The

Mick

Sinclair

Archive

Bret Easton Ellis

May

1985

NME

book review

 
 
LESS THAN ZERO

Bret Easton Ellis

LESS THAN ZERO is a scatological essay about Los Angeles. In particular the late-teened offspring of hideously wealthy parents who have nothing to do and abundant time and money to do it with. Rebels with jacuzzis.

They're the MTV-watching generation. Music provides a backdrop and pivot to Less Than Zero. Fear fail to arrive at a party, X play the Roxy, people wear Specials T-shirts, The Go-Gos dominate the radio and Elvis Costello gives the book its title. The author was 19 at the time of writing.

The narrator is 18, his name is Clay and he's back in Los Angeles for Christmas after college in New Hampshire. He has close cropped blond hair, wears shades, has lost his tan and it becomes a Christmas of anomie as he discovers the strange divisions which have appeared between him and his city.

American reviewers have tagged Less Than Zero as 'bleak, morally barren, ethically bereft and tinged with implicit violence'. And it is. Clay's peers amuse and abuse themselves with sex and drugs in increasing extremes and have no responsibilities save to where the next thrill is coming from. They take their cues and mores from the gore and tack that modern L.A. offers the bored consumer.

Ellis's sawn-off prose is a perfect vehicle to convey this nihilism and create a novel in the space mapped out by a Dead Kennedys' or a Black Flag record. It's like Jackie Collins meeting an '80s Jack Kerouac. Kids with hopelessly tangled love lines and living – not with the exuberance and optimism of the Beats – but in a coked-out fog of neutered feeling.

Things are kept intense with a first-person style that doesn't offer opinions. Only near the end, when Clay comes to recognise his estrangement as disgust does the author begin to condemn rather than semi-objectively portray.

I don't know how close to reality Less Than Zero is. And no one knows how close to 'reality' Los Angeles is. But the LA of LTZ is the terminal end of the American Dream. It's freedom and affluence enjoyed under a doctrine of 'if you want to do something, you have the right to do it'. The kids of LTZ are as American as apple pie. Or Charles Manson.

Neat book.

 

mick sinclair

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