Less Than Zero Critical Essays

Bret Easton Ellis 1964–

American novelist.

The following entry provides an overview of Ellis's career through 1998. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 39 and 71.

Brett Easton Ellis has been called the voice of a new generation by some critics, and accused by others as being "superficial." He leaves few readers indifferent to his work. Critics compare Ellis's frank representations of rich but desensitized young Americans to the works of authors Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Ellis's novels also share affinities with the work of Raymond Chandler and Joan Didion, the latter an author Ellis acknowledges as an important influence. Music-video and film aesthetics also mark Ellis's style and themes. American Psycho (1991), arguably his most notorious work, has been the subject of extended critical discussion and the object of public scorn for its graphic rendering of violence against women. Ellis has enjoyed commercial success, but the artistic and sociological value of his work is a source of ongoing debate.

Biographical Information

Born and raised in Los Angeles, Ellis's early novels focus on events similar to experiences in his own life. Ellis graduated with a B.A. from Bennington College in Vermont in 1986. A year earlier, he made a sudden and spectacular appearance on the literary scene with his novel Less Than Zero (1985), at the age of twenty-one. The novel grew out of a writing course at Bennington, and was reworked over a period of several years. Ellis's second novel, Rules of Attraction (1987), continued in the same vein as his first, focusing on thrill seeking teen-agers, and is infused with MTV imagery and allusions to suggestive commercial slogans and rock band titles. Rules of Attraction drew mixed reviews, and was not as successful as Less Than Zero. American Psycho was published by Random House after it was rejected by Simon and Schuster, and the book provoked a violent reaction from many sources, including reviewers who urged readers to avoid the novel. The Los Angeles Chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW) objected to its vivid depiction of violence against women. NOW mounted a boycott of Random House, and Gloria Steinem publicly promoted the idea that Ellis should be held accountable for acts of violence against women that were inspired by the novel's misogynist narrator. Ellis's next book, The Informers was published in 1994.

Major Works

Ellis' novel Less Than Zero focuses on the experiences of the young narrator, Clay, a wealthy student from Los Angeles who attends college on the East Coast. The novel recounts a trip home for the Christmas holidays which plunges him into a world where young teenagers buy Porsches, indulge in casual sex, abuse drugs, and watch music videos and pornography with the same detachment as their parents. Ellis has observed that his novels portray a lifestyle that "a lot of teenagers hunger to be in." Less Than Zero was praised for its cool prose and critics admired Ellis's ear for language. The Rules of Attraction covers similar territory. One reviewer summarized the characters' lives and the plot in the following manner: "they drink, get high, get tranquilized, spend a great deal of their parents' money, and practice junk-food sex." The values underlying this lifestyle are dramatically represented in Ellis's best known work, American Psycho—the narrative of Patrick Bateman, a character introduced in Rules of Attraction. Bateman is a twenty-six-year-old investment banker, serial killer and quintessential citizen of consumer society who consumes the victims of his madness, all with the same detached obsession he uses in choosing outfits advertised in magazines. Many commentators view American Psycho as dangerously exploitative and irresponsibly reliant on shock-value. Others read American Psycho as a metaphor, seeing in Bateman's story a symbolic criticism of greed and "inhumanity" of the American upper class whose victims are the disadvantaged underclass. In The Informers, Ellis returns to focusing on rich and beautiful college students, and incorporates deadpan prose and scenes of horror similar to that seen in his early work. In the novel, a multitude of friends and acquaintances find their lives uprooted by several random murders and mutilations. The murderers are revealed to be Dirk and Jamie, two of the friends in the group who turn out to be vampires. Ellis weaves thematic and narrative features of his other novels into this work, and also includes an experimental element that drew a comparison to William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury.

