Less Than Zero (1985) – Bret Easton ELLIS

No doubt, Bret Easton Ellis is most famous for writing American Psycho, a novel that carries an R18+ rating in this country, and I believe is still illegal to buy in Queensland (feel free to correct me if I’m wrong). But his first novel, this one, was written when he was still in college, at the obscene age of 21, which rather makes me feel like I’ve achieved nothing in my life, since I’m now somewhat older than that.

Clay has returned home to Los Angeles after his first semester at college on the East Coast. Catching up with old friends, he falls into his past life with ease – going to parties, doing gratuitous amounts of drugs, sleeping with boys and girls. His old girlfriend, Blair, wants to know if they can get back together. His best friend, though, has been busy while he’s been away, getting deep into the LA drug scene, to which he quickly introduces Clay.

It’s difficult to empathise with characters who are so very, very rich, and so very, very oblivious to that fact. To say that all of these kids are spoilt little rich kids would be something of an understatement. They all drive Mercs or Audis, have parties in their giant houses, take a LOT (and I mean, a LOT) of drugs, don’t do any work, and seem to barely attend university. It’s like the whole conspicuous consumption philosophy of the 80s has been distilled into one suburb of LA, and intensified. I appreciate what Ellis is trying to do here, though I’m afraid I just didn’t connect with it in any meaningful way. Some books age well, and some don’t. Less Than Zero is one of the latter. Ellis is really pushing the idea that rich kids are just as disaffected with life as poor people are, which is fine, but the problem is, 25 years later, I like to think we all understand that money doesn’t buy you happiness. We’ve all seen how Paris Hilton and her brigade act – maybe I’m just too used to this kind of thing to be shocked.

Less Than Zero is also very repetitive. A large amount of text is given over to describing conversations where absolutely nothing meaningful or significant is said. Or even though, really.  An aside to this – the novel would have been much shorter were it set in contemporary times. So much time is dedicated to people playing telephone tag with one another, if they’d all had a mobile, I reckon about half the scenes could be cut.

And so we kind of plod along like this for most of the novel, doing drugs, having meaningful silences with friends in restaurants, and generally being bored with life. Then Ellis pulls a fast one, and shit gets weird. In the last third of the book or so, the whole thing gets turned upside down. All of a sudden, important things happen. Julian, Clay’s best friend, turns out to be a prostitute, and him pimp is, shall we say, less than ideal. There’s a sequence between Julian, Clay and the pimp that is deeply unpleasant to read, because of what this man is forcing these two kids to do. And then, just when you’ve recovered from that, we get to a sequence where a 12 year old girl is raped. I just – I don’t know how to talk about that without being absolutely disgusted, so I’m going to move swiftly on.

So why the sudden jump? Perhaps Ellis is highlighting the chance for these things to get out of hand very quickly? It seems like something of a stretch to assume that all people who do drugs are going to go on to become prostitutes or rapists, though maybe that’s the take-home message here. I don’t really know. There’s a tension between the vacuousness of the bulk of the novel dealing with the disillusionment of rich kids who spend all their time partying, and the actual grittiness of rape, murder and paedophilia that are thrown in at the end. Unfortunately, while this may be effect Ellis is going for, it means that you don’t get a chance to fully comprehend the true horror of the sequences at the end.

I don’t have a fundamental problem with novels that deal with rape and drug use – Loaded, for example, is fantastic, as is Bright Shiny Morning. I do have a problem with the way Ellis constructs his novel, and the seemingly arbitrary nature in which he makes links between recreational drug users, and hardcore bad people.

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