Less Than Zero is the slice-of-life narration of four weeks of Clay’s life. Clay is back from his school on vacation to his hometown of Los Angeles. He is part of the artistic elite, the kids of movie directors and actors, kids who drive Porsches and Cadillacs of their own. Kids who should be happy because they have everything. They have houses with pools, plenty of money to buy cocaine, and visit the best pubs and bars in town. Bret Ellis’s narration is curt, matter-of-factly, and non-judgmental. The voice of Clay is detached and unconcerned. He sounds the same when he is having a coffee and is having sex.
Clay’s girlfriend Blair, who is still serious about Clay, knows that Clay does not have the same feelings for her. His friends Julian, Trent, and Blair’s friends Kim and Alana are other characters with the same economic background as Clay. Parents of many of them are in the entertainment industry, and they know many people. When they watch a movie, they know many people from the credits. Rip, Finn, Muriel, and Clay’s family are the other characters that populate most of the scenes. Every character has a distinctive personality. Ellis describes their physical appearance, style, and mental makeup with meticulous detail. The characters abuse drugs and alcohol, sleep around with everyone and are continuously seeking pleasure and fun.
Music plays a vital role in the novel’s narrative. X, the iconic Los Angeles band, appears many times, so does Elvis Costello. Clay’s room has the poster of Costello’s album Trust. Jim Morrison and the Doors are mentioned many times, and so are Psychodelic Furs. Ellis seems passionate about music, and he describes the music being played in the background of the scenes even when it is not needed. It creates an environment, and Clay tries to put on the music even when they visit someone in a disconcerting scene.
Ellis’s writing is engaging, and though the plot is non-existent, you keep flipping pages because you feel like it. One sentence leads to the next, and you feel like you are living Clay’s life. The life of a pampered teen with loads of money, parents who do not have time, and a desire to experience exotic stuff even if the experience includes watching your friend selling his body for money. Ellis is brutal when he describes the casual approach the protagonists have towards relationships. They do not care much about their sisters, friends, lovers, or parents. Clay’s internal thoughts are used to describe the amoral life of a teenager who belongs to high society. The language highlights the lack of caring on Clay’s front about what one would think of as alarming events. Even when Clay’s acts show that he is disturbed enough, the first-person narrative is not dramatic.
Ellis was part of the literary brat pack that was known to write genre-defying stuff. These authors wrote in the minimalistic style of Raymond Carver and inherited his pessimistic outlook. Less Than Zero is a coming-of-age, young adult novel that offers no hope. The protagonists are not likable, but Ellis treats them with a lot of sensitivity and concern. If you do not have strong biases, you will start caring about the characters. The characters are entirely amoral, but they have a sensitivity that makes them act in ways they may not be comfortable with. The addiction adds another angle that forces them to take specific steps that are not the right ones in the long run. Still, the characters realize the harm only in hindsight.
The book is small at 202 pages but is impactful and leaves an impression on the reader’s mind. This makes me want to read American Psycho, the more famous novel by the author. It also seems like an ideal book for making a movie, with many scenes written like a screenplay. A movie was made, but Ellis was unhappy with it since the director changed the plot quite a bit. The first-person narrative acts like a camera in this case. The fact that the prose is minimalistic works in favor of giving the scenes a color that the director would want.
As an author, one can learn Ellis’s craft of writing to create a flow. Several reviewers on Goodreads have commented that they continued to read the book because the flow was so good. The story feels like one is living someone else’s life. You keep filling in the details, but the narrative provides the barebones structure of Clay’s life and also the life of his friends. Ellis adds enough intrigue for the reader to keep reading. The end effect is one of added empathy for a particular lifestyle.
In the end, the book is worth reading for the effect Ellis creates and the sheer pleasure of reading the book. Recommended with a rating of 4/5.