Less Than Zero

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

This novel is a work of fiction, but its sense of time and place, of a wayward generation consumed by materialism and self-gratification, is both unsettling and real. Its narrator is Clay, an eighteen-year-old student at a college in New Hampshire, who returns home to Southern California for a month-long Christmas vacation with plans to rendezvous with his affluent friends. Somehow, though, the thought of meeting with his friends, his old girlfriend, Blair; Trent, a male model; Julian, Clay’s best friend from high school; and Rip, his drug dealer, fills Clay less with anticipation than with an overwhelming sense of dread and consternation.

For four weeks, Clay reexperiences--or rather endures--the tenuous connections to his privileged Los Angeles life-style: going to parties in sprawling mansions, where cocaine is plentiful and the young and beautiful guests size up one another’s tans and college credentials; keeping dutiful appointments with his psychiatrist, who uses up their sessions to talk about his mistress and the screenplay he is planning to write; struggling through pointless, expensive lunches and strained conversations with his parents; driving aimlessly about the city in his friends’ interchangeably sleek sports cars. The relentless drone of MTV, with its soft-core titillation and glorification of bourgeois values, serves as a fitting backdrop to the vapid and dead-end lives of Clay and his friends.

LESS THAN ZERO is a haunting indictment of a spiritually bankrupt youth culture, a culture where the right clothes, the right car, the precise tilt of one’s sunglasses are the only “statements” that seem to count for anything. For Clay, his so-called vacation is a painful reminder that facades beget facades and that destructive patterns, years in the making, are not easily broken.

Himself reared in a well-to-do environment, Ellis clearly is familiar with the young and restless life-style he so vividly and nightmarishly depicts in this, his first novel. Undoubtedly, few readers will feel sympathetic toward the cast of characters that brings to life this modern-day tragedy of misplaced ideals. Ellis, however, even at the tender age of twenty, is not asking the reader to feel sorry for the petty and vain inhabitants of his elitist vision of hell on earth; he means to illustrate how warped and mechanical a person’s outlook on life can become when dulled by hedonism and material wealth, and he does this with a breathless and terrifying precision.