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Less Than Zero – Andy is quite happy to Disappear Here

January 18, 2012

“What’s right? If you want something, you have the right to take it. If you want to do something, you have the right to do it.”

No, I don't know what's going on here.

I saw the movie of Less than Zero when I was at university. I don’t remember being terribly impressed, I just remember thinking Andrew McCarthy and James Spader and Robert Downey Jr were hot and given back then I was still a pentecostal happy clappy, movies with hot dudes were one of my few joys. Anyhoo. For some mysterious reason until now I have never got around to reading a Bret Easton Ellis novel. Despite being a voracious reader. I can’t tell you why. Perhaps because the movie wasn’t impressive, perhaps because in the early ’90s I was hanging out with some seriously fucked-up dudes who thought American Psycho was hilarious and who read to me the bits with the rats in. I’ve read McInerney, though only a couple and not Bright Lights, Big City. But Ellis? No. Perhaps because I thought his first name should have two t’s.

That said, Less than Zero was probably the first book I named when Netty and I decided how we’d handle the Revisited section of the Challenge this year. I have, after all, been listening to Netty rant endlessly about how, like, totally awesome Ellis is for many years. And, just to put Netty out of her misery, because I know she’s reading this thinking “For fuck’s sake DID YOU LIKE THE FUCKING BOOK OR NOT???” I’ll say that while Less than Zero isn’t exactly perfect, it’s seriously impressive.  And yes, I’ll be reading more Ellis. Soon.

Incidentally, you can read Netty’s thoughts on Less than Zero, together with Bright Lights, Big City,  here.

Alienation? Tick. Nihilism? Tick. Amorality? Tick. A truly delusional sense of entitlement, as evidenced by the quote at the top of this post? Tick. Ellis gives us a snapshot of a ludicrously affluent group of people and then strips away the trappings of that affluence to show us what lurks beneath. And it’s utterly vacuous and utterly repellent.  There’s little in these people that passes for conscience or anything that might vaguely resemble basic human decency. The narrator, Clay, is held up by some (including Netty) as morally superior to the other characters and he might be, but barely. Sure, Clay might not be able to stomach the snuff movie and he might not want to take advantage of Rip’s little sex slave – but he doesn’t actually do anything about it, either. He just walks away. The body in the laneway might make his hands shake so much that he drops his joint (damn!) but what does he do? Nada. So he might not be quite as alienated, as nihilistic, as delusionally convinced of his “right” to whatever he wants… But he’s not far off. Presumably it was this slight differentiation that the moviemakers picked up on 25 years ago, amplifying it into a character unrecognisable from Ellis’s. Not that I can really say that with any authority, of course, because I haven’t seen the movie since 1988. (It was released in ’87 in the States but didn’t make it to Australian cinemas until March the next year – or so imdb tells me, anyway, and that jells with my recollection.)

Ellis’s style is revelatory. I’m not sure “stream of consciousness” is quite right – James Joyce and Virginia Woolf make my nose bleed (something Clay can relate to, although for different reasons). Ellis’s narration is compulsive, almost addictive – I read Less than Zero very, very quickly. But there’s some impressive skill at work here. The dialogue is mostly dextrous and deceptively flip – like Hemingway’s in The Sun Also Rises, there’s usually a hell of a lot more going on than meets the eye. Although sometimes the “hell of a lot more going on” is a hell of a lot of nothing at all. There’s an exchange towards the end of the book between Clay and a character called Kim, with a dude trying to play LA Woman on the guitar and an anorexic junkie intermittently screaming for no apparent reason (other than being an anorexic junkie) in the background. It’s a small, surreal masterpiece. It is effectively content-free. And it is superb.

One of the book’s aspects that seriously spooked the Hollywood horses was its sexuality. Clay is bisexual, as are a number of the other male characters. In the movie Clay is straight and he is disgusted when he realises his old mate Julian is trolling his ass to pay his drug debts. In the book Clay is not especially impressed that Julian is hustling – but also sits in on one of Julian’s appointments in hopes of drumming up a little extra cash. Noice. What’s interesting, I think, is that there’s an unconscious sexism to this. It’s been generally accepted for years (and science these days is backing this up – have a look at a book called Sex at Dawn, which I read just before Less than Zero) – that female sexuality is far more fluid than male sexuality. And yet in Ellis’s world it’s the men who are bi, it’s the men – including Clay – who lazily take what they want while the women, to some extent, are there to satisfy the male characters when that’s what they want rather than a bloke. I might be reading too much into this and I might even be misreading it – there may be references to female bisexuality, but they didn’t lodge in my brain.

A couple of last, daft observations: the cover of my copy has a picture of a bloke on it that looks like a zombie. To me. Which is perfectly apt, I think.

And that sense of entitlement. Christos Tsiolkas was interviewed while The Slap was screening on TV and made a comment about some of the characters in the book, the ones in their late 30s and early 40s, having a sense of entitlement. That hadn’t occurred to me but it’s fair enough. The characters in his book are roughly the same age as the characters in Less Than Zero – Hector and Aisha and the rest of them, if I remember correctly, would’ve been going to uni in the early to mid ’80s, just like Clay. Completely irrelevant, and completely different books about completely different characters from completely different backgrounds. But still. The sort of worthless little titbit I like to throw out there every now and then.

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