Bret Easton Ellis – Less Than Zero

Bret Easton Ellis - Less Than Zero

‘Don’t ask me about my mother.’
Why not?’
Don’t say that.’
‘Why not?’ I say again.
She finds the vest. ‘Here.’
Why not?’
What do you do?’ she asks, holding out the vest.
What do you do?’
What do you do?’ she asks, her voice shaking. ‘Don’t ask me, please. Okay, Clay?’
Why not?’
She sits on the mattress after I get up. Muriel screams.
Because… I don’t know,’ she sighs.

I’m a little late to the party, aren’t I? After all, Less Than Zero has been kicking around for a few years now. In fact, it’s been around for over twenty-five. It’ll be settling down soon; have a couple of kids, get a nice car, find someplace child-friendly with space for a nursery, maybe an extra room of two for when the kids get older, and though it may have now outgrown its own adolescence, it’s still as fresh as ever.

We’re Clay; a cool, blonde student who returns home to Los Angeles for Christmas. His family lives in a big house with a pool, he’s got a couple of sisters, his parents are separated, but none of that is important. What is important is money, and he’s got a lot of it. He’s got a fast car, he’s got a walk-in wardrobe, he’s got a maid/servant and pretty much wants for nothing if can be bought with a bit of the green. He’s sorted. His mates are the same; fresh-faced blonde actors and actresses fighting/sleeping up the food chain in an attempt to get in with the big D. Director. It’s all about throwing wild parties and snorting coke, so it sounds like one of those books that I’d love to hate – mass consumerism, mindless binging on drink and drugs, excessive consumption of resources, ignorance, the Hollywood movies and blonde people (alright, I kid you on that last one) – but I enjoyed it.

I actually fucking enjoyed it.

I’m inclined to say I liked it because later on in the text you begin to feel a kind of tone. A mood. That the work is trying to get at some deeper meaning (which it is), but really I enjoyed it from the beginning. It just has such a pace to it. It grabs you by the ears and forces you to stare it in the face. You are here, you are in the now, and this, and that and now and now. I was a hundred pages in before I even knew what was happening. The tea I’d made sat cold on the windowsill (and that’s really saying something – me and tea? We’re best buddies, I’d never consciously let my tea cool). It almost felt like a kind of anti-On The Road; anti-intellectual, full of rich kids and snuff films where the journey is a five minute one to the next cafe or night club, speeding through every red light on the way.

But what really happens? He comes home, meets with his mates, takes a fuck-ton of drugs, drinks a great deal, hooks up with some girls (and some guys), watches his mates hook up with girls and guys and occasionally reflects on his past: on holidays when his parents were together, the old house they used to live in and how he and his on-and-off girlfriend kicked around Palm Springs for a week or so. Lighting scented candles and hanging out the pool. Sounds great, right? No. No, not really – the premise seems like a bit of an old one now. A little dated, but trust me, it builds. It grows on you – and once the needles in and the syringe fills with blood there’s no turning back. You’re in it for the long haul.

I’m not going to spoil any of it for you. Sure, it’s been over twenty-five years since it was first published so the plot twists and turns are probably out there for all to see by now, but I like to think I’m that decent sort of bloke that’s not going to ruin it for those of us (i.e. me) that hasn’t got round to reading these things yet.

On a more critical level I think some of the early flashbacks are a little long winded and not particularly integral to the message of the book itself. I found myself wanting to skip ahead than deal with the family-rambles that often happened in those passages. Fact is, Clay didn’t appear to give a shit about his family in the story, really. They just seemed to be people he lived with, people that stole things from his room occasionally, or gave him money. They’re an important reference point later in the text, but they never really felt meaningful enough to be of any importance. Either they needed just a bit more characterisation or a little less.

At about fifty/sixty pages I was pretty hooked, until about one-hundred and twenty where it seemed to be becoming stale (but persevere!). Now that I’ve finished it I think that stale-ness is integral to the text so I can’t really dig my teeth into it. It works, it just seems a little off at the time, but it works out wonderfully.

The only real real problem comes later. Things happen – everything starts kicking off – and then I had it. I’d got it. I had a ‘I see what you’re doing there‘ moment and respected the text a whole lot more for it but then, just after I’d got it, it seemed to start spelling it out for me. Well that’s fine, really – different people will get it at different points – but it was really going for the spell-it-out approach. The clever little existential lines I’d been enjoying previously were beginning to taste a little sour. The philosophy of the text began to transcend the context of the narrative and it began to feel a little less ‘real’ and more like ‘you’re reading a novel, son’. Whilst this might have been acceptable in some postmodern/experimental novel it wasn’t here. It’s like Ellis has been sharpening his knives the whole time you’ve been reading and then, just as you get what he’s planning to do, he puts the knives down on the table and gives you an evil genius inspired lecture on what he’s going to do to you and how he’s going to do it. Just stick the knife in! Go for the kill, not overkill… Anyway, it pulls itself together eventually and gets back on track, but I still think Ellis is a little too careful make sure we’ve got what he’s getting at.

___’CAN YOU HEAR ME? HELLO? DO YOU UNDERSTAND?’
___’Christ Ellis, yeah man I can hear you, now just calm your shit, alright? Sit the fuck down.’
___’ARE YOU SURE? ARE YOU SURE YOU’VE GOT IT YET?’
___’Yes, yes Ellis, I’ve got it. Now sit down.’

It’s not really that bad, just a little distracting, and once it’s back on form it’s straight sailing to the end. More of the good stuff. More to think about.

It’s a brilliant book, and dangerously readable – just keep it away from the easily offended.

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