“Less Than Zero”: Sex, Drugs, and Los Angeles in the ’80s

One of the universal experiences of post-teen young adulthood is coming back to your hometown and feeling like nothing’s changed. Whether you’ve been away for a summer, or college, or just moved over two towns, it feels strange and amusing to visit your teen stomping grounds.

Less Than Zero” is written in first-person from the perspective of Clay, a college student who returns to Los Angeles after some time at his bohemian, New England liberal arts college. Clay reunites with cocaine-addicted friends, his dealer, and hazy, listless days of lounging by the pool. It’s a story of rich kids with too much money and not enough to do.

Here’s an excerpt:

It’s two in the morning and hot and we’re at the Edge in the back room and Trent is trying on my sunglasses and I tell him that I want to leave. Trent tells me that we’ll leave soon, a couple of minutes maybe. The music from the dance floor seems too loud and I tense up every time the music stops and another song comes on. I lean back against the brick wall and notice that there are two boys embracing in a darkened corner. Trent senses I’m tense and says, “What do you want me to do? You wanna lude, is that it?” He pulls out a Pez dispenser and pulls Daffy Duck’s head back. I don’t say anything, just keep staring at the Pez dispenser and then he puts it away and cranes his neck. “Is that Muriel?”

“No, that girl’s black.”

“Oh… you’re right.”

Pause.

“It’s not a girl.”

I wonder how Trent can mistake a black teenage boy, not anorexic, for Muriel, but then I see that the black boy is wearing a dress. I look at Trent and tell him again that I have to leave.

“Yeah, we all have to leave,” he says. “You said that already.”

And so I stare at my shoes and Trent finds something to say. “You’re too much.” I keep staring at my shoes, tempted to ask him to let me see the Pez dispenser.

Trent says, “Oh shit, find Blair, let’s go, let’s leave.”

I don’t want to go back into the main room, but I realize you have to go through the main room to get back to the outside. I spot Daniel, who’s talking to this really pretty tan girl who’s wearing a Heaven cut-off T-shirt and a black-and-white miniskirt and I whisper to him that we’re leaving and he gives me this look and says, “Don’t give me any shit.” I finally yank his arm and tell him he’s really drunk and he says no kidding. He kisses the girl on the cheek and follows us toward the door, where Blair’s standing, talking to some guy from U.S.C.

“Are we leaving?” she asks.

“Yeah,” I say, wondering where she’s been.

We walk out into the hot night and Blair asks, “Well, did we have a good time?” and nobody answers and she looks down.

This book is Bret Easton Ellis’ (“American Psycho”) crowning achievement, even though it was his first published book. He wrote it when he was only 21 and in college. Ellis’ trademark style, and that of his characters, has been described as “affectless.” That’s an apt description. This was one of the first books that I ever really loved. Even though I don’t relate to the setting of this book (1980s) personally, the story is a fun microcosm that envelops your imagination the way you can get lost in the world of “The Breakfast Club” or “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” It feels like a simpler world — the pre-Internet, pre-cell phones, pre-celebrity reality TV world.

If you’re looking for a book with no moral, no heartstrings to pull, and no cliches, this is it. This book makes Hemingway look conventional. There’s nothing quite like this book. Ellis simply tells the story of an unsettled young adult who is bored with and unmoved by his surroundings — tired of the same friends, the same restaurants, the same shopping centers. I like this book for the same reasons I loved Sofia Coppola’s “Somewhere.” I get how Clay feels. Do you?

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