Critical Reception

Heated critical debate surrounds Ellis's relatively small oeuvre. It centers around the shocking qualities of his characters' actions and attitudes. Scott Spenser praises Ellis's use of deadpan humor: "There are flashes of wit that can lead you to suspect he sees and even recoils from the hollowness of the young lives he writes about." However, Spenser derides Ellis for his passivity in his regard for social malaise, stating: "… it [is] within his grasp to become a satirist, but for now his method of aping the attitudes of the burnt-out works against him." In a review of American Psycho, Alberto Manguel suggests that the book produces "a revulsion not of the senses but of the gut, like that produced by shoving a finger down one's throat." Norman Mailer, a writer similarly known for vivid depictions of brutality, finds it difficult to defend Ellis's approach to writing, due to its apparent lack of moral purpose. Nevertheless, defenders of Ellis's work abound. Gore Vidal feels American Psycho is "a wonderfully comic novel," and other positive critical commentary centers on the metaphorical dimension that was missed by those who, compelled to act on the outrage the work provokes, are quick to ban and censor the book. American Psycho is seen by these defenders as an indictment of unprincipled materialistic consumerism. Richard Eder commends Ellis's sharp "ear and eye for the patter and drift of his contemporaries" and the satirical thrust of his work, but complains of the lack of contrast due to the absence of "an alternative … standpoint."

For those of us who grew up on Joy Division and The Smiths, what makes winter special is not the warming light of a fire but the hours of orangey-blue darkness; not the crispness of an ice-crackle underfoot but the tubercular damp that leeches the last unwelcome dregs of summer from your veins. So as I wheeze deliciously home through soiled slush, bosomed by bickering strangers, noroviral particulates and the smell of sicked-up garlic chicken and CK1, what better thing to rootle for among the remnants of last year's lunches than the perfect winter vacation novel?

With its occasional pool parties and more than occasional sunglasses, you would be forgiven for forgetting that Bret Easton Ellis' debut Less Than Zero was set during the winter break when Clay returns to Los Angeles following his first term at college to find that Absolutely. Nothing. Has. Changed. In fact, between the iconic opening line, "People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles" and the equally iconic closing line, "After I left", precious little actually happens at all.

The only real development in the book is Clay's gradually evolving disgust as he moves like a wraith through an endless round of casual sex, drugs, and violence that changes nothing about the world in which, and the people to whom, they occur. Heat comes from friction, from things rubbing up against one another and giving off energy, but the Los Angeles of Less Than Zero is an eternal winter of entropy and OCD. There are no conversations, just internal monologues thrown out randomly that cross without touching. And every surface is so shiny that it slips through the world without leaving a trace.

Less Than Zero is as slippery as the characters that haunt it. It draws us in only and precisely to the extent that we share its inability to care about anyone within its pages. We both identify with Clay's disgust and find ourselves disgusted by him in turn. But maybe his slow realisation is one of self-loathing? No, there is nothing noble, no sense of discovery, about Clay's repulsion. It is purely the product of an existential laziness; an accumulation of holographic detritus that results from not being bothered to dial out. As the book closes, images play over and over in his head of the thoughtless, causeless, affectless brutality he has left behind. Only they aren't even real images, they're the words of a song playing on the radio, an echo of a world that itself is a shabby echo of reality. And while Clay slips away into who knows what (only, of course, thanks to the recent Imperial Bedrooms, we do know what) with those echoes playing like the last tracking glitches slowly tuning themselves out of his head, we know that both he and Los Angeles remain fundamentally the same.

Only for us it's slightly different. Our "images so violent and malicious that they seemed to be [our] only point of reference" don't fade. They are a cold condensation running down the inside of our skull. The frictionless chill of Clay's world does touch us, planting a small seed of winter inside us that refuses to leave. Because Less Than Zero is not about Los Angeles, or the 80s, or drugs, or hipsters. It is fundamentally true. It's every time we turn on the news. It's every time we pass splintered glass on the road. It's every time we walk down the street with our headphones on. It's every time we close our eyes and go to sleep leaving the world behind. Maybe that's Less Than Zero's redeeming feature. As the shard of ice, the frozen mirror that embeds itself inside us and pricks our conscience with our blank reflection at each of these moments, maybe it is a bud of hope, of change, of spring. But I can't help thinking, I hope it isn't.

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