More than the sum of its parts?

Less Than Zero

By Bret Easton Ellis

I recently heard Bret Easton Ellis speak to promote his new novel, a sequel to Less Than Zero. It is twenty-five years after that book shocked and bewildered, so I felt compelled to visit it. I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it – I prefer the complexities of his later work – but if I step aside and drop myself into 1985 I can certainly see why it made more than a splash.

The novel takes place over Clay’s first Christmas break from college. He returns home to friends and family in Los Angeles after attending a liberal arts school in the east. Our anti-hero walks back into a dysfunctional relationship with his former girlfriend and a never-ending stream of parties, pool days and restaurants with his old friends. Clay and chums lead hedonistic lifestyles and are not limited by financial constraints. In its bed hopping representation of sexuality and its dedicated drug abuse, the book still shocks people today – so in 1985 it must have been explosive. But the most striking thing about this book, as with any novel by Ellis, is the style. Less Than Zero is dispassionate, often cold, always fast-paced and usually hyper-real. It would take many writers months if not years to achieve this distinctive voice.

But when I saw Ellis talk about it, I realised that it is his voice. It doesn’t take him long at all. He just writes. In 1985, he wrote this book as a twenty-year-old going through almost exactly the same things as Clay. Ellis did not have to pretend or craft: he just wrote. A smash hit under his belt, he has followed up with a handful of excellent books, taking five or more years to write each. His voice is the same, his style flawless, concise and persistent. In many ways I admire his tenacity, but at the same time I envy his luck. It just so happens that his voice is one that many people want to hear from. Most writers take years to ‘find their voice’; Ellis just spoke, and the world listened.

I doubt whether he was aware of the links between this book and what is in many ways its predecessor, Catcher in the Rye. You get the feeling from Ellis that he sits outside of such trappings – not as a writer but as a man. He doesn’t care if you compare this book to Catcher; he’s arrogant and self-assured enough to see Zero in its own league altogether. And in many ways he’s right. But I would say that while the style stands out and our voyeurism carry us through its 195 pages, the story fails us. What little plot there is bumbles around LA like Clay on a Saturday night, stopping off here and there. Little happens. Little is resolved. But the characters don’t seem to care – so neither do you. Not every book needs a strong plot, and this is certainly one of them. It is Ellis’s biggest gamble, but I can’t say that it pays off.

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