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What was the deal with… Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis?

December 15, 2020

Out of the three most famous authors in the literary Brat Pack of the 1980s, Less Than Zero author Bret Easton Ellis seemed to me to be the strongest writer. He didn’t use an obvious gimmick like Tama Janowicz (starting off a book with a paragraph about dicks) or Jay McIerney (writing in the 2nd person present tense). He also focused on youthful Los Angelos debauchery instead of youthful New York debauchery.

I was a college student when Less Than Zero came out, and I had no interest in reading it because I was already a college student and wasn’t interested in the literary debauchery of other college students, especially students from elite colleges. I went to a state school and for the most part had to pay my way. I didn’t want to read about privileged students.

Now that I’m in my 50s, I’m really not interested in college debauchery, unless it’s funny.

Anyway, at the time, I wondered how young authors like those in the Literary Brat Pack managed to get published. Who in the literary world would have wanted to read their novels?

Ellis had an advantage over other writers my age because his writing instructor was famous writer Joe McGinnis who probably helped Ellis get a book deal. My writing instructor in college was a guy who once brought in a somewhat known literary author of the 1980s to speak, but I don’t think the author really knew my writing instructor.

Don’t get me wrong. If Joe McGinnis had been my writing instructor, I still never would have gotten a book deal, so I’m not complaining; I’m just pointing it out.

In this early scene from Less Than Zero, the narrator Clay has returned to Los Angelos on Christmas break from his first semester in college and is going to a high school friend’s Christmas party:

*****

There are two Christmas trees, one in the living room and one in the den and both have twinkling dark-red lights coloring them. There are people at the party from high school, most of whom I haven’t seen since graduation and they all stand next to the two huge trees. Trent, a male model I know, is there.

“Hey, Clay,” Trent says, a red-and-green-plaid scarf wrapped around his neck.

“Trent,” I say.

“How are you, babes?”

“Great. Trent, this is Daniel. Daniel, this is Trent.”

Trent offers his hand and Daniel smiles and adjusts his sunglasses and lightly shakes it.

“Hey, Daniel,” Trent says. “Where do you go to school?”

“With Clay,” Daniel says. “Where do you go?”

“UCLA or as the Orientals call it, UCRA.” Trent imitates an old Japanese man, eyes slit, front teeth stuck out in parody, and then laughs drunkenly.

“I go to the University of Spoiled Children,” Blair says, still grinning, running her fingers through her long blond hair.

“Where?” asks Daniel.

“USC,” she says.

“Oh yeah,” he says. “That’s right.”

Blair and Trent laugh and she grabs his arm to balance herself for a moment. “Or Jew SC,” she says, almost gasping.

“Or Jew CLA,” Trent says, still laughing.

*****

From the parts I’ve read, I don’t see anything special about Less Than Zero.

I think it’s interesting that out of all the characters, only the narrator doesn’t participate in the bigoted comments. Maybe Clay is a decent guy. Maybe the narrator needs to be portrayed as sympathetic to the reader before engaging later in the debauchery that’s sure to take place. Maybe the author was afraid to let Clay participate in the conversation because he didn’t want readers thinking the author himself was the narrator and a bigot. What a wuss!

As a side note, I don’t know what they were teaching in elite writing classes back in the 1980s, but I noticed three missing commas and at least one misplaced modifier in that excerpt. I would point them out, but then I might be accused of being a Grammar Nazi. I don’t think literary authors from elite universities like being corrected by unpublished bloggers from state schools.

*****

But enough about me! What do you think? Was there anything special about Less Than Zero that made it worthy of literary attention?

3 Comments
  1. lanie belluz permalink

    I hear you on that – and, what about catcher in the rye – never understood why that book was a big deal.

    • I think Catcher in the Rye was the first book with a whiney teen (kind of) protagonist. Plus, Holden Caulfield said “hell” and “damn” a lot. That might be why the book’s been pushed so much.

      I prefer Tom Sawyer. He was dealt a bad hand, but he never whined about it.

  2. That sounds like the world of the 80s, before everything was offensive, and yet it doesn’t seem like good writing at all. We may censor ourselves now, but we were free to say catty things then. We talked like that all the time among friends. Fascination with the elite cultures is no different than rappers trying so hard to validate themselves with gold chains and grillz and dem hoes and Hennessy, no? The difference is those characters grew up with it, so they’re not trying so hard to seem important. Of course, I never read it because I could see the film with the driving frantic beat of the Bangles Hazy Shade of Winter and RD Jr making poor sexual and drug-related choices. Doesn’t Bret Easton Ellis sound like the PERFECT name from The Preppy Handbook? It has more street cred than, say, Javier Jakowski.

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