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[261] Less Than Zero – Bret Easton Ellis

” The alarm goes off at eleven. A song called Artificial Insemination is playing on the radio and I wait until it’s over to open my eyes and get up . . . I walk to the closet and look at my face and body in the mirror; flex my muscles a couple of times, wonder if I should get a haircut, decide I do need a tan. Turn away and open the envelope, also hid beneath the sweaters. I cut myself two lines of the coke I bought from Rip last night and do them and feel better. ” [40]

Los Angeles in 1980s. Clay comes home for Christmas vacation from college in New Hampshire and plunges into a spree of social orgies, sex, drugs, careless living, debauchery, and disaffection at too early an age. At the center of the novel with Clay are a daughter of a film producer, Blair, for whom Clay tries to renew his feelings; and his best friend, Julian, who is careering into hustling and dealing heroin. Their social circle comprises of late-teenage kids of the privileged class who live in the seamy world of LA after dark.

It’s a Saturday night and on some Saturday nights when there’s not a party to go to and no concerts around town and everyone’s seen all the movies, most people stay home and invite friends over and talk on the phone. [77]

Less Than Zero is a very disturbing novel with this incessant cycle of relentless parties in glitzy mansions, seedy bars, and underground rock clubs. The moral entropy documented in the book might be exaggerated, but it is very much aligned with the vain and corrupted personalities that populate the reality shows on television nowadays. Ellis intentionally creates a merry-go-around of cast that, other than spending too much money on everything, roaming mindlessly in wee hours, parading from one party to the next, is unforgettable , not for who they are but for what they do, because they are without substance. They belong to the lost generation that says “I don’t know” to almost every question imposed to them—they’re beyond confused. The back of the book pronounces that this novel is The Catcher in the Rye for the MTV generation. Neither of the two is lofty in words. If The Catcher in the Rye is misanthropic, Less Than Zero is a justification of that misanthropy—the characters and deeds are unsympathetically despicable. Never has Hollywood’s much-coveted success and high life looks so frightening in a work of contemporary literature. It’s a moral lesson in a detached, apthetic voice. Which brings me to a question I’ve pondering over the weekend: how would you rate a book that documents an era so effectively and yet the plot is a pack of nothingness?

209 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

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18 Responses

  1. I read this in the early 90s and while I tore through it in one sitting (a page-turner), it never really stayed with me. I even gave away my copy. You are so right about it documenting the time so effectively but nothing really meaningful in it. I rather prefer Bright Lights, Big City over this.

    • Because the story flows so casually, the book is not meant to have a staying power, at least you probably won’t remember many of the characters. However, you would, remember the anorexic girl who gave herself injections and the main character who lives on at least three lines of coke a day.

  2. I read this book a few years ago, and I remember really enjoying it. I found Bret Easton Ellis’ work to be refreshing. I moved on to American Psycho afterward and then picked up The Rules of Attraction and Lunar Park. I just really got into reading his work for a short time. I just found that he was able to effectively capture the life style and time period that he was writing about – it was disturbing, realistic and completely detached (apathetic in tone). There is just something about a book that you don’t truly connect with because you have nothing in common with the characters or story lines, but that somehow is able to engage with you that really just stands out and that is how Less Than Zero was for me.

    • I feel completely detached from the generation and their practices detailed in this book. The novel progresses on with cycles of parties, drugs, and sex. I was engaged to find out what would become of these people but I wasn’t engaged in their lifestyles.

  3. I read this last summer, and I was so haunted by it. Yeah it’s a great snapshot of a certain period of time in a certain place, but it also speaks to what happens to people when all they care about is superficiality and feeling good all the time. I think that’s the more substantive message and that’s what stays with me. I thought there was a lot of meaning in the book, mostly because the characters themselves found so little meaning. It was the absence of anything significant in their lives — everything was just the same f-d up stuff — that made it significant for me.

    • While the book overall is very detached and apathetic, it does give sort of a moral lesson about these people who live so carelessly, even if they have huge amount of money and social privilege. It’s just disturbing.

  4. Those are some interesting comments before me. On one hand, it seems that this could be a real downer, thinking about the uselessness of a life. But here I’m seeing it called haunting and a page-turner. I’d love to just pick up one of this guys’ books just to see what it is all about.

    • Some of the details are downright disturbing. It’s haunting me even more, and maybe that’s the measure of Bret Easton Ellis’ force. It’s a page-turner only because I was eager to find out what would become of these people, and I do have to confess, I want bad things to screw them all! 🙂

  5. I read this book right after it was published in the early 1980s. I was in high school. I loved it, although I am not sure why. It was so very bleak, but I think his writing style appealed to me. Interesting point about his prescience re: empty reality-television celebs. I think that’s right on the money. I’d be interested to read this again now, especially along with Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City, which was sort of the New York rival of Less Than Zero.

    • I’ve got to get a copy of Bright Lights, Big City now that both you and Claire have recommended the book. My very close friends D commented the same thing about the book’s prescience to empty TV.show bix celebs and how he won’t be surprised if this is how these celebs live.

  6. From your description, moral entropy is the perfect description. Not one I would read for pleasure. But the book probably justifies itself as a warning if its read in that spirit. I would say the title makes the author’s intention clear.

    • I was just pondering about the title and what you said was right on, Ellis’ intention couldn’t be any more clear than what the title beholds. There supposed to be a quasi sequel to it, Rules of Attraction, I’m debating if I should read it.

  7. The book and movie made me sad and especially in light of the fact that I think there are so many young people that find themselves living this kind of disconnected and meaningless lifestyle. We don’t have to go very far to see examples of this. But while the book is chronicling something important for us to think about, the writing just isn’t all that great. For people who are interested, I would recommend the movie. Robert Downey Jr. gives a heartbreaking performance as Julian.

    • The writing reminds me of The Catcher in the Rye, very simple, detached, and juvenile. But consider it was published back in early 1980s, this book is prescient of today’s tv personalities.

  8. […] the Peace, Richard Yates The Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe (hope it won’t be another Less Than Zero) Coventry, Helen Humphreys (thanks BIP) Affinity, Sarah […]

  9. […] The Hour Between is about friendship and self-discovery in the age of early adulthood. It reinforces the stereotypical rich kid behavior: boozing, doing drugs, spending huge money, spinning out of control. Thankfully it does not steer into a continuous trance of debaucheries that reminds me of Less Than Zero. […]

  10. […] not read Bret Easton Ellis, my expectation mounted high for Less Than Zero. It is a very disturbing novel with this incessant cycle of relentless parties in glitzy mansions, […]

  11. […] drug/drug abuse and alcoholism? This is the reason why I stopped reading Bret Ellis Easton after Less Than Zero? Same old stories with different settings and same annoying, immature, obnoxious, self-entitled […]

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