The sarcastic horror of Elliss debut Less Than Zero imparts the romance its seductive force

TaB was introduced in 1963 as Coca-Cola’s first food beverage. It employed zero-calorie saccharin instead of sugar, an innovation that was intended to inspire people to indulge in carbonated sweetness without worrying about packing on the pounds. Finally, solace could be enjoyed without regret, gamble or sanction. Forget water- here was a soda to realize life carefree. Drink TaB and you were liberated from mortal concern and responsibility, the ads suggested. More facetiously, commercials with skinny maidens sucking down TaB sold consumers the notion that boozing it would make you thin. TaB was less than zero, in this sense.

I remember first see 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 first several pages, we hear that Muriel, a child persona, 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, squeezing ennui into dread, and then into horror. Thus, it succeeds in establishing something out of nothing.

The novel’s premise is simple: Clay, an 18 -year-old college freshman, returns dwelling to Los Angeles for the winter break. His ex-girlfriend, Blair, picks him up from the airport and drives him home, where he is greeted by no one but a new housekeeper and the ripped sign of Elvis Costello on his bedroom wall. This is not LA at large, but a very specific gated district of multimillion-dollar homes, kitty boys, private cooks, Lamborghinis, flawless surface, pollution and diamonds, designer clothes, and narcissism so rampant it is considered the status quo. During his few weeks at home, Clay reconnects with old friends, parties, drives around, suckers around with a guy and a few girls, recollects things, gets manipulated into loaning money to a friend who has to turn stunts be paid a obligation, the usual rich-kid hijinks.

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

To say that the youths are badly behaved would be to insinuate that there are well-behaved adults chasing them with sovereigns. But the parents are absent, if not physically, then certainly psychically, and the attitudes of Clay’s mother and papa, who have broken up, are not very far from their children’s- aloof, demoralized and detached. 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 brings about by property earned in a culture where nothing is sacred. Entertainment and its exploitative manufacture ever push consciousness into a void of indifference. Only 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 cars and credit cards at their disposal.

The emotional valence of Clay’s delivery is striking, a expression swimming together with the pollution and cigarette inhale. 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 stillness through the oppression of lovelessness in his upbringing and the culture in which his persona “ve developed”. Teetering between two worlds- New Hampshire, where he is a student, and Los Angeles- he appears to have seen some light. Judgment cannot exist in a vacuum-clean. For most of the novel, Clay harnesses the pacific patience of someone with nowhere better to be , no future, and no hope. But the velocity of his fib- operating at high speed with silent nervousnes, zooming down the route doing 100 mph on downers listening to KNAC-FM- imparts the snappy 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 columnist. It is the calm one feels in the seconds before a car crash, just as you assure the truck approaching and it’s too late to switch trails. The flawless timing, especially in incidents of exchange, captivates the banalities of Clay’s life in such a way that both outrages me and breaches my heart.

It is perhaps against the rules of the book, canned and sappy, to point out the deliver lack of cherish in it, such is the cage around its center. Italicised sections throughout the novel narrate more psychological durations in Palm Springs before Clay’s grandmother dies, and even then, the world is flat, devoid of tenderness. The past is cigarette in the desert. It might recur you, but it has no carry on the purposelessness of your current existence. Clay has two sisters, but they, too, are part of the system of drudgery and egotism. His dad takes Clay to dinners and treats him more like an underling or a frivolous hire than a beloved son. His mother is almost invisible in her blondness. She and Clay seem to have an understanding that superficial communication escapes the painful regions of estrangement and hardship. As it yields 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, getting potions at the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills hotel- Less Than Zero satirises a nature that feels emblematic of the afflictions 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 oblige to explain how a articulation so unaffected in its delivery could obligate my soul crash: I so badly miss this macrocosm to be tethered to something real, to be the scratchings on the prison walls, and for those working markers to be rich with meaning. Expert satire serves this direction; despite the straight speak, we still identify and comprehend. It are not only a disapproval of the nations of the world, but a full experience of it. With a bit delving, I learn that Ellis’s parents separate in 1982. One must wonder how autobiographical the romance really is. Not that it would change its impact, but the insinuate knowledge of such a niche orbit of life raises 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 separation this literary prodigy felt in a world-wide that commodified artistry as presentation designed to shape us slaves of style and attitudes, to work hard to buy the right cars, date the right people, imbibe non-nutritive soft drinks, zone out in front of the Tv. Simply a bright young person can look at the modern world and verify where it’s going, unhinged from the static of the past. One political read is to say the book parts as a condemnation of the miseries of media. Los Angeles is a factory of misconception. It fabricates illusions, and establishes an illusion around that seeing. Hollywood, which looks like shimmering magic from afar, is a complex system of egomaniacal administrations held accountable for feeding the masses narrative media, those box office makes we commemorate as the looks of our culture identity. Having grown up in Sherman Oaks, in the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles, Ellis would perhaps have suffered this culture first-hand.

Less Than Zero issued 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 martyr. Life-insurance companies began screening for HIV. The CD-Rom was introduced. Ronald Reagan, a former performer deeply entrenched in corrupt Hollywood politics, was US president. The financial collapse of the middle class was romanticised in Hollywood for enormous profit, selling the trappings of suffering back to the people living the real deal with no exit programme but their own eyes and ears cooked 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 death. Meanwhile, the division between art and entertainment becomes wonderfully clear. Entertainment is fodder for the masses, something to keep them busy and patronizing while the world dies. Hollywood capitalises on grief by canning culture and feeding it to us spoonful by spoonful. Art, by contrast, is critical of the system of brainwashing, dehumanising, consumerism and avarice. The difference between sincerity and satire is in the eye of the spectator. Someone with critical seeing can spot satire. Someone who is used to swallowing blindly whatever is served will never understand subtlety. I think this is why Less Than Zero was so contentious. The cease of the book is the product of so much indifference. There is a dead kid in an alley who Clay’s friends make into a sight, a 12 -year-old sex slave medication and tied to a berthed. Clay, initially loping on the vapours of his habituated high-school motifs, begins to see his way out of the haze by the end of the fiction. It’s the disturbance of the dead kid 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 appreciate outgoingness, equanimity, direct assaults and revels. We favour straight arrows over innuendo. This is a weakness. Satire is the most difficult mode in literature because it offices with a fragile, invisible mantle of self-awareness- which readers often absence. An insensitive reader of Less Than Zero might imagine,” Well, that was disturbing ,” and point to the moments of evocative exploitation as “inappropriate” and “wrong”. Such a construe does not appreciate the incredible timing, restraint, and synchronicity in the writing , nor the fact that these “inappropriate” panoramas are actually a direct reflection of reality. We often refuse to acknowledge the ugliness in ourselves and in countries around the world, out of shame or vanity.

The generative event of decipher this work 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 obscuring- a blank plaza unmarred by romanticism and sentimentalism, the hard truth. It is invisible because it is true. One must detach from the banal activities of life to see this blankness, this freedom. This is the beauty of Less Than Zero . The quiet clarity of existential fear is precisely what blew my thinker. I is certainly not scared by a 12 -year-old girl doped and tied to a bunked while going gang-raped. I’m shocked by the silence around it. If this work is an existential wit, its proposition is that the world is hell disguised as paradise.

* Less Than Zero is published by Picador Classics( PS8. 99 ). To order a reproduce go to guardianbookshop.com or summon 0330 333 6846. Free UK p& p over PS15, online orders only. Phone orderings min p& p of PS1. 99.

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