Less Than Zero – Bret Easton Ellis

There is a danger when you have read a cult novel such as ‘American Psycho’ by Bret Easton Ellis, a book so initially mundane and monotone before becoming haunting, horrific and disturbing you might not want to read it again but you equally won’t forget reading it and see it as a possible masterpiece, another book by them might not live up to your prior experience and therefore expectations. Sadly ‘Less Than Zero’ didn’t, yet I am sure had I read it upon its publishing in 1985 (though I was three so unlikely) I would have found it far more groundbreaking.

‘Less Than Zero’ follows the Christmas break of Clay, a young rich kid with far too much money and time on his hands. As we follow Clay and his group of equally disheartened and spoilt yet rather messed up friends a tale of drugs, drinking and much, much worse ensues. That really in a nutshell is the story. Clay starts a relationship with a girl called Blair, sleeps with anyone who will have him whatever there gender on the side and then go and get absolutely of his face on whatever comes to hand too. Throw in some ‘shocking material’ like drug deaths, snuff movies, escorting and even some possible child abuse for good measure and you know where this book is going. Unusually though, this is all told in a rather silent and minimal style (almost verging on bored) that I could see lingered in his prose with American Psycho’.

It’s actually the minimalist voice and slight coldness that saved the book, if only slightly, for me interestingly. I do like how Bret Easton Ellis looks at what boredom can lead to, is this a theme in all of his novels? It did make the book stand out from the many, many books I have read that stick to the same subject, have almost as much horrific and ‘shocking’ subject matter thrown in, and are filled with spoilt rich nasty characters that you kind of hope get what is coming to them. You know the sorts of novels I mean, ‘Trainspotting’, Dead Babies’, books that interestingly sum up the generation that hail them as masterpieces (‘Trainspotting’ was mine and I still think its good) yet after time seem to date and get usurped by the next generations favourite fictional rich kids ‘shocking’ drug orgy.

Initially I was rather intrigued by Clay and all those around him who came and went. As the book went on to try and shock the reader further I found myself first of all feeling a little shocked and then becoming disengaged. ‘American Psycho’ works so stunningly because at the start you are almost bored to tears by the mundanity before being shocked by the events that come, ‘Less Than Zero’ starts this way, shocked and then left me completely cold and a little bit bored. I couldn’t predict the horrors that might lay in wait for these characters yet I wasn’t sure I cared. Which is now going to be completely contradicted when I say I would read the sequel ‘Imperial Bedrooms’ to find out what became of those who survived in their thirties and forties and the effects that the events of ‘Less Than Zero’ had on them.

The fact I wouldn’t mind reading the sequel means that ‘Less Than Zero’ did work for me in some ways. I actually found the dislikeable characters well written and rounded and if Easton Ellis’ intention was to make me loathe them he did well. I think what I found more interesting was seeing the start of a writer and the initial skills being developed that would create a much greater work in the future. Maybe not the best reason to like a book, but it works for me. I think I would have been much more impressed if I hadn’t felt I had read this sort of book several times before, I’m also not sure if this had been my first introduction to Easton Ellis right now that I would read any more. Interesting.  6.5/10

This book was kindly sent by the publishers.

Which Bret Easton Ellis books have you read? Are they all filled with vile nasty characters? Have you read ‘Imperial Bedrooms’ and if so, without giving too much away, is it worth the read? Is there any subject matter you feel has been done to death and merely gets regurgitated (an apt word with this books subject matter)?   Are there any other debut novels by cult classic novelists that fall flat?


Filed under Bret Easton Ellis, Picador Books, Review

6 responses to “Less Than Zero – Bret Easton Ellis

  1. gaskella

    I did read this book many years ago, but can’t remember it at all. I later read American Psycho, and do want to re-read that now I’m older, as I can only remember it’s nasty, not any detail. For every powerhouse of a debut novel, there must be at least one that doesn’t work so well, but I can’t think of any off hand (prob due to half a bottle of good red).

    • Hahahahaha that last bit of your comment made me laugh out loud Annabel, thats really, really tickled me.

      I think this probably was a great debut novel of its time. It just seemed a bit dated and ‘oh lets write controversially to get noticed’. Maybe I have such strong feelings about American Psycho that this just didnt live up to it, which is much more my issue than the books.

  2. lubylou12

    Sorry to hear you didn’t enjoy the book as much as you’d hoped you would Simon. I read it a few years ago and although and did enjoy it but found it hard going in parts. I’ve read American Psycho and have thought about Imperial Bedrooms but I know what you mean his books can be a little samey!

    • I will definitely read more of his work Louise, I havent written him off yet. It just wasnt as good as I expected it to be, but then those were my expectations which is – like I mention to Annabel above – more my problem than the books. Ho hum.

  3. Simon, I read the book ages ago, but definitely thought it to be a excellent read. Of course at the time I had just finished American Psycho was in love with Bret Easton Ellis’ writing. I’ve also read the Rules of Attraction which was better than good, but not as good as Less Than Zero or American Psycho. Lunar Park however is really good – bordering on nearly as excellent as American Psycho. I have yet to read Imperial Bedrooms, but it is on my TBR list. There is just something about these books that I find to be really engaging. Hope you do pick up more of his work, don’t let Less Than Zero put you off. By the by, the film version is pretty good.

    • I have Lunar Park, so maybe that is where I should head next on my Easton Ellis reading. Though weirdly I quite fancy Glamorama though I havent heard much about it. I also like the look of The Informers. Oooh decisions, decisions.

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