Less Than Zero is a novel, or perhaps a very short semi-autobiography, about rich young Americans in college, in Los Angeles. In a word, it’s a much less innocent Catcher In the Rye.
Reading this 22,000-word novel (barely longer than a short story) is as easy and as inexplicable as the feeling of gazing out a sunny window for a long period of time.
As the reader may or not may not know, your author is a near life-long fan of Mr. Ellis’s work, even though I am quick to label it reactionary. As I’ve mentioned before in my essay on postmodernism, his documentary-like style does an excellent job of examining the emptiness of life under bourgeois capitalism while at the same time doing all it can to romanticize the basis of it.
Ellis sneers at the age’s excesses while at the same time flaunting its greatest achievements. The good news is, that is barely pronounced here at all, and not nearly to the extent it would be in his second book, The Rules of Attraction.
Most of the focus is on the main character Clay, who narrates the story alone, but Ellis has masterfully made it feel as though it is third-person rather than first. This is because Clay is a passive narrator; he makes no harsh judgments. He does not limit our vision to his own. Clay has no investment in the world around him —- he merely watches and observes, opportunistically waiting for a chance for personal gain.
He is as confused and as hesitant as a youth with no identity to go with his lines of cocaine would be. In effect, this means there is never any overbearing “voice” or narrator in the story to impose a definite moral compass. Hence the reader will join Clay in his amoral, directionless carnality and in his careful disconnection.
There is much that is remarkable about Less Than Zero, for example the fact that it has virtually no plot (which is very much a good thing, there are far too few stories without plots these days; it only makes it more life-like), but more than anything what stands out is something Ellis is known for —- his descriptions of sexual encounters.
These are far less frequent here than say, in his magnum opus novel American Psycho, but they are his typical fare in that they have no pornographic appeal (quite the opposite), and are narrated with an emotionless, callous tedium and arrogant boredom which is fairly common in modern fiction, but never done quite this well. In fact, these sex scenes are only concentrated versions of the attitude of which the rest of the novel is made.
A book like this, which deals with the deepening disconnections between people under the alienation of capitalism by brutally insisting on the facts, is common, but Ellis has a voice of his own that is refreshing and pure.
Two of the consequences of the breakdown of religious belief under today’s imperialism (polls today show today that less people are religious than ever before) are
1) an increase in social awareness, and, paradoxically,
2) an increase in the focus on individualism and the physical side of life.
For if there is no higher plane beyond the grave, then surely the sole purpose of life, the highest goal any being can dedicate himself to (or so the capitalist logic goes), is to expanding and enhancing himself, to improving oneself by amorally experiencing every sensation in this world.
Taken as a whole, Ellis’s books are moralistic vilifications of human nature as selfish, bratty and excessively hedonistic, all the time not realizing that these are merely symptoms of a larger disease: the alienation felt by all, especially the youth he seems so disgusted with, under capitalism. As brilliantly honest and taboo-bashing as his stories are on the surface, and as hilariously dead-on his parodies of the so-called “American dream” may be, deep down his purposes are undeniably conservative.
Mr. Ellis would not answer to someone calling him a pessimist, though all his books are about angsty, egoistic and childish characters dealing with loneliness and drug addiction. What makes him unique is that he avoids the trap that his fellow postmodernist writers, such as the infamous Chuck Palahniuk, so often run into. Ellis refuses to say that by desensitizing oneself to the ugliness of the world, one will end up finding life more worth living, nor does he repeat the older-than-dirt cliché that “ugliness and violence can be beautiful in a way.”
No, Ellis is far too royalist for that. He has cultivated the image of the California Bohemian, the libertine, eccentric and educated “artist” who while stressing fulfillment, also stresses ethics. He sees no “better” possible relations for mankind, he sees only the avoidance of “excessive” excesses. In his mind’s eye, he sees himself as the post-beatnik, clean-cut rebel, while at the same time the lone guardian of a feudal code of honor, a pair of hands holding back the deluge of a thousand spoiled young Marquis De Sades.
To add a personal touch to this review, I read this marvelously short book that says so much in one day, in perhaps two sittings. There are no chapters to speak of, merely sections of perhaps a few paragraphs each, separated by spaces. It makes the work gently episodic but never choppy. There is nothing here as outwardly violent and raw as the sex-and-murder scenes from his later American Psycho – there is nothing here that seeks to “grab the reader by the throat” or make him experience challenging slices of animal emotion.
Less Than Zero flows so smoothly and so straightly that it can only be compared to a modern, R-rated Catcher In the Rye. Never have I read a book that so beautifully captures the lost, barren irreverence of youth while doing it in such a streetwise manner. There is never any attempt to impose an intensity or a purpose to the narrative; it merely exists. As such, it is intensely relaxing even as it is profound and fleeting.
Here, Ellis does something that so few authors can do gracefully: he relaxes his grip, and he lets the story flow.