wanting to trek from party to party, from drink to drink, so to get some satisfaction that is lingering, almost ready to come out, but never fully achieved. Ellis is also able to expertly use language that evokes an aura of detachment which drives you into the minds of each character.
The book did lose some of its power from my last read a few years ago. It does seem a bit one-note in its themes, focusing on and repeating the same ideas, but never expounding enough on the bigger implications or tying this nihilistic lifestyle into more universal ideas. Julian (and to some extent Clay) is also the only truly sympathetic character in the novel, and those like Blair could easily have been given more import which would have given us the various perspectives needed to come to a more well-argued conclusion on the ideas presented. Finally, although the novel is often subtle in its symbolism, some points are heavy-handed such as the scene where Rip and Clay stand over the curved freeway where cars lay destroyed in the ditch below.
Brett Easton Ellis’ Less Than Zero is an impressive debut novel which explores nihilism and excess incredibly well, while also being well-written and fun to read. The stylistic choices in his prose also capture the same sense of empitiness he is trying to convey. Unfortunately, given the book’s short length and desire to fully explore its main theme, it fails to tie into anything more universal or powerful. It also occasionally delves into some pretty over-the-top symbolism. But nonetheless, Less Than Zero is worth reading and is an especially good introduction to the author.
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