"I tend to see my narrators as abstract summations of things that bother me. I can't even picture a face for any of them."
- Bret Easton Ellis

Less Than Zero was one of the defining pieces of Generation X literature, written in 1985 before anyone had thought up that term, and causing amazing amounts of controversy on its publication due to the casual portrayal of sex, drugs and violence among wealthy Los Angeles teenagers. The author, Bret Easton Ellis, was only twenty-one, still a student, and immediately polarized his critics, some of whom said that he was the new J.D. Salinger, and some of whom said he was a talentless sensationalist. He didn't seem to mind what anyone said about him, and just raked in the money.

The novel follows the exploits, adventures, whatever you want to call them, of Clay, a bored LA teenager with plenty of money and nothing to do except go to parties. He is back from college on his winter break and we follow him as he meets his friends and talks to his parents and gets off his head on drugs and feels sorry for himself. There is a plot of sorts, involving Clay's friend Julian's descent into drug addiction and prostitution, and whether or not Clay and his on-off girlfriend Blair will get together, and whether or not Clay and his parents will ever say anything meaningful to each other, but mostly Less Than Zero drifts aimlessly from scene to scene like a group of bored teenagers in a flashy car driving through a town they know by heart. Clay's face is never described, nor are the faces of most of the characters. You are not allowed to picture these people, identify with them, sympathize with them, or even keep their identities straight in your head. Some people accused Ellis of being a bad writer for this reason among others (lack of description, lack of 'literary' references, no character development, no real plot, the list goes on and on), but it's quite clear that the sparseness of the text and the blankness of the characters is deliberate, a textual device that reflects the emptiness and repetition of their lives.

Ellis makes a big point in interviews that he is not like his characters - in fact, he says that the reason he writes is in order to express things that bother him about the society and culture he lives in. However, when his characters indulge in enormous amounts of drugs, meaningless sex, casual violence and exploitation, there is nothing in the text that says anything about it, or makes any commentary like "This is a bad thing!" or "This is a good thing!" There is no nicely-wrapped and sweetly-delivered message. It's clear all the way through that the characters are morally blank - not evil, which is an easy concept to understand for people brought up with the Spielbergian Judeo-Hollywood understanding of right and wrong, but truly amoral, in the sense that they are lacking the mental or spiritual apparatus with which to understand their own lives and actions. Throughout the book, Clay is shown trying to ask himself questions about his life - he seems tortured in some fundamental way - but far from finding answers, he can't even figure out what it is that he wants to know, or what it is that's bothering him. He knows that what he's doing is wrong in some way, but he is completely passive, as if he's missing a vital part that would allow him to change. In the movie they welched out on this most important point, making Clay break out of his life and develop as a person, whereas in the book he has not changed or learned anything. In my opinion, this makes the movie worthless, even aside from the fact that it sucked for other reasons. At the end of the book Clay witnesses a group of his friends raping a twelve-year-old girl who they have kidnapped and hooked on heroin, a horrible event that is barely described but which stays in the imagination for a long time. He just walks away, unable to react to his own inner sense that something is wrong. You can be sure that that bit didn't make it into the movie, which instead focuses on the "Drugs are bad, mmmkay?" message that seems to be all that the 1987 moviegoing audience was ready for.

I didn't find Less Than Zero a difficult read in any other way. I don't remember how long it took me to finish it, but probably not more than a day, because the prose is incredibly spare and unadorned, and the dialogue is mostly meaningless. People have inane, repetitious conversations about who they've slept with; they reel off long lists of the fast food outlets or clubs they frequent and the brands of clothing and sunglasses they buy; they do endless lines of cocaine, uppers and downers, and eventually, whatever is put in front of them. It becomes clearer as the novel progreses that they are in this situation because they only know two kinds of adults: those who ignore them (their parents) and those who exploit them (the drug dealers, nightclub owners etc.) That's why people who accuse Bret Easton Ellis of glamorizing drugs and violence in this novel are talking shit; nothing is glamorized, because nothing is described, and nothing is described because the characters don't pay attention to anything. They don't observe the world around them except in terms of names and brands. You can read fifty, a hundred pages without seeing a reference to the usual staples of literature - trees, flowers, water, sky. You have to search carefully for a little hint of what Ellis is really thinking or saying, and it comes in juxtapositions, or short descriptions that only stand out because everything else is blank: like a flashing NO EXIT sign, or a corporate slogan that assumes new significance, or even just meaningless dialogue that starts to mean something:

"What have you been doing, dude?" Rip asks.
"Oh, not too much," I say.
"Yeah, there's not a whole lot to do anymore," he says.
Rip turns the radio up and keeps screaming happily "What's gonna happen to all of us?"
And Spin keeps screaming back, "All of who, dude? All of who?"

People have a lot of theories about Less Than Zero, especially in light of the novel that came after it - American Psycho. They think that Patrick Bateman must have been one of these teenagers, a nameless one maybe, too young to have moved into his high-flying yuppie job, too young to have replaced cocaine and valium with obsessive exercise and hair care products, but I don't see much relationship between the two. American Psycho is surreal and highly descriptive, and more importantly, explicity satirical, whereas in my opinion there is nothing satirical about Less Than Zero. In fact, I think that people who say that Less Than Zero is social satire are taking the easy way out, excusing Ellis for the emptiness of his characters by saying that he's exaggerating in order to make a point. I think that Less Than Zero is intended to be a fully realistic, only slightly symbolic account of the lives of people that Ellis saw around him when he was younger - in other words, it really was like this. It really was this empty, or at least he saw it this way.

Less Than Zero is not as hard-hitting now as it was in 1985, not in terms of graphic sex or violence anyway - the boundaries have definitely been pushed way back since then, often by Ellis himself (see American Psycho!) - but as a minimalist yet gripping picture of the empty lives of the teenage elite in the world's richest and safest country, it works perfectly. People who started off with American Psycho, loved it, and went back to this book will probably be disappointed, because it's a totally different read. Ellis has said in various interviews that he never intended for it to be published while he was writing it - it started as an assignment for a creative writing class and ended up becoming one of the seminal novels of the "lost generation", talked about constantly by both those who loved and those who hated it, and making a lot of money and even more reputation for Ellis, who commanded a $300,000 advance for his second novel (and ended up walking away with it when Simon & Schuster pulled the plug on his contract after reading the first draft of American Psycho; but that's another story).