The sarcastic repugnance of Elliss debut Less Than Zero yields the romance its seductive force

TaB was introduced in 1963 as Coca-Cola’s first diet alcohol. It use zero-calorie saccharin instead of sugar, an innovation that was intended to inspire beings to indulge in carbonated sweetness without worrying about packing on the pounds. Lastly, please could be enjoyed without regret, risk or sanction. Forget water- here was a soda to stir life carefree. Drink TaB and you two are released from mortal concern and responsibility, the ads hinted. More facetiously, commercial-grades with skinny maidens sucking down TaB sold purchasers the notion that drinking it would obligate you thin. TaB was less than zero, in this sense.

I remember first experience TaB in movies in the 80 s, when the drink rose to popularity. And it appears in Less Than Zero by the 21 -year-old Bret Easton Ellis, with some frequency. Appropriately, within the firstly several sheets, we hear that Muriel, a minor reference, has been admitted to hospital with anorexia. TaB’s nothingness seems central to the meaningless indulgences and woes of the 80 s youth generation: exemption and ineffectuality are the highest advantages of the young, beautiful and rich. Less Than Zero harnesses that ineffectuality with minimalism, constricting ennui into dreaded, and then into repugnance. Thus, it succeeded to building something out of nothing.

The novel’s premise is simple: Clay, an 18 -year-old college freshman, returns residence to Los Angeles for the winter break. His ex-girlfriend, Blair, picks him up from international airports and drives him home, where he is greeted by no one but a new housekeeper and the ripped posting of Elvis Costello on his bedroom wall. This is not LA at large, but a very specific gated district of multimillion-dollar homes, reserve boys, private chefs, Lamborghinis, flawless scalp, pollution and diamonds, decorator robes, and narcissism so raging it is considered the status quo. During his few weeks at home, Clay reconnects with old friends, parties, drives around, clowns around with a guy and a few girls, recollects thoughts, gets manipulated into loaning fund to a sidekick who has to turn manoeuvres to pay off a debt, the usual rich-kid hijinks.

Bret
‘ His mothers split in 1982. One must wonder how autobiographical the fiction really is’ … Bret Easton Ellis in 1992. Photograph: Ulf Andersen/ Getty Images

To say that the youths are badly reacted would be to insinuate that there are well-behaved adults chasing them with lords. But the parents are absent, if not physically, then certainly psychically, and the attitudes of Clay’s mother and father, who have broken up, are not too far from their children’s- aloof, infected and disconnected. Everybody chitchats, fuckings, drives booze. These are not the kids in the 90 s teen drama Beverly Hills, 90210 trying to manage social lives and please their parents with good points. This is a higher stratum, one of derangement brought on by asset earned in a culture where nothing is sacred. Entertainment and its exploitative manufacture always push consciousness into a void of indifference. Merely the alchemical measures of human experience seem to relate: sex and drugs. So this is the case in Less Than Zero , where everybody’s mama or dad is a film executive or a movie star, and their children are left to fend for themselves, with expensive autoes and credit cards at their disposal.

The psychological valence of Clay’s delivery is stark, a voice swimming together with the smog and cigarette smoke. As the reader, I align myself with him, but Ellis still gets me to wonderwhether Clay is on the inside or the outside of the nothingness. Clay’s is not a pragmatic spirit, but has been silenced through the oppression of lovelessness in his upbringing and the culture in which his persona has built up. Teetering between two worlds- New Hampshire, where he is a student, and Los Angeles- he appears to have seen some light-footed. Judgment cannot exist in a vacuum. For most of the novel, Clay exploits the pacific patience of someone with nowhere better to be , no future, and no hope. But the velocity of his fib- moving at high speed with silent feeling, zooming down the freeway doing 100 mph on downers listening to KNAC-FM- demonstrates the brusque hollowness of the narration its driving force. How Ellis managed to give Clay’s voice the tension and weirdness that make this book unstoppable is beyond me as a scribe. It is the calm one feels in the second largest before a vehicle gate-crash, just as you hear the truck approaching and it’s too late to permutation corridors. The impeccable timing, especially in panoramas of exchange, captivates the banalities of Clay’s life in a way that both outrages me and ends my heart.

It is perhaps against the rules of the book, canned and sappy, to point out the breathe lack of charity in it, such is the cage around its centre. Italicised sections throughout the novel narrate more psychological eras in Palm Springs before Clay’s grandmother dies, and even then, the world is flat, devoid of tenderness. The past is smoke in the desert. It might haunt you, but it has no bearing on the purposelessness of your current existence. Clay has two sisters, but they, more, are part of the system of drudgery and vanity. His dad takes Clay to dinners and considers him more like an underling or a frivolous employee than a beloved son. His mother is almost invisible in her blondness. She and Clay seem to have an understanding that superficial communication forestalls the agonizing regions of alienation and grief. As it interprets the progeny of cold Hollywood elites as hot-bodied consumers and posers in a pantomime version of their greedy, aloof mothers- snorting coke, doing lunch, get guzzles at the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills hotel- Less Than Zero satirises a nature that feels emblematic of the complaints of 1985, but also intensely personal. The lens of the narrator feels close to the author’s.

