Set in Los Angeles in the early 1980’s, Less than Zero has become a timeless classic. This coolly mesmerizing novel is a raw, powerful portrait of a lost generation who have experienced sex, drugs, and disaffection at too early an age. They live in a world shaped by casual nihilism, passivity, and too much money in a place devoid of feeling or hope.
Clay comes home for Christmas vacation from his Eastern college and re-enters a landscape of limitless privilege and absolute moral entropy, where everyone drives Porches, dines at Spago, and snorts mountains of cocaine. He tries to renew feelings for his girlfriend, Blair, and for his best friend from high school, Julian, who is careering into hustling and heroin. Clay’s holiday turns into a dizzying spiral of desperation that takes him through the relentless parties in glitzy mansions, seedy bars, and underground rock clubs and also into the seamy world of L.A. after dark.
Less Than Zero is the angsty, juvenile love child of Catcher in the Rye and 120 Days of Sodom. Ellis wrote it when he was 20 and, well, it kind of shows. But who better to speak to disaffected, nihilistic adolescents than a disaffected, nihilistic adolescent? And it turns out Ellis is pretty good at that, speaking to adolescents that is. Less Than Zero’s depiction of 1980’s decadence made it a touchstone of the era, securing a movie adaptation (which I’ve heard good things about), and inspiring an unexpectedly large amount of music. The novel is said to be surprisingly accurate, which is unfortunate considering its subject matter. Fair warning, there’s some pretty grotesque stuff in here including rape and snuff, though fortunately the narrator is a little too squeamish to spend much time around it.
Less Than Zero is one of those books where everyone’s fucked up, including the bisexual protagonist Clay. He’s so numb to the culture of sex and drugs that he seems incapable of actually wanting anything. Instead, there’s only a vague sense that he should want something, but can’t make himself mean it. The L.A. crew of overprivileged, under-supervised teenagers waste their days taking every drug they can get their hands on and fucking each other out of boredom, all while pushing the boundaries of human experience (à la de Sade) in an effort to feel something. The style of storytelling reflects this ennui, lots of short scenes depicting parties or sex or drugs, strung together with little in the way of plot. It’s a shallow story about shallow people’s shallow lives, but that doesn’t make it less accurate. If you’re the type to dislike angsty, Catcher in the Rye-style coming of age stories, I’d probably skip Less Than Zero. But if you’re at a personal crossroads and struggling to make sense of the world, it can be tremendously reassuring to discover that you’re not alone. I was around 20 or 21 when I first read the book, and I remember it making quite an impression on me, so I’m sure it can do so for others.