Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Less Than Five Stars

Less Than Zero

You can't see the book cover too well - the title is lost in the smog hovering over Los Angeles in the photograph. This is Less Than Zero, being the first novel by Bret Easton Ellis.

Let me state this flatly: I think this novel's literary reputation is overblown. It is not "Catcher In The Rye for the MTV generation" (USA Today). It is a young writer's passionate hate letter to Los Angeles (Ellis was 19, an undergraduate at Bennington, when he wrote this), a meandering fantasy that repeats a single point for 200 pages with some intentionally annoying prose. It reads almost like a marathon run-on sentence, an aqueduct of statements connected by an infinite series of 'ands.'

Moreover, the events in the novel become overwrought and preposterous without developing his theme any further. Clay, the first-person narrator, is home from college for the summer. "Home" is the Los Angeles of the wealthy, privileged, and deeply bored youth of the 1980's, awash in sex without intimacy, heaps of cocaine, families lacking affection, and words that don't communicate.

Ellis makes some skillful use of advertising slogans and wildlife in the canyons around Mulholland to create a darkening sense of foreboding. Clay sticks around even after he's given up trying to connect with his old friends, out of a compulsion to see "the worst of the worst." A similar, more bemused compulsion kept me reading to the end. How dark and preposterous would the scenes become, simply to reiterate the point that the generation of whom he is writing lacks a moral compass or empathy? Raped children and dead bodies are piled at the reader's feet, and conversations that scream self-parody buzz in the ears, even as we recall that Michiko Kakutani praised this novel's "documentary reality." Ha.

At the end, Clay is asked by a woman who wants to love him what he cares about and he can't name a thing. By this time, it isn't news, and there's not much for us to care about, either


Pam said...

To be perfectly honest, I've never been that impressed by Ellis' books.

I've tried to read several of them (have at least one) and got bored. Never finished.

And I definitely agree that it's no"Catcher In The Rye for the MTV generation"!!!

Pam said...

American Psycho. Couldn't remember which book I owned.