Perhaps that is my projection as a reader, one I acquire to explain how a spokesperson so unaffected in its delivery could construct my nerve disintegrate: I so badly want this macrocosm to be tethered to something real, to be the scrapings on the prison walls, and for those tags to be rich with intending. Expert satire roles this course; despite the straight read, we still identify and comprehend. It is not just a analysi “of the worlds”, but a full knowledge of it. With a little digging, I learn that Ellis’s parents separate in 1982. One must wonder how autobiographical the novel really is. Not that it would change its impact, but the insinuate knowledge of such a niche ball of life heightens the question.

Jami
Jami Gertz as Blair, Andrew McCarthy as Clay in the film adaptation of Less Than Zero. Photograph: 20 th Century Fox/ Kobal/ Rex/ Shutterstock

I can only imagine the alienation this literary geniu felt in a nature that commodified prowes as entertainment be taken in order to establish us slaves of pattern and attitudes, to work hard to buy the right cars, appointment the right people, imbibe non-nutritive soft drinks, zone out in front of the TV. Exclusively a bright young person can look at the contemporary world and visualize where it’s going, unhinged from the static of the past. One political speak is to say the book serves as a denunciation of the evils of media. Los Angeles is a factory of misconception. It produces misconceptions, and makes an illusion around that stirring. Hollywood, which looks like shimmering magic from afar, is a complex system of egomaniacal administrations is accountable for feeding the masses narrative media, those box office reaches we celebrate as the express of our cultural identity. Having grown up in Sherman Oaks, in the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles, Ellis would perhaps have known this culture first-hand.

Less Than Zero was published in 1985, the same year TWA Flight 847 was hijacked by Hezbollah, the US version of the Nintendo Entertainment System came out and the Unabomber killed his first prey. Life-insurance companies began screening for HIV. The CD-Rom was introduced. Ronald Reagan, a former performer profoundly entrenched in corrupt Hollywood politics, was US president. The financial downfall of the middle class was romanticised in Hollywood for enormous earning, selling the trappings of tolerating back to the people living the real deal with no departure programme but their own seeings and ears fastened to their screens and radios. And to think, these were more innocent occasions! Decades later, with Trump in agency, it seems that when there is an entertainer in the White House, our culture descends into indecency- we lose track of what we mean by “humanity”.

The concept comes up only in the context of pain and demise. Meanwhile, the discord between art and entertainment becomes wonderfully clear. Entertainment is fodder for the masses, something to keep them busy and browsing although the world dies. Hollywood capitalises on despair by canning culture and feeding it to us spoonful by spoonful. Art, by distinguish, is critical of the system of indoctrinating, dehumanising, consumerism and greed. The difference between sincerity and satire is in the eye of the bystander. Someone with critical conceiving can see satire. Someone who is used to swallowing blindly whatever is served will never understand intricacy. I think this is why Less Than Zero was so contentious. The demise of the book is the product of so much indifference. There is a dead kid in an alley who Clay’s friends represent into a spectacle, a 12 -year-old sex slave narcotic and tied to a berthed. Clay, initially flowing on the fumes of his habituated high-school blueprints, begins to see his way out of the haze by the end of the novel. It’s the collapse of the dead teenager or the 12 -year-old, or it’s his self-disgust as a participant in passivity. The ambiguity is precise.

Subtlety is necessary to satire, but is not prized in the US. We appraise outgoingness, aplomb, direct onrushes and revelries. We favour straight arrows over implication. This is a weakness. Satire is the most difficult mode in literature because it capacities with a fragile, invisible bed of self-awareness- which readers often shortfall. An insensitive reader of Less Than Zero might suppose,” Well, that was disturbing ,” and point to the moments of vivid exploitation as “inappropriate” and “wrong”. Such a decipher does not appreciate the incredible timing, self-restraint, and synchronicity in the penning , nor the facts of the case that these “inappropriate” incidents are actually a direct thinking of actuality. We often refuse to acknowledge the ugliness in ourselves and in countries around the world, out of shame or vanity.

The generative know of read this book is that of staring at a portrait of the human world- LA is its costume- for long enough to see through the facade. The underbelly is always dark, but that darkness isn’t what’s so interesting. It’s what the darkness is overshadowing- a space region unmarred by romanticism and sentimentalism, the hard truth. It is invisible because it is true. One must separate from the everyday activities of life to see this blankness, this freedom. This is the beauty of Less Than Zero . The quiet transparency of existential horror is precisely what blew my psyche. I am not horrified by a 12 -year-old girl drugged and tied to a bunked while get gang-raped. I’m frightened by the silence around it. If this volume is an existential satire, its premise is that the world is hell disguised as paradise.

* Less Than Zero issued by Picador Classics( PS8. 99 ). To tell a imitation go to guardianbookshop.com or see 0330 333 6846. Free UK p& p over PS15, online tells exclusively. Phone tells min p& p of PS1. 99.

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