Monday, 1 May 2017

Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis Review

A young student called Clay returns to Los Angeles for Christmas break to see friends and family. His visit reads something like this: “We’re rich kids in LA! Let’s do drugs and have sex – we’re soooo hedonistic and transgressive! Ooo, let’s have sex again and do MORE drugs!” Repeat for 200 pages and you’ve got Bret Easton Ellis’ debut novel Less Than Zero!

Ellis can write really well so it’s a shame he doesn’t really have anything to say besides: rich LA brats are aimless, lost youth, their parents are drugged-out zombies, and LA culture is surface-level garbage and miserable. Ok – and? He just goes round and round repeating the same blasé party scenes over and over to underline this unimpressive point. 

All of the vapid one-dimensional “characters” sound the same which might either be a lack of skill on Ellis’ part (he was 21 when this was published) or deliberate to emphasise their lack of character and superficiality. Either way, it doesn’t add up to a very interesting read. At no point did I care about any of them or their depressing lives. 

It also feels like Ellis is trying too hard to shock. One melodramatic scene focuses on a girl injecting heroin, there’s a male prostitute working off his debt to a scuzzy dealer/pimp, a young teen girl is gang-raped, and everyone’s doing blow all the time. The shock shtick is all this novel has: it’s morbidly interesting but completely without substance and pointless. The same critique could be made of American Psycho but Less Than Zero isn’t as boring. It might’ve worked on ‘80s/early ‘90s audiences but Ellis’ shock tactics read today as really lame and try-hard, like a sad old edgelord’s scribblings. 

I like Ellis’ writing but mostly for his later books like The Informers, Imperial Bedrooms and, easily my favourite, Lunar Park. His early books like Less Than Zero and American Psycho feel like a writer with enormous talent distracted with being edgy and cool – a one-note author repeating himself ad infinitum rather than one who knows how to develop a theme more roundly and compellingly. But I suppose a lot of that has to do with him being in his twenties when he wrote these too. I highly recommend checking out Lunar Park instead of the dated and tedious Less Than Zero.

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