Monday, 16 January 2017

Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis

Bret Easton Ellis has become one of my new favourite writers. I can't wait to read more of his work, which is why this year I've challenged myself to read all of his novels. There is something about his minimalist style that resonates with me - his criticism of things in a way which is so obvious, but at times has gone way over people's heads and created controversy. His work is littered with symbolism and meaning between the lines, and being a literature student, that's the kind of thing I just love.

I read Less Than Zero for the first time last year, and didn't enjoy it. This was because I just didn't read it properly. At the time I was finishing up second year of university, starting a play, and had a lot on my mind. I didn't have room to fully digest what I was reading and sped through it in a couple of days. The next Ellis novel I read was American Psycho a few months later in November, and I was completely obsessed. I'd never read anything like it. It opened up the flood gates towards other postmodern writers and really made me want to read the rest of his work. Of course, this meant rereading his first novel Less Than Zero to see where I'd gone wrong with it.

I like to start reviews out by explaining the plot, but in Less Than Zero there isn't one. Even Ellis himself says the closest thing to a plot here is the main character Clay trying to get his money back from Julian, which doesn't really occur until the last fifth of the book. And honestly, plot in this book wouldn't really make sense, because that would imply that the characters had a sense of purpose. They don't - each one seems to just move through life without really interacting with each other. They talk but don't really hear what they're saying. Their lives are streamlined, but also random and disjointed.

When I first read this I just didn't get it, and I think the one barrier with Ellis' works are that you really have to get what he's trying to say otherwise the story goes over your head. It's why he received death threats after finishing American Psycho, because those people didn't understand the satire of it. With Less Than Zero, I didn't understand the tragedy of the disconnection. It's vaguely gothic in the way they all walk about like ghosts, taking drugs, going to parties, and nothing ever seems to change. It's like they are trapped. Like one critic I read says, friction creates heat, but there is no friction between the characters, and this leaves them suspended like they are in a block of ice.

Clay and Blair were two characters I really ending up liking to read about. A bit that stood out for me was the way that Clay suddenly realised he was exactly like everybody else. He had bleach blonde hair, a tan, was young and good-looking and hardly ever sober. He manages to escape by leaving Los Angeles, yet when he visits again for Christmas he is forced to tan again, and rekindle his chemistry with Blair. It's so easy to slip straight back in to the life he knew before because none of it has moved anywhere since he's been away.
"People are afraid to merge in highways in Los Angeles.
The opening line above is something I think really captures the depth of Ellis' writing. He's well known for his minimalist style and it works so well for him. This one line captures the fear of connecting - the fear of 'merging'. They know if they merge then things will have to change, things will start to go in a direction, and none of them want that because they are caught up in a nihilistic perception of themselves. Then there's the sense that it's only in Los Angeles that it happens, and for Clay is is. In New Hampshire he has a purpose, and it's only when he returns to the bubble of Los Angeles that the people around him seem less willing to engage, like it's trapped in some kind of loop. And this is just what the opening line gives us; Ellis has a style of writing which you can choose to read on a surface level or search for deeper meaning, just like his characters, and it's fascinating.

I watched the film not long ago - it was okay. It became apparent about two minutes in that it was going to be nothing like the book, and so if you want to watch it I'd try and distance yourself from the text. It's more inspired by the book than anything. I watched the film of American Psycho too and it was WAY better. Hilarious, entertaining, and although it didn't quite live up to the astonishment of the book it was a great film.

I've started reading things for my university course now, namely The Sun Also Rises by Hemingway, and then soon I'll move on top Tipping The Velvet. There's something in the back of my head though which is telling me to read Jay McInenerney and I also really want to read the Trainspotting sequel because of the new film that's coming out. I don't know, I might be able to squeeze them in someone. So little time and so many books to read.

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