Less Than Zero

4 05 2010

I’ve read Bret Easton Ellis before. Last year I took an 18th Century Satire course (which was totally brutal) that compared the likes of Pope and Dryden to modern-day satirists. One of those works was American Psycho, an extremely challenging piece intended to satirize the upper-class elite of New York society; Psycho’s graphic use of sexual and violent acts caused much controversy at the time of the novel’s release. While I enjoyed Ellis’s work, I never looked into reading any more of his pieces. That was until Lisa put Less Than Zero into my hands sometime last summer.

Ellis’ first novel, written at the astonishingly young age of 18, is somewhat similar in his choice of subject matter, instead detailing the lives of the young, rich and elite of Los Angeles. Zero’s protagonist is 18 year old Clay, a freshmen in college on the East coast who returns to his home in Los Angeles for Christmas break. Since leaving, Clay has been removed from the irresponsible, superficial and meaningless lifestyle of his friends. These kids live for the nightlife, parties, drugs and sex. During a series of particularly disturbing events (viewing his best friend prostitute himself in order to pay back his cocaine debt, being witness to a pornographic snuff film and seeing his friends emotionless fascination with an overdose victim), Clay decides to return to school, possibly never to return to Los Angeles. The closing paragraph is one Lisa highlighted in her book, a passage of prose that epitomizes the central theme of the book, Los Angeles as a wasteland. “There was a song I heard when I was in Los Angeles by a local group. The song was called ‘Los Angeles’ and the words and images were so harsh and bitter that the song would reverberate in my mind for days. The images, I later found out, were personal and no one I knew shared them. The images I had were of people being driven mad by living in the city. Images of parents who were so hungry and unfulfilled that they ate their own children. Images of people, teenagers my own age, looking up from the asphalt and being blinded by the sun. These images stayed with me even after I left the city. Images so violent and malicious that they seemed to be my only point of reference for a long time afterwards. After I left.”

Less Than Zero provides a compelling commentary on the reckless lifestyle of adolescents in Los Angeles during the 1980s. At times bordering on glamorizing the people and events in the novel, it portrays the lives of messed up teenagers lost among the bullshit by which they have been surrounded their entire lives. Growing up in Los Angeles, my life could not have been any less like that of Clay, Blair or Julian.  Perhaps it is the company I keep or my substantially lower economic stats, but the events in Ellis’ novel are extremely exaggerated (though perhaps not to the same extent as Psycho) in order to convey the distorted view of Los Angeles as a glamorous city along the beach where everyone is tan and dines at Spago.

“Disappear Here.” At one point in the novel, Clay passes a billboard picturing a sunny vacation spot accompanied by these words. Throughout the rest of the novel Clay is haunted by this statement, for he feels as though he is fading in the hot sunlight highlighting glistening fake tans and shadowing drug addictions. Less Than Zero is a brilliant commentary on 1980s youth in Los Angeles.

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