Less Than Zero
by Brett Easton Ellis
If your memory of the 1980s consists of miners’ strikes, poll tax and bopping about in Doc Marten boots to The Cure, LESS THAN ZERO is a powerful reminder of the flip side of the decade: the rise of the yuppie and the dawning of the MTV generation.
Our narrator is Clay, an English student at an Ivy League American college who is hanging on to his sanity by a thread. When he comes home to LA from New Hampshire for Christmas vacation he makes matters worse by taking up with his old friends, spending their parents’ money, bed-hopping, gobbling drugs, and losing himself in an increasingly warped party scene.
There are symbolic - as well as literal - signs pointing to Clay’s unravelling. Graffiti which reads ‘Disappear here’ haunts Clay as he drives around LA and he feels taunted by an ‘Exit’ sign in the cinema. These are a nice touch by Easton Ellis and belie his tender 21 years on the book’s publication in 1985. It’s also to the author’s credit that, despite the unflattering portrayal of Clay, we care about his fate and whether he will return to New Hampshire and his studies. This empathy is no mean feat and is one of the main successes of LESS THAN ZERO.
At the heart of the novel is the corrosive effect of affluence, which acts like an ever-deteriorating rust on the supposedly glittering lifestyle of Clay and his fellow 1980s LA youth. For example, despite having ample opportunity to visit the cinema, the group never seem to find anything on, or if they do, they don’t remember (never mind like) the movie. An irony if we consider that many of the crowd’s parents are movie producers or actors - or even studio executives. Speaking of the parents, they don’t feature much, but when they do, they tellingly fail as role models. At a particularly poignant moment one of the party animals in the crowd, Kim, remarks that she thinks her mother is in England with her young lover, adding, ‘At least that’s what I read in Variety.’
Name dropping of magazines like this, as well as of the bands, fashions and celebrities of the 1980s make this a book very much of its time. But, even if the novel is as synonymous with the 1980s as ra-ra skirts, Rubik’s cubes and Boy George, it wears its years well. And, though the OTT climax may be beyond anything you or I ever experienced in our youth, as a coming-of-age tale, LESS THAN ZERO is just about as accurate as they come. Highly recommended.
Nina de la Mer
This new edition of LESS THAN ZERO is re-issued 25 years on to coincide with the sequel, IMPERIAL BEDROOMS (publication date July 2010), which returns to those same characters now facing an even greater period of disaffection: their own middle age.