Less than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis
The 1980s has become a time memorialized in current pop culture as a lost, neon wonderland, a time of gargantuan ambition and even more gargantuan hairstyles that would define America for a young generation. Often forgotten are the numerous problems that young people confronted at the time, including the families splintered through divorce, the temptation of easy access to dangerous drugs such as cocaine, and a world that became more individualistic and “winner take all” each passing day. Less Than Zero was Bret Easton Ellis’ first novel, a satire describing the lives of wealthy, young people on their time off from college as they travel through a disorienting haze of drugs, frayed relationships, and pop cultural references. Although not as widely remembered or highly regarded as Ellis’ other “80s novel,” American Psycho, Less Than Zero is still a worthy read for anyone seeking to understand the true essence of the 1980s.
Less Than Zero begins as the main character, Clay, returns to California from his college in the East and reunites with his old friends. Most of Clay’s social circle consists of idle, rich youth who seem barely concerned about studies or careers (if at all) but are obsessed with drugs and contribute little to society other than a tired sense of nihilism. The novel was published in 1985, and cocaine, the drug of choice for the would-be students, was associated mostly with the wealthy. It can be jarring for modern readers who associate cocaine with the crack epidemic of the second half of the 1980s to see it portrayed as a chic, exotic drug of the rich. Clay’s friends are also deeply involved with the 1980s consumer culture to the point of obsession. They debate the merits of music groups like INXS and The Human League with far more passion than they can muster for any social or political cause. None of these things give a sense of purpose or focus to their existence, and they wander from day to day, seeking the short-lived pleasures that drugs and physical possessions can give them.
Most of Less Than Zero is told from a first-person perspective and in the present tense. This lends a stream-of-consciousness feel to the novel. The emphasis on wealth and consumerism in character descriptions make it strangely reminiscent of some of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novels, especially The Great Gatsby. Instead of a sincere belief in the American Dream or “the green light” that Gatsby sought, Clay is defined by his sense of nihilism and disconnection from the world around him, seeking to return to an earlier, more grounded existence before his family moved. He can only return there in the memories of his past, which appear throughout the novel arranged in an illogical, nonlinear order. As he slips deeper into desperation and drug addiction, Clay’s memories increasingly appear to be his only anchor to the physical world—the peaceful and orderly world they portray contrasting sharply with the bizarre and sordid current time of nightclubs, drug dealers, and MTV (yes, back in 1985 it was still considered edgy) that he inhabits.
Less Than Zero can be a difficult book for some readers, less for the once-shocking nature of its depiction of drug-addicted youth than for its disjointed narrative structure. The book is less about the movement of an overarching plot than it is a series of experiences that happen to the main character and his reactions to them. This type of novel is extremely difficult to adapt into a film, but Less Than Zero quickly generated interest in Hollywood nonetheless. The film adaptation was released in 1987 but was poorly regarded for simplifying the complicated, ambiguous, and troubling nature of the novel into a flat “Drugs Are Bad” story. The original novel is far superior to the film and is definitely recommended for readers seeking a truthful depiction of youth in the world of the early 1980s.