Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis

The Neon Demon

I remember reading a story (in Rolling Stone I believe) about a high school party where a kid got so wasted he passed out, hit his head, and died (brain fluid pouring from his nose) while his friends continued to party. No one bothered to get him help or even think it was their responsibility to do so.

That is not a party I ever wish to attend or want to believe even exists, so it is with some trepidation that I revisit Bret Easton Ellis’ Less Than Zero. I remember my younger sister, who is the same age as Ellis, brought it home with her during Christmas vacation from college (ironically), although our family’s social/economic circumstances were far removed from the author’s/protagonist’s. I read it in one day, and I recall it made me severely depressed. I was only a few years older, stuck in the nowhere land between Boomers and Gen-X, but I just couldn’t relate to these overprivileged zombies and Ellis’s “first voice of a generation” point of view. If this was the new generation I was scared.

But perhaps time will have softened the blow.

I caught a bit of the film on TV last week, and intrigued by the cinematography and nostalgic for pink blazers with rolled up sleeves, I dug out my battered, first edition (maybe I never returned my sister’s copy) and settled in for some, pastel-skied, Christmas in L.A. nihilistic horror. Or is it supposed to be satire? Not sure. I read it in tandem with watching the film, alternately in spurts, the two blending into a bizarre neon-drenched dream of sorts.


The film, directed by Marek Kanievska, is much different from the book, for which I am grateful; nihilism doesn’t translate well to the big screen. If the characters don’t care, why should we? So wisely the story has been re-imagined with Andrew McCarthy providing a world-weary (at eighteen!) moral compass of sorts  as “just say no” Clay, while charismatic Robert Downey Jr. as drug-addled Julian, goes into a dramatic death-spiral while turning gay tricks for Rip, a duster wearing dealer/pimp played to sleazy perfection by James Spader.

The story works best when Rip and his sidekick Finn are pursuing poor, fucked-up Julian and less when exploring the love angle between Clay and Blair because–like–how can there be love or passion if no one really cares? Blair’s character, played by Jamie Gertz, is a cypher in the book, described only in the articles of clothing she wears and her occasional flat utterances—“People are afraid to merge”–that inane comment on the freeway becomes the novel’s central metaphor. The film tries to push the passion between these two lookers, in glossy, scarlet bathed close-ups, but like the book, it’s an exercise in aesthetic detachment.


In hindsight, the book is better than I remembered. My “lit snob” friends and I always considered Ellis a bit of a hack, and I recall our collective horror when Donna Tartt dedicated The Secret History to him. The brouhaha over the release of American Psycho in the early 90’s—word processors fainting from the horror–seems quaint today. Of course it made us all go out and read it. I brought my copy to the beach and at one point found it so vile, I threw it in the tide, then fished it out and continued reading.

The film version of American Psycho treats it as satire–it’s all a big joke, right? All in his mind. Plus a woman (the ultra talented Mary Harron) directed it so it can’t really be that sexist, right? Again softening the blow, but maybe, just maybe Ellis is totally serious about this shit.

While his subject matter is challenging and not exactly to my taste—preferring the sweeping sentiments of gothic romanticism–Ellis’s simple sentences got under my skin and stayed there like an infected splinter. I was struck by the work’s campy pulpiness this time around, preferring to view it through that lens rather than the approach/avoidance cop-out of “satire.” That he wrote this novel as a college student is impressive. I may even give American Psycho another try.

After spending over a week cuddling up to Peter Straub’s verbose, descriptive passages in Ghost Story, Ellis’s sparse prose cleansed my reader’s palette in a surprising way. His staccato first person voice describing with the same deadpan detachment items on a dinner menu and a scene of child rape, is a chilling technique that he revisits in extremis in American Psycho. I can’t quite decide if the writing is intentionally vapid—I counted three “totallys” in one sentence—or just a bit lazy, but it’s effective.

I can’t help but think that in the age of cellphone zombies (Pokemon craze currently  happening outside my window) our lives really are this empty. The book caused me to reflect on my own mundane (and meaningless?) routine.

I check my email. There are several new spam messages. I delete them. I scroll past a friend’s political rant on Facebook. I find her profile and hit “unfriend.” I’m asked if I’m sure. I press “yes.” I go down to the basement to check on my laundry, notice my comforter is still damp and start up the drier again. I go to the kitchen and reheat my coffee in the microwave. While the cup is spinning I pull out my phone and check my email, then I scroll through Facebook again and check my Twitter feed.

I open the freezer and notice the decapitated head is still there.


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