American Psycho has become arguably the book that Brett Easton Ellis is most known for; it became famous for being controversial in its graphically violent portrayal of serial killer Patrick Batemen and its comment on the materialistic excess 1980s America. This theme of excess, corruption and an almost savage detachment of emotion in coping with the depravity that is an inevitable product, is central to Less Than Zero his first book, written when he was only 21 years old.
Clay has come to LA, on Christmas break from college. In a wide circle of friends, he is one of a small number that has gone away for college, a decision that is more revealing than what a first glance would indicate. For Clay and his friends are a generation of privileged children, with access to money, sex and drugs and no restrictions or boundaries. It is through Clay that we experience this lifestyle; he is part of this, this is where he grew up, these are his friends and he is used to the endless rounds of parties, drugs, sex. But just because he is used to it , it doesn’t mean that he is comfortable with it. The reader is fed these scenarios through a filter of a kind of forced emotional numbness that becomes harder to maintain the more time he spends back in LA. The depravity becomes increased as his friends and acquaintances push to experience things that will dent their apathy. More drugs, a snuff film, an under-age sex slave, the fascination with a dead body in an alley where the first instinct is to tell your friends so they can come and stare rather than call the police.
This novel is insidious by nature. The minimalist, indifferent tone lulled me into reading in an disassociated manner. There were no out loud gasps or truly horrified moments for me; it wasn’t until a few moments after reading a certain passage that I had to pull myself up and realise that yes, that was a snuff film that they were playing at a party and yes, it seemed to be being enjoyed by most there. Clay’s voice and by extension Ellis’ writing conveys exactly what is intended, and it is horrible and magnificent all at the same time. Clay reads as one note; detached. But as you read on you realise there is more to our young narrator. He cannot tell his younger sisters apart yet there is a twinge of something when at 13 and 15 they speak of sexual ideas and experiences. At a family vacation with his grandparents, he appears to be the only one concerned about his grandmothers illness. His unease at not being able to locate his best friend and when he does, a not-so-obvious sadness at what has become of him. He is part of the story, but he also represents the audience for this story too. It is a note of morality, albeit very small, in a place where the moral compass has well and truly been broken.
At the time of its release, this novel shocked and disturbed. It is no less disturbing now, but the shock value has been watered down a little in a society that has access to anything and everything at their fingertips. What is interesting is that it still feels relevant over 30 years later, where a reality star can be made out of somebody who has nothing else to offer other than a glimpse into their glamorous and excessive lifestyles.
I always feel a bit funny saying that I enjoyed something that is obviously quite (for want of a better word) icky in nature. But the skill in the setting of tone and the subtle ways in which Clay is both participant and observer is to be admired. This is a strong warning to those who do not like their fiction to be served with a side of debauchery and graphic displays of such – avoid at all costs. My above examples are there as warnings as well. While not as descriptive as American Psycho, it is still disturbing in nature and content.
There is a follow up novel set 25 years after the events in the book called Imperial Bedrooms of which I am yet to read but am looking forward to. As for Less Than Zero, a strong 3.5/5 rating.