Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Bret Easton Ellis- Less Than Zero

Less Than Zero
Picador Press

Bret Easton Ellis
1985

“She laughs and looks out the window and I think for a minute that she's going to start to cry. I'm standing by the door and I look over at the Elvis Costello poster, at his eyes, watching her, watching us, and I try to get her away from it, so I tell her to come over here, sit down, and she thinks I want to hug her or something and she comes over to me and puts her arms around my back and says something like 'I think we've all lost some sort of feeling."

When I discovered that Bret Easton Ellis was only a twenty-one year old college student when his debut novel Less Than Zero was published, I found it very, very annoying and didn't want to like it, since I'm twenty-eight and all I do is write a blog. Also, when I bought it (for only £3 from HMV, thanks to their desperation to seem like a cool and alternative shop) the girl at the counter vociferously told me how good she thought it was, and she looked like she was about fifteen so that really annoyed me as well. I'm a very awkward person. Honestly though, prior to reading Less Than Zero I had already become a fan of Easton Ellis through reading- and enjoying- perhaps his most famous work, the graphically disturbing black satire American Psycho. While my memories of that book are admittedly too entwined with the Christian Bale-starring film, and while Ellis gave himself the advantage of coming up with a straight-up winning high concept for it, it was still easy for me to enjoy the bleak, minimalist and satirical prose. 

Less Than Zero doesn't have the same catchy psychopathic hook as American Psycho, so I wouldn't have been surprised if I had found it to be disappointing, particularly thanks to the initially wandering plot. The novel is written in the present-tense from the first person perspective of surname-less college student Clay, during a Winter break from schooling where he returns to his home city of Los Angeles to reunite with his like-minded friends and indulge in more than a little bit of unrestrained hedonism. Clay and his friends all seem to be rich and free of responsibilities; the children of uncaring entertainment moguls who unwittingly finance copious amount of drugs and wild parties. To be honest, the first hundred-or-so pages of this fairly short book didn't particularly grab me since it's fairly repetitive and written in such a style as to promote disinterest.

Bret Easton Ellis
Ellis' minimalistic narration is designed to constantly reinforce Clay and his friends' disassociation with the real world, where the huge drug intake and random sexual encounters simply exist as something to do to fill the time. The book absolutely turned a decisive corner for me when the authors' true aim became clear in its second half; where the situations Clay finds himself in become increasingly unpleasant and immoral, and his uncaring attitude towards life around him is challenged by the undeniable despair he feels as he witnesses the horrors around him in LA. I don't get shocked by literature anymore, but if I did this would be the book to do it.

Most of the criticism I've read of this book seems to revolve around the argument that Clay is such a dispassionate character in a book that would designed to be too cool for school, but I massively disagree with all of that; for me, Clay reads as a character desperately trying to avoid having some sort of mental breakdown through his disassociation, and whom eventually does turn a corner somewhat in his desire to remove himself from this environment and go back to the real world. No, he doesn't step in to directly save some of his friends or other innocents he sees, but at no point is he supposed to be a hero, merely a survivor.

One of the overbearing thoughts I was left with upon finishing Less Than Zero was the relation of Clay to the lead character of American Psycho, Patrick Bateman. Less Than Zero could easily be seen as a prequel to Psycho, as the potential origin story for the latter's charismatic madman, and it's obvious that the themes of each book directly relate to each other- with the key difference being that Less Than Zero is decidedly not a satire. Its topics and incidents are very extreme in places, but crucially also believable to a somewhat disturbing extent. While Ellis' prose is youthful and imperfect, it helps capture the tone it needs, combining with the plot to give the events a sense of gravitas that left me dwelling them for some time. In relation to the roadmap of twentieth century American literature, Less Than Zero follows up on the drugged-up horrors of William Burroughs' Naked Lunch and moves them into the 80's alongside Jay McInery's Bright Lights, Big City to create its own unique and depressing insight into the horrors of human nature.