Book Review: Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis

After having watched the film version a few hundred times, I figured that it was time for me to sit down and actually read Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero. 

First published in 1985 (and written when Ellis was only 19 years old and still a college student), Less Than Zero tells the story Clay.  Clay is a rich college student who returns home to Los Angeles for winter break.  It’s his first time to be back home since starting college and he quickly discovers that all of his old friends are, for the most part, hooked on drugs and self-destruction.  Clay’s friend Rip deals drugs and buys underage sex slaves.  Clay’s former best friend, Julian, is now a heroin addict who has sex for money.  Clay’s other best friend, Trent, is a model who watches snuff films.  Meanwhile, Clay’s girlfriend, Blair, isn’t even sure that she likes Clay.  Clay goes to therapy and the therapist tries to sell his screenplay.  Clay struggles to tell apart his two sisters and he rarely speaks to his mother or his father.  He’s haunted by memories of his grandmother slowly dying of cancer.  As winter break progresses, Clay finds himself growing more and more alienated from everyone and everything around him.  He feels less and less.

I had often heard that the film version was dramatically different from the book but nothing could prepare me for just how different.  In the film, Clay is an anti-drug crusader who reacts to everything that he sees in Los Angeles with self-righteous revulsion.  In the book, Clay simply doesn’t care.  Clay’s narration is written in a flat, minimalist style, one that makes Clay into a dispassionate observer.  Over the course of the narrative, there are times that Clay obviously know that he should probably feel something but he just can’t bring himself to do it.  Even when he objects to Rip buying a 12 year-old sex slave, Clay doesn’t do anything to stop Rip or to help his victim.  Clay is the epitome of someone who has everything but feels nothing.  Most of the memorable things that happen in the movie — Julian begging his father for forgiveness and money, Clay and Blair being chased by Rip’s goons, Julian dying in the desert — do not happen in the book.  They couldn’t happen in the book because all of those scenes require the characters to have identifiably human reactions to the things that they’re seeing around them.

It’s not necessarily a happy book but, fortunately, it’s also a frequently (if darkly) funny book.  Bret Easton Ellis has a good ear for the absurdities of everyday conversation and some of the book’s best moments are the ones that contrast Clay’s lack of a reaction to the frequently weird things being discussed around him.  Even more importantly, it’s a short book.  Just when you think you can’t take another page of Clay failing to care that everyone around him will probably be dead before they hit 30, the story ends.  Ellis writes just enough to let the reader understand Clay’s world and then, mercifully, the reader is allowed to escape.

Just as the movie is definitely a product of its time, the same can be said of the original novel.  Reading Less than Zero is a bit like stepping into a time machine.  It’s a way to experience the coke-fueled 80s without actually traveling to them.

One response to “Book Review: Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis

  1. Pingback: Lisa Marie’s Week In Review: 6/27/22 — 7/3/22 | Through the Shattered Lens

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