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.