I was cleaning out some of my bookshelves the other day when I found Brett Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero. I decided to read it again as it had been many years (nearly 20?) since I had read it.
I remembered that it had left its mark on me when I read it the first time (As did Ellis’s American Psycho–which also ruined brie for me–and every other book of his that I’ve read). I remembered feeling depressed at the end but I didn’t remember why.
Now I remember. It’s not so much the ennui and malaise set up in the first half of the book as it is the horrific, graphic, mind-blowing and, ultimately, mind-numbing violence of the end of the book. And this dichotomy is one of the things that makes it fascinating as a text.
For the first part of the book you are to become voyeur to the lives of these spoiled rich kids and shake your head with wonder at how their lives are so empty and yours, in comparison, so full. So you fall into that trap of believing that though you are not wealthy, your life is rich and this, you believe, is what this book is telling you.
But no. That is a cliche and it’s not that simple.
As you read on what you learn is that part of what we are seeing is a survival technique–something we all have within, which is the ability to shut down emotion when we become overloaded.
And that’s what it is. Overload. Overload on sex, money, drugs, violence and overload on loneliness, emptiness, depression.
It is with the violent scenes (and they are horrible–I forgot how horrible and had to fight the urge to shut my eyes as I was reading) and the reactions of the characters to these scenes (the snuff film, the gang rape of the drugged twelve-year-old girl, Clay’s reminisence of the guy–who later goes on to become American Psycho–who killed and mutilated the woman) that we understand part of where we are as a culture.
And that is that many of us are dead inside. Walking dead. Zombies. Automatons.
And that is tragic.
One could point to any of the physical stimuli in the book (video games, music videos, clubs and dancing, sex, drugs, etc) as a cause but that would be wrong–or not the whole picture. The message that is brought to the forefront again and again is that these children have been deserted. Their parents are gone (and if they are not gone, they are vacant) and the young ones left to fend for themselves.
And so they are on an island. They are living out Lord of the Flies.
And just as Lord of the Flies is still relevant today, so is Less Than Zero.
If you added cellphones, references to different designers, music, and drugs (and perhaps make one of the young women a cutter instead of anoretic), Less Than Zero could easily be about 2005.
And that is scary. And that is sad. But also telling about the strength of the writing–to be able to capture a moment in time and allow it to exist outside of time.
I’m glad I read this book again. Even though Ellis’s books depress me, they open my eyes and they make me feel something for his characters who feel nothing.