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Notes on Less Than Zero, by Bret Easton Ellis
What is this Book?
Less than Zero is the first novel by Bret Easton Ellis, published back in 1985 when he was twenty-one years old. It describes a young man from Los Angeles who had been in New Hampshire for college, but who has come home to visit his friends and family for a month at Christmas. His stay is unpleasant; he moves from scene to scene exhibiting a sort of numb shell shock for about two hundred pages, and then he goes back to New York.
The story is about the horror of growing up in Ellis’ Los Angeles, or perhaps about the horrifying toll of late twentieth-century life on young people across America; or possibly about a sense of disgust about certain types of people and behaviour; or maybe it’s just about expressing a certain voice as clearly as possible. Depending on the interview, Ellis will say something different—my favourite is the last.
The book is notable for being called representative of “the youth of today” back when it was written. It sold very well, and Ellis became famous after writing it. This and his next three novels were all made into Hollywood movies.
Those books came from a place of anger and frustration. I was disgusted with society and I was going to share my disgust. —Bret Easton Ellis
What Did I Learn?
Firstly, the book has no plot, and this is a characteristic of many of the stories that are my favourites.
I didn’t realize this—neither that Bret’s stories usually have no plot, nor, that I seem to favour stories without plots—until I began trying to outline the plot of several stories back when I read The Informers, and I became confused about what would go into the bullet points. What does it mean for something to count as plot? Almost the entirety of each story falls into what I usually categorize as (valuable, excellent) “flavour.” I recall having the same difficulty when outlining J. D. Salinger’s work. In each case, the stories are basically just collections of events or conversations that happen to occur between some beginning and end. Eg, a night of drinking for Salinger’s “Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut.” Yet, these were some of the best stories I read over the last year.
After puzzling over this, I tracked down various interviews with Bret Easton Ellis where he said that three or four of his most famous novels deliberately have no narrative at all because he considered narartive to be artificial at the time when he wrote those stories (an attitude he’s changed his mind about—see the quote below).
For years, I have had a lack of interest in plot and felt guilty about this. After this analysis, I feel a little less guilty. To me, if a story sticks with me, it’s because of the characters, setting, theme, ideas, style—the plot is usually not the thing that makes something live in my head for years at a time. Often, it is almost a distraction from the aspects of the story I really enjoy.
A relevant quote from an interview:
My aesthetic when I was a young writer, when I was in my 20s, was that narrative was phoney; it was artificial; story was artificial; plot was artificial; it was all fake. And what you really had to do was be very true to a narrator's voice, be very true to the milieu you are dissecting, and don't add a plot in because it… seems bookish.
I've gotten older, and as I've gotten older, I've realized in a lot of ways that lives have narratives. You don't really see it in your 20s, you really haven't experienced enough to see that you make choices in your life, and one choice leads to another… —Bret Easton Ellis
My second takeaway was a reinforcement that style can be central to the meaning of a written work, and can create meaning in ways the content does not.
I noticed how important style was for this novel because, first, I have spent the last six months studying style in stories (eg, Rhythm); second, Bret said so. Specifically, Bret said that Joan Didion was influential.
I came across Joan Didion in a high school writing class that was taught by my mentor, my English teacher Mr. Robbins. Slouching Towards Bethlehem was a revelation. What is so apparent when you’re reading those essays is that it really was in the style that the meaning of everything was located. It wasn’t just the reportage; it was the actual style. And I had been working on a novel, and I realized, This is how I want to sound. I can’t copy her stuff—she’s too good a writer—but I did with Didion what she did with Hemingway: I sat and typed up paragraph after paragraph of her work in order to figure out how she did it. A writer only needs one or two influences, and I had mine. —Bret Easton Ellis
This quote is from here.
(Note: Didion’s work is exceptional. She is sometimes called “the foremost prose stylist of a generation.” I will post an analysis of “Play It As It Lays” sometime soon.)
Years ago when I first read this book, while I may not have consciously thought about the style very often, I clearly subconsciously mimicked it for years afterwards. I didn’t know I was doing it.
What is the Style of the Book?
