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Novel Review: Less Than Zero

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“People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles”. These are the opening words to Bret Easton Ellis’s Debut novel Less Than Zero, and with them sets up the atmosphere for the rest of the story. According to Ellis, through his narrator Clay, Los Angeles in the mid-eighties was a Mecca for a generation of vacuous, nihilistic, but very tanned, young men and women. The children of the players of Hollywood, these youths have way too much expendable cash to spend and even more time to spend it. Clay, and all those who inhabit his world, lead empty and meaningless lives, with all the money in the world but no real currency in life. They have parties together, frequent clubs together, get tanned together and snort drugs together, but never truly interact with each other. Their lives are, in the end, a whole bunch of nothing; less than zero. No wonder they are afraid to merge.

The narrative of Less Than Zero follows Clay, who has returned home to Los Angeles from college somewhere on the East Coast for a month over the Christmas break. Calling Clay the protagonist of the story would be quite an overstatement. Yes, it is through his eyes that we follow the story, but he hardly drives the narrative. He merely exists, barely, in this hazy world of sex, drugs and parties. All the while he is back at home Clay partakes in all the debauched activities of his peers, but it seems merely a way to pass the time. He seems rather disturbed and sickened by the lifestyles of his friends and family but does nothing to separate himself from this world. For the most part Clay is rather amoral about anything and everything, but at times he displays some form of morality, at least in comparison to his friends. Of course when your friends engage in some particularly horrifying acts, any act of opposition would be moral.

For a debut novel, Less Than Zero is certainly impressive. Shocking, disconcerting, filled with sexual deviance and amoral lifestyles, yet oddly thoughtful, Bret Easton Ellis portrays a world that seems horrifyingly real. Undoubtedly quite a bit exaggerated in depicting the L.A. of the eighties, surely no-one can be this empty and hollow, it does manage to capture a snapshot of the social deviance that comes along with a city so saturated with consumerism and celebrity.

The novel however does feel a little flat at times. The lack of a real narrative arc or of anything really significant happening may leave a reader feeling a little bit empty. Clearly that is the point. But while he perfectly illustrates the meaningless and emotionally barren lives of these young L.A. “zombies”, Easton Ellis leaves the story itself a little barren. We do feel just as disconcerted as Clay by the world he inhabits, and along with him, yearn for something more, something real, something alive. And although Easton Ellis obviously intends for us to feel the way same way as Clay, at times this does leave the reader a little lost.

 Lacking the punch and wit of his later novels, Less Than Zero is still a remarkable read. To say that one will get enjoyment out of it is perhaps the wrong word to use. Rather you will be unnerved, shocked, and a little bit disturbed, but also fascinated and enthralled. While the lives of Clay and his friends may be less than zero, the book is far more than that. 


Written by Dale Weber

Friday, 17 October, 2008 at 11:33 am

Posted in Novels

Tagged with ,

2 Responses

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  1. Here is a link to the trailer …


    Friday, 17 October, 2008 at 3:04 pm

  2. […] It was a shoe box on its side, decorated as if it were the drug dealer Julian’s bedroom from Less Than Zero, and inside were two dolls fucking in the missionary position, at the same angle as in the scene […]

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