Less Than Zero is the obvious starting place for readers unfamiliar with Bret Easton Ellis, but his first novel is also still one of his best. The much better known American Psycho
is a variation on the same themes at more than twice the length.
Ellis is a writer with a narrow range of subject matter and tone, but within his limits he is an acute observer, and this novel is far better than it should be, given the writer's extreme youth (Ellis was twenty-one in the year of publication; by contrast, Douglas Coupland, older by three years, didn't publish his similarly lauded Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture
until 1991, at the age of 30). It shows some signs of being a young man's book - the structure is compiled out of relatively short-breathed passages, none longer than a few pages - but Ellis is canny enough to make use of a natural structural device to give the narrative shape: the narrator, eighteen-year-old Clay, is home from college for a four-week vacation over Christmas and the New Year.
The time is the Reaganite early 80s and the place is Los Angeles. The characters are for the most part the children of the rich, for whom the party lifestyle begins early and education and meaningful work are largely optional. This is the world of Fitzgerald, though the repetitive, telegraphic style is closer to that of the young Hemingway. There are distant echoes of Nathaniel West's Day of the Locust, and perhaps more recent ones of the Los Angeles of Chandler and Ross Macdonald; but the primary influence is the Joan Didion of Play It As It Lays
- the most significant postwar novel of life inside the privileged LA circle - and the California-themed journalism of Slouching Towards Bethlehem (FSG Classics)
and The White Album (FSG Classics)
Less Than Zero has been criticised for its emotional coldness and its imposed flatness of tone, which some observers have mistaken for amoralism on the part of the author. In fact the novel is rather conventionally moral. The narrator, Clay, is not a boy who cannot feel but a boy who is desperately trying not to feel because he is steadily being overwhelmed by the conviction that almost every aspect of the lives that he and his friends are leading is false and destructive. (An aspect of the book that has not been much commented on is that it is also a disguised reckoning with the parents of the author's generation, whose shortcomings are mercilessly, if for the most part indirectly, exposed through the portrait of their children.)
As a forensic analysis of a social group whose habits have since been advertised and imitated around the world Less Than Zero is unlikely to be bettered. Although Ellis has since written at much greater length, the novel benefits greatly from its relative brevity and tight formal organisation. If it skirts around the savagery that would later threaten to overwhelm American Psycho, it also lacks that novel's humour. Clay is not Patrick Bateman: but Bateman is what several of the characters Clay meets in Less Than Zero threaten to become, a few years later in their lives. The earlier novel made Ellis's reputation, and would be worth reading if the author had never written another line.