Blogging the Bookshelf

Blogging my bookshelf – one book at a time

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"Less Than Zero", Bret Easton Ellis

July 4th, 2009 · 1 Comment · Literature, Nihilist

lessthanzeroSynopsis: Privileged LA teen returns to the West Coast on holiday from his East Coast University.  The protagonist attempts to confront the emotional emptiness of his casually amoral life the only was he knows how – through sex, drugs and pointless consumption.

My Take: In my first year at university I went through a bit of a nihilistic phase in my reading. I started devouring authors like Chuck Palahniuk, Irvine Welsh, J. D. Salinger and above all, Bret Easton Ellis. I can’t say I really know what precipitated this phase – maybe it was just the first time I had had the opportunity to access literature like this having just left small town Queensland for the (relative) retail literary diversity of the Gold Coast (you mean there are alternatives to Dymocks??). My own outlook on life wasn’t particularly grim at the time and I certainly wasn’t some kind of Goth/Emo morbidly luxuriating in the negativity of it all.  But I do recall feeling that experiencing the darkest perspectives of literature would enrich my appreciation of the more uplifting things in life. In this sense, I can certainly say that having worked through the Brett Easton Ellis cannon, I felt much more optimistic about my experience of the human condition.

Less Than Zero” is a relatively brief, very tightly written debut novel that Ellis published at the obscene age of 19(!). While it’s not as rich or layered as his later works (in particular “American Psycho”) it’s fair to say it was spectacularly successful, becoming a best-seller and being adapted as a movie starring Robert Downey Jr.  Appropriately described by one Amazon reviewer as being “like The Catcher in the Rye on Crack”, “Less Than Zero” is a harrowing exploration of the alienation and disconnection of the children of the wealthy elite of LA in the 1980s. Given Ellis’ own privileged LA upbringing, it’s difficult not to see him writing from personal experience here.

While I can’t say I’m too sympathetic to “Poor Rich Boy” literature in general, “Less Than Zero” is notable for its extremism if nothing else. Amidst the pages of this thin novel, the protagonist and his fellow travellers manage to confront or engage in endemic drug use, forced prostitution, anorexia, rape, paedophilia and a snuff film.  It’s seriously full-on stuff and ultimately no surprise that a novelist that could produce a debut like this would ultimately go on to pen something like “American Psycho”. However, despite its grotesque extremity, the most striking aspect of the book is the all encompassing numbness of its characters.  While the protagonist has a vague conception that he should be disturbed by what he is confronting, he is unable to feel anything beyond the generalised anxiety he feels about life as a whole. I guess this is kind of the point of nihilistic literature and I remember appreciating its import at the time, but in retrospect I can’t really see the appeal.

Highlight: The opening paragraph of “Less Than Zero” perfectly captures the sense of disconnection that pervades the rest of the book:

“People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles. This is the first thing I hear when I come back to the city. Blair picks me up from LAX and mutters this under her breath as she drives up the onramp. She says, “People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles.” Though that sentence shouldn’t bother me, it stays in my mind for an uncomfortably long time. Nothing else seems to matter. Not the fact that I’m eighteen and it’s December and the ride on the plane had been rough and the couple from Santa Barbara, who were sitting across from me in first class, had gotten pretty drunk. Not the mud that had splattered on the legs of my jeans, which felt kind of cold and loose, earlier that day at an airport in New Hampshire. Not the stain on the arm of the wrinkled, damp shirt I wear, a shirt which looked fresh and clean this morning. Not the tear on the neck of my gray argyle vest, which seems vaguely more eastern than before, especially next to Blair’s clean tight jeans and her pale-blue shirt. All of this seems irrelevant next to that one sentence. It seems easier to hear that people are afraid to merge than “I’m pretty sure Muriel is anorexic” or the singer on the radio crying out about magnetic waves. Nothing else seems to matter to me but those ten words. Not the warm winds, which seem to propel the car down the empty asphalt freeway, or the faded smell of marijuana which still faintly permeates Blair’s car. All it comes down to is the fact that I’m a boy coming home for a month and meeting someone whom I haven’t seen for four months and people are afraid to merge. “

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  • Started reading it after this review. The opening paragraph is great, but as for the rest, I’m half way through and giving it a “meh. I don’t think I’ll finish it. Dated and a little boring.