Reading About Living and Dying in LA: My Reflections on Bret Easton Ellis’ Less Than Zero
I was first introduced to Bret Easton Ellis’ work when I was studying abroad in Nottingham, England for my junior year at Luther College. The residential flat, 67 Nuthall Road, has a small library, and I found American Psycho, arguably Ellis’ magnum opus, one day while browsing through the shelves. It was a bit overrated, a graphic, violent book with convoluted, blood-soaked morals (nevertheless a rightfully disturbing read), but Ellis’ voice enraptured me. I wanted to read more of his work. All of it, if I could.
I went to every WaterStones bookstore within the country in search of his books, and I remember purchasing his first two novels one fall afternoon: Less Than Zero and The Rules of Attraction. I remember clearly the emotional roller coasters I experienced when I read those two books. Up until that point, I hadn’t read anything like this before or since (though Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club ranks fairly close). The Rules of Attraction is my favorite of his and, in my opinion, Ellis’ most earnest, personal work I’ve read (I still need to read Lunar Park, so my opinion is subject to change). Yet, as I grow older, I find myself gravitating more towards his debut novel, not necessarily because I’m favoring it over The Rules of Attraction. I remember more from Less Than Zero, and the fact this is the book I’ve reread most out of Ellis’ canon contributes to this statement. Even glancing through it and reading random snippets of the stream-of-consciousness prose, I’m reminded why Ellis has become one of my fondest literary inspirations. That damn opening sentence has lingered within the back of my mind as if I read it for the first time yesterday.
People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles.
What the heck does this mean?
People can’t handle the hustle-and-bustle of reality? People are afraid of becoming directionless and unmotivated? People are afraid of getting screwed over by enabled individuals who thrive on taking advantage of others? People are afraid of discovering all paths don’t lead to anyplace significant or grand? People are afraid of yielding to the fact they hardly control anything in their lives, that careers and future plans are nothing but illusion? Seriously, what the heck does this mean?
I can’t answer that question, but the opening sentence’s inferred despondency has resonated with me as a writer. 2013 Fall Semester was an unforgettable experience. It was my first time across the pond (hopefully not my last), and it was a period of uncertainty, loneliness, awkward attempts at self-actualization, and a barrage of disappointment and frustration. It was also a time of relaxation, growth as a writer and a person, friendship, new academic and personal experiences, and collaboration. I wouldn’t ask for a better year or a better group of flatmates.
Most importantly, there are two prominent creative inspirations I acquired from my year abroad. Bjork and this guy.
I suppose what attracts me to Ellis is his unabashed attempts to expose reality in all its hilarious, cruel, and sometimes horrifying intricacies, how material possessions, experiences, sexual encounters, relationships, even the people we love, are fleeting and inconsequential in life’s extravagant pageant. In his perspective, that’s Ellis’ take on life: a pageant, a ridiculous, vapid runway of facade and emotional-denial. Writing that sentiment on paper, I realize that contrasts with Bjork’s optimistic prism of seeing beauty and opportunities of artistic and personal expression in our surroundings, and that’s where I fling a fistful of papers over my head and say, “Make of that what you will.” Though set in mid-1980s Los Angeles, Less Than Zero touched me in the same way E.M. Forster’s Maurice did, which I’ll explain in a later entry. It rejuvenated me from creative malaise I caught in the summer before I headed to Nottingham. It left me numb and dumbstruck to the last page, and strange as it sounds, it was refreshing. In its hedonistic indulgence, Less Than Zero was appropriate catharsis. At the risk of exaggerating my experience, Bret Easton Ellis was the start of my growth as an writer.
Less Than Zero is the story of Clay who returns home from his New England college for Christmas. He attends parties, goes clubbing with his friends who make Regina George look like Oliver Twist, awkwardly dine with his distant parents in expensive restaurants, and partake in excessive drinking and cocaine-snorting. It’s a voyeuristic invitation to view the urban wasteland of Los Angeles through wealthy eyes. In a span of two or three weeks, we meander through beautiful, attractive men and women (even sleep with a few of them), reconnect with high school friends who are as shallow and self-obsessed as Clay, drive down a deserted Mulholland Drive at two in the morning, receive checks as a Christmas gift from an indifferent father, and snort copious amounts of cocaine in between. There’s barely a plot holding the story together, and that’s my favorite characteristic of the novel. It symbolizes how life has no plot, how each experience and treasured moment transitions to the next without fanfare or a John Williams score swelling to a glorious crescendo at the climax. And Clay, like the reader at times in his/her life, tends to cope with this nihilism in reckless manners. Transgression, for some, is a coping mechanism to either distract from the mundane and repetitive or self-gratification at the expense of morality. What I’m trying to say is sometimes people do awful things to each other because they are bored, that sometimes it’s useless to examine heinous crimes because certain evils are pointless and nonsensical. That’s pretty damn terrifying. But I’m digressing, so I’ll slip out of the chair and let the professional psychologists take it from there.
Clay’s emotional detachment from his friends, family, and on-and-off girlfriend Blair reflect my current sentiments on my life. Before jumping to conclusions, I’m NOT about to snort coke or pay ten grand for a snuff film. There are times I find myself bored and unresponsive, and I question whether people would actually care or even notice if started behaving erratically. There are even days I wonder how much or little I resemble Clay, how reckless I act before my conscience intervenes. In a way, Less Than Zero scarred me. I started listening to conversations left and right, trying to pick on certain keywords that gave away true callousness and apathy. I’m certain my friends can pinpoint specific times when I didn’t care about his/her plight or just outright didn’t listen. Less Than Zero exposed something I desperately wanted to ignore and exposed possibly the true human condition: we’re all selfish, and at any moment, we’re capable of doing something incredibly heinous, anything to fulfill our own desires, even at the expense of the people we love and cherish.
I recommend it to anyone willing to venture into this particular sub-genre of literature. It’s certainly not for everyone. Heck, it initially disgusted me before I appreciated its aesthetic quality, let alone its solidness as a debut novel. Check it out at the library, delve into the debauchery of the MTV generation and, as my edition lauds, “the timeless embodiment of the zeitgeist.”
I couldn’t have worded it better myself.
Merry Christmas, stay safe, and be sure to disappear over there, not here.