Long, wandering sentences in first person, present-tense, strung together by commas and the word “and” or “or,” which he uses to describe the shallow details of situations in a list-like manner, by listing the drugs on the counter and the types of trees in the pots and the colour of people’s hair (blonde) and how tanned they are and what brands of clothing they wear and whether they are wearing wayfarers or not at that moment—often they are for some reason, maybe because they want that extra wall between themselves and others—but the main idea is that this is all a bit much and it all means nothing and this shallow landslide is unrelenting. Which means that when Clay, the main character, decides to cry in the bathroom and take a cold shower right before a section ends, we understand what he is going through just a little.
There are no chapter numbers, but there are many short chapters, frequently only a single page. This creates a decent rhythm and pulls you forward continuously because there are no natural stopping points and none of them conclude by making any definitive statements that feel like satisfying answers to the questions the novel poses. See Didion’s “Play It As It Lays” for a very similar approach, except with chapter numbers. This reinforces the theme by being disorganized: neither the book’s events, nor its organization, are tidy. They are merely linear.
From the beginning, there is a consistent sense of “anxiety attack,” but this is never described directly with a name; he just acts them out constantly without giving them labels because it’s too normal to be given a name. The reason for Clay’s quiet desperation is never explicitly stated, but we learn by direct experience about the numbing emptiness and monstrous horror of his environment.
Finally, Characters are regularly identified by something superficial about them: the girl with the cappuccino, the girl with the wayfarers, the boy with the tan (although everyone has a tan but Clay to start with). This is again a stylistic choice that adds meaning to the content that isn’t present in the content itself. Ie, the first-person narrator is not aware of any depth or meaning in his surroundings.
The third takeaway is a matter of curiosity related to his writing process. I’ll talk about in my future discussion of The Shards.
Some Other Notes
Early in the book, the characters feel like they have heart—especially compared to the characters in some of Ellis’s other novels. This becomes less true later on, except for Julian.
Despite Clay being the hero of our tale, he is a rude cocaine fiend, and we will see a darker and less sympathetic side of him more and more: he is a participant, to some extent, in the world he hates, not merely an outsider who accidentally stumbled into the scene.
Somewhere around page 100 it started to feel like a dark comedy, and American Psycho definitely was a dark comedy. A dog eating and re-eating a cigarette. Ridiculous valley girls. Clay being comically stressed out while never refusing to hang out with these people. Ridiculous rivalries. Clay in the cold shower after dinner with his mom, his friends saying it looks like he’s on acid after and he explains: I had dinner with my mom. It’s absurdist. I didn’t care for this section, but it only lasted about 30 pages. He is better at this in his later novels.
In one scene, a character is in the hospital for anorexia and you feel for her. You assume she’s a victim and you want her to get out of this world. Next thing you know, she’s hurting herself in a less forgivable way. Your sympathy fades. Ellis does this a lot: he tempts you into sympathizing with monstrous characters, and asks whether you still love his loveable characters after he reveals how monstrous they are.
This book was heavily outlined before it was written. How? It reads like a random collection of scenes, a mosaic, a montage that couldn’t be planned. How do you outline in a way where you end up with “and this scene, they drink and do coke again, and talk about Japan”? I really wish I could see that outline.
Finally, a quote from Lunar Park about Less Than Zero. Like everything in Lunar Park, it cannot be trusted to be true in the slightest—hence, why it’s at the bottom here, and only just for fun:
When I was a student at Camden College in New Hampshire I took a novel-writing tutorial and produced during the winter of 1983 a manuscript that eventually became Less Than Zero. It detailed a wealthy, alienated, sexually ambiguous young man's Christmas break from an eastern college in Los Angeles-more specifically Beverly Hills-and all the parties he wandered through and all the drugs he consumed and all the girls and boys he had sex with and all the friends he passively watched drift into addiction, prostitution and vast apathy; days were spent speeding toward the beach club with beautiful blondes in gleaming convertibles while high on Nembutal; nights were lost in VIP rooms at trendy clubs and snorting cocaine at the window tables of Spago. It was an indictment not only of a way of life I was familiar with but also-I thought rather grandly-of the Reagan eighties and, more indirectly, of Western civilization in the present moment.
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