Joel Clay Blog
Stories That Haunt: Less Than Zero, by Brett Easton Ellis (1985)
The opening lines of this 1980s MTV generation novel: “People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles. This is the first thing I hear when I come back to the city.” Clay, the narrator, hears it from his high school sweetheart, sort of current girlfriend, Blair as she drives him back from the airport. The metaphor is clear enough—it sets the stage and follows the reader through the story. Clay and Blair are both college Freshman as of four months ago—he in New Hampshire, she stayed in LA. The novel begins when Clay arrives in LA at the start of his Christmas break and ends a month later when he’s about to return to his New Hampshire college.
What happens? Over Christmas break, the children of the uber-wealthy reunite in LA and proceed to ingest heaps of drugs, push pleasure to its limits, exhibit ultra-jaded lack of empathy and amoral thirst for stimulation, anything to jounce them out of the numbness in which they zombie around; and, as one might guess, they feel extreme emptiness and lack of purpose. Where everything is given and nothing is earned, meaning is derived from the nearest pleasure.
I read the novel quickly, in two days. The ease in which I move through a book can impact the resonance I feel upon its completion. Often, for me, the more laborious reads resonate deeper in part because of the rigorous mental and time investments required to comprehend and complete the works. But despite investing in Less Than Zero for parts of only two days, this dystopian coming of age novel hit me heavily the way only a tome usually can.
I’ve read a handful of Bret Easton Ellis novels. I found them well-written and they seemed to achieve what they intended, especially The Rules of Attraction and American Psycho. Though Less Than Zero was Ellis’s first novel—he wrote it before he could buy alcohol without a fake ID—I read it last, and it resonated much deeper with me than the other Ellis novels. It deals with the same characters and character types—late teens and young adult offspring of the uber-wealthy—but in the later novels the characters feel depleted beyond hope for resuscitation. I believe what heart-wrenches me In Less Than Zero is that the two raw, lonely, late-teen main characters, Clay and Blair, haven’t fully lost their innocence. We can see it slipping away, but it is not quite gone. We see them grasping, and those last efforts, captured beautifully by Ellis, rocked me, emptied me out.
The novel has the feel of a long music video. The flimsy plot arc is carried by Clay and Blair’s relationship. As the novel begins, I, and they, wonder where their relationship stands. As the story develops, I feel the pain that Clay salves with cocaine; I feel that Blair especially, but also Clay’s friend since elementary school, Julian, is a root to the pain. I want him to love Blair, I wonder if he does—I feel between them a fleeting hope for a meaningful human connection. Plot-wise, along with the curiosity about what’s going on with Julian, the desire to see some sort of resolution between Clay and Blair pulls the story along. Nonetheless, the check-ins on Clay and Blair’s relationship feel incidental. The story is narrated by a lethargic druggy who’s distracted and anxious, constantly both searching for and running from meaning. The wobbly plot structure and resolution fit the tone and mood of the story.
The kids are at crossroads. They’re starting college, embarking on adulthood, swaying on that child-adult line. We get ample road imagery and symbolism. The story opens with fear of merging, and the image recurs in Clay’s head; Clay notices green exit signs; he encounters a “Disappear Here” billboard and is reminded of it throughout; Rip turns down a dead-end road to set up a nihilistic philosophical discussion. The extended road metaphor addresses arrested development, the failure to adjust, the need to escape, the meaninglessness of life. From Clay, I felt that it worked.
We don’t see much of the parents. Clay has lunch once with his dad while he’s back. They have a brief superficial conversation. Clay’s mom is around for a ride in the car, but that’s about it from her. In this scene with the mom, Clay and his two younger sisters are in in the car. One of the sisters complains that Clay keeps his bedroom door locked. They ask him twice why he keeps it locked.
“I turn around. ‘Because you both stole a quarter gram of cocaine from me the last time I left my door open. That’s why.’
My sisters don’t say anything” (25).” And neither does the mom. She doesn’t appear to care that her three teenagers use cocaine. Instead, she “asks if we have to listen to this and my sisters say to turn it up” (25).
Another time Clay is in his house and he casually mentions that his sisters are reading magazines and watching porn on the “Betamax.” One of the sisters says she hates it when they show the guy come. How old are his sisters? Clay thinks they are fifteen and thirteen, “maybe” (24). The degree of parental absenteeism and indifference to their kids’ consumption of cocaine, porn, etc. feels hyperbolic. What keeps me in the fictive dream is that I wasn’t around for the mid-80s uber wealthy scene—Ellis was—and, except for Clay’s younger sisters and the Clay in his flashbacks (which are tame compared to the present tense material), the main characters are all out of high school now, though I get the idea it has been going on for years.
