First published back in May of 1985, US author Bret Easton Ellis’ debut novel ‘Less Than Zero’ was released when the author was just twenty-one-years-of-age and still studying at college.  The novel’s title came from the Elvis Costello song of the same name that was released back in 1977.

DLS Synopsis:
It’s been over four months since Clay last saw his friends and family in his hometown of Los Angeles, after he left to study art, writing and music at Camden College in New Hampshire.  However, the wealthy eighteen-year-old college student has now returned for the Christmas break.  A few weeks in which he can hang out with his old friends, see his sisters and catch up with his high-profile mother and father who had separated a year ago.

And of course there will be drugs.  Drugs, drinking, parties and the inevitable intoxicated mayhem that always follows.  However, first he has to meet with Blair, who picks him up from the airport.  A meeting that Clay wasn’t too sure how it would go – considering he’s not even sure if they’re a couple any longer.

Once he returns home it’s back into the usual way of life that the sort of money that Clay and his friends can afford to have.  Kim’s still holding parties on almost a weekly basis, and the nightlife in and around Los Angeles hasn’t changed much since his departure.

Most of his old school friends are still lounging about the neighbourhood, passing the days in a drug and alcohol-fuelled daze.  But who Clay wants to catch up with most is his old school friend and drug dealer – Julian.  But he’s proving increasingly difficult to track down.

Meanwhile it’s more of the same.  Trent is now a successful model bringing in money of his own, Muriel has turned into a heroin-injecting junkie, and Daniel’s as drunk as ever.

But there’s more going on below the surface of these youths who have it all.  They’ve become detached from society.  Their casual nihilism has corroded their sense of purpose or any concept of morality.   They don’t care.  If they can do something, they will.  There is no question of right or wrong for them.  Life has become almost meaningless.

And so, in the corrupted and emotionless lives of the new rich and the carefree generation, there are no rules.  Anything goes and no one cares.  Drugs are a mandatory way of life – with Rip making a killing on dealing to his friends and casual acquaintances.  It’s just a question of where Clay fits in with his old life.  If there is still a place for him amongst this plastic-coated, self-destructive dead generation.

And, as Clay is soon to see for himself, things have got out of hand since he’s been away.  And it’s just a question of whether he can still see himself within this warped and soulless mess any more...


DLS Review:
Written in the first-person-perspective of Clay, the strangely unsettling tale is set during the 1980’s – crammed to the rafters with period set references such as the music of the time, Betamax players, Atari & Spectrum ZX computers, and everything else that sits in with the commercial/consumerist 1980’s.  Indeed, the novel is very much one that looks at a particular generation, a particular time, and views it through the cold eyes of a disillusion narrator.

So what have we got?  Well, principally it’s a stripped-down coming-of-age story without any hint of an enlightening conclusion.  This is Bret Easton Ellis in his original minimalist form.  So expect the storyline to be awash with dysfunctional characters all singing to a strange tune that stabs at the heart of a weirdly over-the-top social commentary.

Having read ‘Less Than Zero’ the reader can subsequently see how the likes of ‘American Psycho’ (1991) later grew out of the book.  The prose and formula (a starkly minimalist and detached style of writing) form a blueprint for the author’s later novels.  A particularly and purposefully minimalist style that he has become particularly well-known for.

With Clay, who is the novel’s sole narrator, the reader views the emotionally empty lives of his generation – within a class of wealth which affords lives without any real meaning or goal to strive for.  Clay himself is stripped-away to become a numb voyeur to the events that take place over the winter break.  In our narrator we are placed behind an emotionless face - an attribute that is somewhat forced by the character himself in order to accept what he is a witness to.  Indeed the sheer emotional coldness of the entire novel is something that the reader is quickly immersed within.  An aspect that is very much a part of the book as are the events that are detailed over the course of the tale.

Like a more modern-day ‘The Catcher In The Rye’ (1951), instead replacing the wonderfully entertaining character of Holden Caulfield with the cold and disillusioned Clay, ‘Less Than Zero’ has no strong pre-set direction other than (in this case) spiralling degrees of disillusionment and corroding morality.

Unlike Ellis’ later novels – in particular his hard-hitting novel ‘American Psycho’ (1991) - the tale cuts short on the hardcore graphic details in the nastier scenes; instead leaving the reader to their own hurting imagination when things start to turn for the worse.  Nevertheless, expect underage rape (of a particularly vile manner), drug abuse, male prostitution and the early scenes of a supposed snuff movie.  Yeah – there’s still plenty that will cut into your nerves like a scalpel held by the hand of utterly inhumane apathy.  And it’s this detached, cold-hearted approach to it all that really gets under the reader’s skin in the end.

The paper-thin characters that Ellis employs across the entire length of the tale only help to further erode away any hope of a human and emotional response to the varying degrees of social brutality on show.  What we have is a collection of shallow characters devoid of almost any outward emotional response.  They have everything bar the essence of what makes us people.  And it’s a hard pill to take in its complete lack of recognisable human charm.

As the novel draws to a close, the voyeuristic way in which we have followed Clay through his return to an old life leaves the reader feeling empty and without resolve.  All that remains is rich and (mostly) carefree youths, trapped in a fake-world of drugs, drink, money, and without any degree of honest morality.  It’s cold, dead and without any hint of hope.

The novel was later followed on by the much-awaited sequel ‘Imperial Bedrooms’ (2010) as well as a film adaptation that was released in 1987.

The novel runs for a total of 208 pages.

© DLS Reviews

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