Title: Less Than Zero
Author: Bret Easton Ellis
Genre: Coming-of-age, contemporary, young adult
My Rating: ★★★★ (3.5/5 stars)
Whenever I feel the need to visit literature’s moral badlands, get a hefty dose of realistic grit, or just watch in-your-face messages bleeding through un-sugarcoated storylines, I always crack open a Chuck Palahniuk book. Spinning tales with all these ingredients is his specialty. However, even if I do like his works, I’m averse to not sprinkling a little spice onto my reading list. I sought for other authors who play with the same elements in a completely different way, and luckily, I stumbled upon Bret Easton Ellis and his first work, Less Than Zero.
To a complete tenderfoot in Ellis’ works (like me), Less Than Zero does seem to emit a little vibe similar to Palahniuk’s themes… but that ends at the period of the book’s blurb. The first page would instantly give you the feeling that you’re in for a different kind of read. The narration, characters, and dialogues weave together a tale with a gloomy overall ambiance that I haven’t seen in the fictional works I’ve encountered before.
Considered by many as a cult classic, Less Than Zero is Ellis’ unflinching dark portrait of the MTV generation—rich kids of Los Angeles caught in a string of drug-driven bashes, big C’s buy-and-sell sessions, casual sex, prostitution, and practically everything that falls under the category of self-destructive hedonism. It zeroes in on the story of Clay, an eighteen-year-old boy who comes back to LA for a four-week Christmas vacation. Instead of rest, what he finds himself facing is the inner demon of apathy that resides in all his friends—and in himself as well.
Having a penchant for characters with four-dimensional complexity, I found myself on the brink of disappointment when my attempts to connect with Clay became more and more exhausting to establish. I always believe that in order for a book to be more enjoyable, its main character must have the ability to “click” with the reader. The narrator feels more alive to me that way. He/she must move on the borderlines of his/her world without exactly breaking a fourth wall, extending his/her reaches past the physical restrictions of the paper to latch onto the hearts of the readers using sympathy, relatable experiences, loneliness, love, or even rage. In short, I believe the speaker must make me feel things, regardless if these things were negative or not. For the most part, Clay failed in this department. He’s detached from the world, wallowing in cold cynicism, moving like a trembling marionette with strings that are all too tangled that it was no use to track where they originated. I tried to dismiss it as an effect of his drug addiction, but his coke-reliant friends appear to be more fleshed out than him sometimes. That’s saying something, since he’s already given the fact that no character in the novel has depth of a remarkable kind.
It was only near the end that Clay finally made me feel something, proving that he is not the drug-fueled automaton that I initially think he is. I was irritated for the slow responsiveness, but I found myself wanting to pat him on the back when he begins to become disillusioned with his friends’ extreme self-indulgences. Vivid episodes from his pasts, which include dysfunctional families and fractured relationships, stand in stark contrast with his bleak present. This explains a little about his behavior.
In almost every book, there is at least one character that you would want to wrap in a hug, cradle against you, and whisper that everything will be okay. I was almost surprised when someone like this popped out of the book’s vapid cast of characters: Julian. Clay’s relation does not give away too much about Julian’s situation, but it’s adequate to guess how the boy just got his life’s compass haywire. He is plunging headfirst into his own destruction and he knows it.
Plot-wise, there is nothing much to say about the novel. I must admit that the story’s lack of conventional structure comes off as a strength rather than a weakness, portraying a gritty world as it should be through the eyes of a rather unreliable narrator. No frills and no embellishments, raw and stripped of sweet euphemisms.
Despite the book just basically being a peek into the quotidian lives of well-off kids who pass around drug-filled Daffy Duck Pez dispensers, it gave me a queer feeling that I do not usually get from other books. It has a rough kind of charm that I found unexplainable; it left me a tad empty by the last page, but it also gave birth to a tiny voice in my head screaming, “I’m ready to feel a little emptier if it means I’ll be able to find out what happens to the characters in its sequel, Imperial Bedrooms.” And that, of course, hit me hard: I do care about the characters to a certain degree! I do not know what kind of magic Ellis posses that made him turn the tables on me without me noticing. Whatever it is, I like it.
I think Ellis is a master of minimalism, his narration containing little to zilch emotional tinges that perfectly complements the lethargic attitude of the characters. I find it amazingly ironic how the stream of consciousness style seems so cleanly penned when its contents are generally dirty patchworks of the protagonist’s thoughts and memories. Content-wise, what the novel really wants to show is the perils of stoicism, of how too much pleasure can rob you of your humanity little by little.
I’m excited for the sequel! :)
Photo by: fanoussss