Here’s a convo between Clay and Daniel that represents the typical parent-child relationship in Zero:
“’But what do your parents think?’
‘My parents? They don’t care. Do yours?’
‘They must think something.’
‘They’ve gone to Barbados for the month and the they’re going to oh … shit … I don’t know … Versailles? I don’t know. They don’t care,’ he says again” (160).
Bret Easton Ellis grew up in LA among the wealthy and the story was supposedly a combination of facts and fiction—he got inspiration from taking detailed notes from the house parties he attended with his rich friends. So maybe there’s more verisimilitude to the blatant absenteeism than I presumed. Either way, the authenticity of Clay’s voice keeps me in the story.
Another element that threw me slightly: the story is written in first person and present tense. On one hand, the voice felt real; it provided intimacy; I was with Clay. Also, the straightforward, sad tone befits him. On the other hand, Clay is so jaded and rudderless, I didn’t believe he would have taken the time to narrate a story. He needs constant coke hits to function—he doesn’t seem like the type to record his thoughts. Except for a couple brief outbursts, he embodies inertia. And we’re not hearing a reformed, looking-back Clay—Zero’s written in present tense.
Some characters, like Gatsby or Ahab, don’t tell their stories because we couldn’t see them as raconteurs. They are too fanatical about their missions to step aside to give us a story. For Clay, I just couldn’t see him sitting down to write anything. But this was minor for me. What Ellis would have lost in intimacy and authenticity by telling the story in third person or from a different character probably would not have been worth the gain.
A contrast I find interesting is the juxtaposition of Clay’s longing for meaning and his failure to contribute to its discovery. Though Clay is a victim of his upbringing, he is also a participant. He wants purpose, meaning, but he lacks volition. And that’s where parents might come in? Maybe a professional counselor?
And that brings us to Clay’s psychiatrist. The tone of the psychiatrist episodes remind me of American Psycho. They seem to blend surreal slapstick and realism. I find the narcissistic psychiatrist hilarious, but he feels so over-the-top that I can hardly see him. Clay shows raw emotion in these scenes, but I can’t feel his pain with the caricature of a psychiatrist in front of him. Here’s a taste:
“The psychiatrist I see during the four weeks I’m back is young and has a beard and drives a 450 SL and has a house in Malibu. I’ll sit in his offices in Westwood with the shades drawn and my sunglasses on, smoking a cigarette, sometimes cloves, just to irritate him, sometimes crying. Sometimes I’ll yell at him and he’ll yell back. I tell him that I have these bizarre sexual fantasies and his interest will increase noticeably. ... He’ll tell me about his mistress and the repairs being done on the house in Tahoe and I’ll shut my eyes and light another cigarette, gritting my teeth.” (25).
“I start to cry really hard. … I tell him I don’t know what’s wrong; that maybe it has something to do with my parents but not really or maybe my friends or that I drive sometimes and get lost; maybe it’s the drugs.
“At least you realize these things. But that’s not what I’m talking about. That’s not really what I’m asking you, not really.’ He gets up and walks across the room and straightens a framed cover of a Rolling Stone with Elvis Costello on the cover … I wait for him to ask me the question.
‘Like him? Did you see him at the Ampitheater? Yeah? He’s in Europe now, I guess. At least that’s what I heard on MTV. Like the last album?’
‘What about me?’
‘What about you?’
‘What about me?’
‘You’ll be fine.’
‘I don’t know,’ I say. ‘I don’t think so.’
‘Let’s talk about something else.’
‘What about me?’ I scream, choking.
‘Come on, Clay,’ the psychiatrist says. ‘Don’t be so … mundane.’” (123).
LOL. Though clay screams and cries, actually exhibits emotion—the one time in the story—the context takes me out of it. I don’t feel the poignancy I feel in the later interaction between Clay and Blair.
Clay narrates in the present tense except for twelve sporadic italicized flashbacks totaling approximately fifteen of the two hundred pages. The flashbacks seem to be Clay’s attempts to discover meaning, to understand life and himself. They are remembrances. They address his grandparents’ old vacation home, his grandma’s death, time spent and conversations with Blair, At the end of the first flashback, he says, “I guess … I wanted to remember the way things were” (44). They don’t appear to provide Clay meaning, but they give the story meaning. These are his feeble attempts to make sense of his life, his past, his future. They give this soulless story a shot of pathos. I think they are largely a search for feeling, an attempt to summon feelings that once gave life purpose.
