Sunday, August 16, 2009

Literature: "Less Than Zero" by Bret Easton Ellis

You’ll find, I think, that the screenwriters veered somewhat from Ellis’ original vision. The book follows its protagonist, Clay, as he visits home during the winter break of his first year at college. Home for Clay is an upper-class, 1980’s Los Angeles, or to be more specific, a series of expensive cars, posh bars, and beds with the scent of money and cocaine heavy on the sheets, in and around Los Angeles. His friends are troupes of Beverly Hills kids who grew up too fast and with too much money; they all have expensive drug habits, an addiction to MTV, and a total desensitization to the world around them. Clay’s big problem in the book, though, is not the salvation of his friends, as he’s hardly any different from the rest of them—half the book follows him as he tries to find his dealer to score some coke and pills. Clay’s problem is that he’s eighteen years old, and already has ennui.

As the novel progresses we see that Clay and his friends have already done everything, seen everything, and know everything. There are simply no thrills left for them in life, and they’ve become totally desensitized to everything that used to keep them awake. The college-aged kids literally resort to heroine, prostitution, human torture, and rape to keep themselves occupied. Things start to spiral, but in a subtle, oppressive way.

If you google the novel, you’ll find countless references to it as “the first MTV novel,” pointing to its countless references to then hit-songs and brief, music video-length chapters. Ellis’ description of LA can at times read like a laundry list of street names, neighborhoods, and clubs, but overall becomes a portrait as glamorous and hellish as the story. The prose is frank and fairly simple, the reader’s only anchor in a story that dives off the deep end with such a blasé expression of boredom on its face. I’d hesitate to suggest the book to the faint of heart or stomach. I would suggest it, however, to those who feel adrift, and maybe a little angry. To those who feel like the compass they were given has maybe been broken all along. That is to say, I’d recommend it to the college-aged. Ellis did write it when he was 19, after all. The sequel, Imperial Bedrooms, is due out in early 2010. We’ve stumbled into the perfect moment to discover this book.

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