Review: Less than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis

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Less than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis book cover
Less than Zero (1985) is Bret Easton Ellis's first novel. In it he documents the life of eighteen-year-old Clay as he spends the winter holidays with his family, back from his prestigious college in New England. Clay spends his days jumping from tense family events and the numbing influence of MTV to drug-induced hazes and casual sex with interchangeable partners. Surrounded by vacant, beautiful youth with an abundance of cash and no direction, Clay is both part of this set and outside of it, observing the banality and casual destructiveness of the world around him.

These young characters represent the hollow reality behind the American dream that was packaged and sent around the world as the standard to aspire to; they stand as a warning against ruthless consumerism and mindless aspiration. For the privileged, everything comes down to consumption; food, music, sex, other humans' lives, all are simply fodder for experience, and yet not authentic experience. This is an indictment of a world where the individual rules and where all are not equal.

Returning from university, Clay realises that there is no longer a place he can call home – he is adrift in a world of experience, without roots or refuge. The members of Clay's family are disconnected from one another, and by inference so too are those of many of his young companions, a comment on the increasingly fragmented family unit. It is clear that the older generation's lax parenting is to blame for a deviant younger generation in freefall.

Names are important in Less than Zero. The name 'Clay' clearly suggests a malleability, and is referred to in many creation stories (from the Qur’an to the Myth of Prometheus) as the substance from which humans are created. Here, Ellis assumes the role of god, Clay his creation. The young characters all lack surnames too, indicating the absent parent and lack of connection with the family unit.

Though Clay experiences life he lacks the ability to interpret it; he inhabits that uncomfortable void between comprehension and ignorance. In an attempt to overcome this dislocation Clay assumes a personality and aesthetic that is portrayed to him by the media as something to aspire to, yet he feels the unreality of this existence at all times. By the end of the novel Clay is paralysed by the disjunct between what’s real and what's not, and his only response is to flee.

A fear of extinction and loss of identity pervades the novel, as hinted at by the recurring billboard that reads "Disappear Here". Clay is often told that he looks pale, and this suggests the sense that his existence is insubstantial, and that his feeling of insignificance is apt. This anxiety grips Clay and when he looks for evidence of his own existence in others, they fail to reflect back any signs of life. Withholding their own Gaze, many characters wear sunglasses as a physical barrier to connection. Perhaps the most unsettling instance of this is during an act of sexual gratification when Clay's partner refuses to let him remove his wayfarers. Even Clay's own Gaze fails to reassure him when he searches for his own reflection in mirrors and other reflective surfaces. Perhaps he finds most reassurance in the dulled Gaze of an Elvis Costello poster than hangs on his wall and his television screen, which is permanently tuned to MTV.

MTV is the most persistent cultural reference, and is used throughout to deaden and dull the senses, allowing images to flash by so quickly that one feels no obligation to interact with them. Clay extends this way of experiencing sensation to his wider life and, prompted by the narrative style, so too the reader to the way the text is digested.

Clay and his set drift between parties and events, hoovering up drugs and vacuous experience as they go. All these happenings are linked by indistinct car journeys that create no sense of place. This reflects the characters’ own ethical blankness, which pervades the novel and is incorporated into the narrative style.

The intoxicating atmosphere of the book draws the reader into a vapid, soulless existence where all the young people look the same and everything is meaningless. The prose is fragmented, Clay's thoughts and feelings stuttering and struggling to escape the white noise that surrounds him. He observes his peers impassively as they search for bigger highs and more depraved thrills, all trying to escape the crushing banality of their own existence. Clay is the only developed character, the rest are drawn through his eyes, as flat and ethereal as the faces that flash across MTV. Clay's narration may be dulled, withdrawn from the world, but this is not to suggest that he is wholly amoral, but more that he is actively seeking to dull his senses against the increasing realisation that he is surrounded by destruction and pretence.