In one italicized section, Clay recalls a lunch with his grandfather, producer father, and a director. The director lamented the death of a beloved eighteen-year-old stuntman, “how he missed a step” (145). The grandfather asked the director the boy’s name. During a long silence, Clay “prayed that the director remembered the name. For some reason it seemed very important to me. I wanted very badly for the director to remember his name. The director opened his mouth and said, “I forgot” (145).
In a conversation between Clay and his friend Daniel, who goes to Camden (fictional New Hampshire college, where Rules of Attraction is set) with Clay, after Clay has tried to encourage Daniel to return to school: “’I really don’t see the point.’ Daniel says, not taking his eyes off the screen and I begin to wonder what the point was, if we ever knew. …
“Before I leave I look at him lighting another joint, at the scar on his thumb and finger and feel better for some reason” (161).
Clay wonders what’s the point of it all, then the scar on Daniel’s hand reminds Clay that people can still feel, that pain can leave marks, that there’s an aftermath to actions. It’s that grasping for purpose—the buildup of these moments, the brief interruptions form soulless hedonism—that stuck in my head.
A salient motif in the story is inaction, and it made almost any movement toward action poignant for me.
In another flashback, Clay remembers driving his younger sisters around LA at night when he was fifteen and just started driving. They pass a “Mexican” family stranded on the freeway, their car on fire. “I was wondering why there were no other cars out to stop or help. My sisters stopped fighting and told me to stop the car so that they could watch. I had an urge to stop, but I didn’t.”
Clay thinks he saw a kid burning in the fire. He asks his little sisters. They didn’t see anything. The next morning, he searches the papers to see if a kid died. He’s fifteen. He didn’t stop the car, but he cared, it bothered him—three years before the present, he cared.
Another scene, in his house, when he hears someone screaming from the house next door, he closes the window. He then feels anxiety—then he snorts cocaine. The cocaine and heroin use remind me of Brave New World, where one took “soma” any time an uncomfortable thought or feeling surfaced. A strong current of pain avoidance sweeps through the novel. Because the characters can constantly avoid pain, they never feel deeply, and that is really the tragedy of the story.
Clay only watches the gory parts of movies. At one point (page 100), he’s on the phone with his friend Trent, who, like all of them, is having a hard time, but he ignores Trent because he’s watching buildings blow up on TV in slow motion. It seems that only the destructive and shocking maintain his attention, yet he longs for human connection. He has been so inundated with immediate gratification that, though he may be, arguably, genetically inclined to empathy, emotion, unselfishness, absentee parenting, exposure to uninhibited hedonism, at too early an age, have desensitized him.
When he tires of MTV, Clay occasionally switches to religious programs. “… Celebrate the lord. Let this be a night of deliverance. Tell Jesus, ‘Forgive me of my sins,’ and then you may feel the joy that is unspeakable. May your cup overflow.’ … I wait for something to happen. I sit there for close to an hour. Nothing does. I get up, do the rest of the coke that’s in my closet […]”
The Christian preacher summons the viewer to ask for forgiveness, and then receive “deliverance.” Clay waits for an hour; no mention of him asking for forgiveness or doing anything. Expectation of a reward without earning it or acting in any way.
But those are the relatively harmless examples of inaction.
At the three-quarter mark of the story, the shock and awe turn up a notch. We’ve been primed by the constant partying, the casual sex, drugs, and gossip—the glaring absence of any moral core—when Clay takes Blair to a mansion his long-time friend, Trent, is temporarily inhabiting. The three of them, with a group of pretty blonde teenage boys, watch what may be an authentic torture video that includes the rape, castration, and murder of a fifteen, sixteenish year old boy and girl. Someone paid fifteen thousand for the video, apparently. Blair walks out early when she realizes what’s happening, then Clay leaves the room after a naked man begins jabbing an ice pick into the girl’s neck. Clay sits outside, but he can hear the screams. The others stay.
This image separates Blair and Clay from the others. It is one of the subtle and minute occasions for hope. Blair and Clay aren’t completely lost; they could turn away, stand up for something, find solidarity, connection in breaking away. Afterward, the kids discuss the authenticity of the video. They are intrigued, not repulsed. They agree that it must be real. Clay doesn’t contribute to the discussion; Blair’s walking on the beach.
