Less Than Zero is Brett Easton Ellis’s first published book.
Thanks to the lovely people at Picador I got my hands on the rather beautifully presented re-published hardback copy and having been quite fascinated by American Psycho decided to read the book that started Ellis’s career.
Written in the stream of consciousness narrative, Less Than Zero follows protagonist Clay who goes back to visit Los Angeles on his winter break where he spends time seeing old friends and sees his ex-girlfriend Blair. Most of the time he is high on cocaine or drunk or both. His family life is depressing (although flashbacks hint at happier times), his friends at best shallow, at worst sociopathic and and he seems to meander through bizarre often disturbing situations becoming more and more detached as the book goes on.
Parts of Less Than Zero make uncomfortable reading, as we watch people try to bring excitement to what feel like hollow lives by pushing their limits psychologically and sexually. Rather than protecting them, these teenager’s privileged lives expose them to experiences very bad things. Ellis highlights the greed and excess of the 80’s – the book is peppered with references to consumer brands – and in a similar way to American Psycho hints at the dark consequences of a boredom driven by teenagers having too much ‘stuff’ and too few morals.
Ellis’ style really works for me. The cold, disconnected voice of the narrator only makes what he observes seem more disturbing. I like his references to music of the era which really create a sense of time and place (don’t you always vividly remember what was happening at the time you listened to a particular song?). The title of the book is actually a reference to a song of the same name by Elvis Costello which a bit of Googling reveals that refers to nazism and teenage sex as well as people prioritising material goods over anything else:
“He said, he heard about a couple living in the USA,
He said, they traded their baby in for a Chevrolet”
The lyrics hint at society gone mad and so it’s not hard to see why Ellis was inspired to choose it as the title for this book.
I also like the way that Ellis creates verbal clues out of the signs that Clay sees. He notices particular words on signs and number plates such as ‘Disappear here’ and ‘DECLINE’ which have a sort of subconscious significance to Clay’s life.
Less Than Zero is an interesting read and feels very modern, despite having been written over 25 years ago. It made me think that the show Gossip Girl is similar – like an updated, frothy (and more suitable for TV) comment on the lives of bored, rich teenagers. Like American Psycho, it’s not exactly an ‘enjoyable’ read but it wierdly compelling. I wouldn’t rate it as highly as American Psycho (for me probably a 9 out of 10), which now, having read Less Than Zero feels like the masterpiece Ellis was working up to – similar themes and style, but a more mature version and a more involved plot. Read if you want an introduction to Ellis, or you liked American Psycho and want to see what came before.