Ellis has a good ear for the banal sort of conversations that Clay and his friends have, but in more extreme scenes there is a sense that he is relaying an experience he is not intimately familiar with at times; gritty details making way for broad brush-strokes more often than not, and it seems he has not yet developed the ability to describe altered states of mind convincingly.

As an intimate portrait of a social group’s collective ennui, few novels have better depicted the hollowness of the 1980s. The novel's neat structure and brevity are to its benefit, and though not as rich as American Psycho, this is a well-ordered and better-controlled beast than Ellis's most (in)famous work (though it should be noted that much of American Psycho's style is here, in embryonic form).

The title itself is taken from a song by Elvis Costello, which features on his 1977 album, My Aim is True, and which Costello wrote as a reaction against Oswald Mosley. The young people in Less than Zero exist in a vacuum, they are the undead. Their lives having been reduced to nothingness, they stand on the line between a meaningless life and a meaningless death. No longer of any value, they go beyond meaningless existence and a sense of ennui and become a detriment to society, actively participating in the fall of civilisation. Their lives are worse than empty, they detract, they are at less than zero. And yet zero signifies a lack of an absolute – a moveable point of equilibrium which can never be truly defined, and this fact extends the unsettling ambivalence from the page to the author and the reader.

When he first returns home Clay immediately makes his way to his childhood bedroom, a place which holds memories of times past; a distant place. When Clay leaves his room for the last time to return back to college there is a sense of neatness, almost an ironic nod towards a bildungsroman. Whilst the reader shares Clay's disgust at the inhumanity to which he is exposed, one realises as Clay drives off at the novel's conclusion, repulsive but flat images flashing through his mind, that neither Clay nor the Los Angeles society from which he is escaping, are fundamentally changed in any way. Neither have come of age.

Less than Zero is about a more fundamental problem than might be appreciated at first, one that encompasses us all as we stare dully out at the world through weary eyes, and watch unmoved as images of death and destruction flash past our eyes, blinking away reality for a split-second, before tuning out. People don't communicate with each other anymore. Personal monologues occasionally collide but never intertwine: As Ellis (via Clay) would have it "People are afraid to merge."

Less than Zero is a terrific reminder of the mindless decadence and numbing vacuity that typified the 1980s for some strands of society. Long-running themes in Ellis's work are already present here: alienated youth, the absence of meaning, an abandoned generation, and the twin ills of commodity culture and the media. All amount to a lonely isolation in a world full of stimulation. That Ellis, who wrote Less than Zero while at college (it was published when he was just twenty-one), was able to render this so clearly is remarkable. Ironically, the success of the novel propelled Ellis into the media spotlight, where he himself became a commodity.

I'm slightly in awe of what Ellis achieved at such a young age - this is not perfect, but it smacks of an author who was in touch with his time and able to translate the world into prose in an exciting and sensorially involving way.


Useful Links
Reviews of Less than Zero on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of Less than Zero on Amazon (US)
Film adaptation of Less than Zero on Amazon (UK)
Film adaptation of Less than Zero on Amazon (US)

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3 comments:

Matthew Selwyn said...

Many thanks to Kim - lazy feminist and general put-upon for my crack-pot theories - for mega assistance in getting this review out (and yes Minikin, I have used one of your lines verbatim).

Heather said...

If you remember, a good friend of mine reviewed this on my site (which is how I found out about your blog, when you commented on it). His review made me want to read Ellis' books...and then I made the mistake of following Ellis on Twitter. Unfortunately, this is one of those cases in which I really don't like the author as a person, and he's totally turned me off to reading his books. Ah well.

Great review.

Matthew Selwyn said...

I do, although I thought I commented on the American Psycho review - Jamaal, or something similar, right? I remember messaging about our differing opinions on Ellis.

Oh dear, that is a problem. I'm sorry about that, once something bugs you about an author it's always difficult to enjoy their work - best to divorce books from their authors where possible.

Thanks for stopping by, glad you enjoyed the review :) I'd still encourage anyone to give Ellis's work a try.