A couple scenes later, Clay, for the repayment of the money Julian owes him, accompanies Julian to a hotel and watches an older businessman have sex with Julian. Clay realizes that he doesn’t care, really, about Julian or the money, that in his drug fog, all that’s left is, “That I want to see if things like this can actually happen … I want to see the worst” (172).
Then Clay and Julian go to a party to meet up with Finn, Julian’s debtor, dealer, and pimp, to collect payment so Julian can pay Clay back. At the party, Clay thinks he recognizes a young guy staring at him. “I stare back, confused, wondering if he knows me, but I realize it’s pointless. That guy is stoned and doesn’t see me, doesn’t see anything” (181).
None of them seem to see much. Clay certainly doesn’t, though at times he wants to be seen.
Clay ends up in a bathroom with Julian and Finn. Julian stands up to Finn, says that he’s through. Finn threatens Julian, then calms him by injecting him with heroin. Clay watches from the corner, does not intervene. After the heroin, he leaves.
Clay meets up with Rip, his dealer, who says Clay looks “real bad,” which indicates that he’s shaken by the Julian incident.
A couple scenes later, Clay’s friends take him to an alley to show him a dead body of an eighteenish-year-old. The friends are fascinated, laughing, one of the kids thinks he recognizes him … Clay feels shaky and lights a cigarette. No one considers calling the cops.
Then, we encounter what is, depending on the genuineness of the torture video, the most horrifying scene of the story. Rip wants to show Clay something at his apartment. They leave the dead body and go to Rip’s, where a naked twelve-year-old girl is tied to a bed. Clay’s friends have been taking turns on her. When Clay is asked if he wants a go, he declines. He is shocked, says, “Why?” to Rip, then, after some back and forth, “’It’s … I don’t think it’s right.’
’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.”
I lean up against the wall. I can hear Spin moaning in the bedroom and then the sound of a hand slapping maybe a face.
‘But you don’t need anything. You have everything,’ I tell him.
Rip looks at me. ‘No. I don’t.’
‘No, I don’t.’
There’s a pause and then I ask, ‘Oh, shit, Rip, what don’t you have?’‘I don’t have anything to lose’” (189 – 190).
Clay leaves. He doesn’t call the cops. As the reader, you can feel his dread and void-like horror, but he doesn’t mention even entertaining the idea of trying to rescue the girl. Clay is almost unbelievably weak and passive. The fact that Clay would actually confront Rip shows how much the incident impacted him. However, a few days later, Clay’s hanging out with Rip again. They are driving on Mullholland and Rip’s chewing his plastic eyeball and slows down on a curve, parks, and shows Clay twenty to thirty wrecked cars at the bottom of the hill.
Rip says, “[…] people who misunderstood the road. People who made a mistake late in the night and who sailed off into nothingness. […] And later when we got into the car he took a turn down a street that I was pretty sure was a dead end.
’Where are we going?’ I asked
‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘just driving.’
‘But this road doesn’t go anywhere.’ I told him.
‘That doesn’t matter.’
‘What does?’ asked, after a little while.
‘Just that we’re on it, dude,’ he said” (195).
And that’s the last of Rip. He sneaks up on you, but Rip is the most worldly and intelligent of the Zero characters. He’s Clay’s bisexual dealer and he’s the one with the twelve-year-old tied up in his bedroom. In retrospect, I think he’s the strongest influence on Clay’s life, given what Clay has turned into. I believe Rip echoes in Clay’s head when he meets with Blair in the final scene. Rip’s amoral hedonistic energy, his enthusiastic logical nihilism—they help define the world to Clay, they scare him from the few and fleeting opportunities for pure human connection.
Nearing the end, after Clay’s taken us through a present-tense-documentary-like narration of shocking teenage brutality and callousness, Clay gives us the last flashback to set up the inevitable final conversation with Blair before he goes back to New Hampshire for college.
In the flashback, Clay is in a phone booth in Palm Desert a week before he leaves to start college. He sees a fifteenish boy hitchhiker standing at bus stop, “and I wanted to tell the boy something, but the bus came and the boy got on.” (200)
The phone eventually rings and Clay talks to Blair; Blair feels betrayed that he’s going back east because he had told her he wouldn’t leave her. Clay says it will be all right. He asks Blair if she remembers a night at Disneyland. She says she doesn’t. Later that same night he tells Blair that he’ll miss her, and she says that she does remember the night at Disneyland. Juxtaposed with the building debauchery, this flashback touched me. Clay leaves for school the next week and he and Blair don’t talk for four months.
