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Book Review: Less Than Zero (Bret Easton Ellis)

At times grotesquely corrupt, Less Than Zero is the story of a young Los Angeles gang intent on utilising their extreme financial and social privileges to seek primal teenage thrills. An exploration ultimately of how far one might delve into the depths of depravity in search of satisfaction, Ellis’s rough prose consistently enthrals, and incrementally appals, the reader in its graphic depictions of sex, violence, drug taking, and disillusionment. In the course of lead character an narrator Clay’s Los Angeles holiday break from college, from which the book takes as it’s setting, a prevailing focus of the book is the psychological impact of this excess. Although Clay participates in a spurious range of activities throughout, he regularly points out, often in the haze of drug induced paranoia, that he cares about nothing (it being “...less painful if I don’t care”).

Central to the idea that nothing excites, yet every attraction is a right, the book’s character interactions are held together in the main through a shared search for excitement, with cocaine being the glue. It is the excesses that eventually lead Clay into his exploration of the lowest depths of the soul within an underground culture where extreme exploitation is both celebrated and, through merciless peer pressures, encouraged.

Initially a book that excites in its open flaunting of the glitzy advantages of Hollywood extravagance, a strong overtone of tragedy gradually transcends towards its gruesome conclusion. It is a book where extravagance is ironically more costly than the wealthy characters could ever afford, as souls are irrevocably corroded. Graphically depicted, this wallowing in the perils of abuse frequently makes Less Than Zero a simultaneously effervescent and difficult book to read. Recommended reading for a National Lottery winner, it serves as a warning to those who may aspire to the temptations of pleasure without consequence.

Less Than Zero captures, with thrilling electricity, the modern edge of American society that bubbles on the surface of today’s throwaway pop thrills culture. In the same way as Roth explored the depths of human behaviour in the face of the mundanely dignified conservatism in American Pastoral, so Ellis does with the raggedly out-of control. Either way, both interpretations allude to a much desired, yet socially rotten, truth that at its root captures contemporary society invariably striving to excess given opportunity to do so. How these opportunities present themselves may, in each instance, differ greatly, but an unnerving truth is exposed.

BFOF Rating: * * * *