Back to the present, the end of the story and Clay’s vacation, the next scene is a Clay and Blair lunch date.
“‘So, you’re actually going back to school,’ she says.
‘I guess so. There’s nothing here.’
‘Did you expect to find something?’”
A few lines later, Blair says, “’Clay, did you ever love me?’
I’m studying a billboard and say that I didn’t hear what she said.
‘I asked if you ever loved me?’
On the terrace the sun bursts into my eyes and for one blinding moment I see myself clearly. I remember the first time we made love, in the house in Palm Springs, her body tan and wet, lying against cool, white sheets.
‘Don’t do this, Blair,’ I tell her.
‘Just tell me.’
I don’t say anything.
‘Is it such a hard question to answer?’
After more back and forth, an unconvincing, “‘yeah, sure, I guess,’” Clay finally says, “‘No,’ I almost shout. ‘I never did.’ I almost start to laugh.’
She draws a breath and says, ‘Thank you. That’s all I wanted to know.’ She sips her wine.’”
A few lines later, Blair says, “‘You were never there. I felt sorry for you for a little while, but then I found it hard to. You’re a beautiful boy, Clay, but that’s about it. … It’s hard to feel sorry for someone who doesn’t care.’
‘Yeah?’ I ask.
‘What do you care about? What makes you happy?”
‘Nothing. Nothing makes me happy. I like nothing,’ I tell her.
‘Did you ever care about me, Clay?’
‘I don’t want to care. If I don’t care about things, it’ll just be worse, it’ll just be another thing to worry about. It’s less painful if I don’t care.’”
Then, after Blair gets up to leave: “‘Where are you going?’ I suddenly don’t want to leave Blair here. I almost want to take her back with me” (204 – 205).
They have one more conversation before Clay leaves. She asks him not to go. He says that he’ll be back. She says she doesn’t believe him—what she doesn’t believe, the reader can infer, is that he will come back to her. We imagine that they will not talk and will continue to drift apart over the next few months.
This all works well to me. I felt a glimmer of hope that the brutal fourth quarter of the novel—the torture video, Julian sex with older man, his friends’ rape of a twelve year old—would push Clay toward the one person who seems to care about him, that he would open up, become vulnerable, express love for Blair, pursue life-giving activity. But he doesn’t and, though I was given enough to hope for better, that’s what needed to happen. It would have felt like a cop out, a betrayal to the previous two hundred pages had Clay broken down.
The eerie night sounds, the ghost-sighting anecdotes, the coyotes carrying bloodied rag-like cats in their mouths—these were nice touches. While I read the story the first time, I felt this trippy Hotel California vibe. Certain scenes brought that song into my mind, and I contemplated its lyrics while I read, and then, just past the middle, Clay mentions the Hotel California album. I remember a quote I read (though I have no idea where) about what “Hotel California” exemplifies: “There is a fine line between American dream and American nightmare.” That theme was so present in Zero.
As one who began writing his first novel at twenty, only to discard it for its glaring inadequacy after finishing it three years later, I am in awe that Bret Easton Ellis finished Less Than Zero before he was twenty-one. Learning that he started it when he was sixteen only increased my admiration for the book and its author, and it also didn’t surprise me that this book had been in his head for five years. Though it feels, as it should, as if told by an eighteen-year-old, it is a mature and original creation, a powerful glimpse into the hell that is unmonitored, unaccountable youth with limitless money and freedom. Zero is a Clockwork Orange upgrade minus poverty, passion, and an attempt at reformation—the characters embody a similar pleasure-seeking egoism.
A good story, as I see it, is almost always truthful (not true) and character-driven, but its sole indispensable obligation is to be interesting; and a story can be interesting, in my opinion, when it shows a unique look at an individual (or individuals) who represents more than her- or himself, and if it does that it reveals inherent truths about humanity. Zero is much more than a dystopia-for-the-kids-of-the uber-wealthy, horror-documentary hybrid story; to me it is a complex character-driven haunter, one that couldn’t be told well without shocking our Judeo-Christian sensibilities. It resonates with me as much as any bildungsroman ever has—not because it relates to my own experience—because I couldn’t get myself out of these poor kids’ heads, wondering how they could possibly merge.
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Were I to wish for anything I would not wish for wealth and power, but the passion of the possible, that eye which everywhere, ever young, ever burning, sees possibility. Pleasure disappoints, not possibility.
- Soren Kierkegaard