Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Less Than Zero: The (Not So) Ugly Truth About the 80's Facade of Flawlessness

Taken from PopMatters - a website which offers cultural criticism of music, television, films, books, multimedia and theatre - the article Re-reading Bret Easton Ellis's 'Less Than Zero' As An Adult by Rob Horning reflects on how reading Bret Easton Ellis's Less Than Zero as a teenager was a mind-blowing experience when it was released. Horning focuses on "youth boredom", a significant problem which confronted society in the Reagan years, and explains how Easton Ellis's replacing of lyrical prose with a "brutal stream of consciousness" played to the aesthetic motivations of teens during the 1980s. With the story infiltrated with pop culture references and revolving around the lives of apathetic teens doing lots of drugs and having indiscriminate sex, the novel was a winning formula for youth of the era and has therefore become an important pop culture artifact worthy of discussion.

Setting an appropriate backdrop of extremity, Easton Ellis's vision depicts many thrills for teens with its absence of parental intervention. Horning believes the novel to have "junk appeal", lacking in credibility for adults and any attachment to the characters, neither tracing envy or pity for them. College freshman and narrator of the story Clay is thrown into increasingly shocking scenes, from gay prostitution and heroin shooting to snuff-film viewings and the rape of a young girl, but such scenes are generally unconvincing in their melodramatic nature, reading like "exploitation-fiction cliches" rather than a serious piece of fiction. Even though these horrors take place, the main drama structuring the novel derives from surprisingly mundane conflicts, most notably Clay's mixed feelings about losing touch from his best friend and breaking up with his high school girlfriend. Perhaps not as surprisingly however, this carries more emotional significance for Easton Ellis's target audience and homes in on the self-reflection of youth rather than empathy.

Writing the novel as a young adult himself, Easton Ellis's writing is described as "fairly uneven" despite its succession of "conveying a paradoxical mood of angsty apathy", though considering his age this is understandable. The sensation of rushed writing and desire to convey youth decadence only adds to Less Than Zero's appeal of authenticity. After reading Easton Ellis's American Psycho a few years ago, Less Than Zero in fact felt very tame to me though it was of course his first effort at depicting 80s youth. Elements of the book such as incongruous juxtapositions of Clay's tone foretold Patrick Bateman's shifts from enthusiastic monologues about Phil Collins's music career to gory murder scenes in American Psycho. There is a sensation that Easton Ellis intended both Bateman and Clay to be similar in their lack of control and contemptible personalities, participating in horrific scenarios with no moral stability to be traced. Clay is however placed before us in a heavily toned down manner, spewing long passages about his feelings which can only be understood as Easton Ellis's attempt for us to empathise with him. This is where I believe Less Than Zero's downfall is; Clay should've been inhuman like Bateman with no redeemable features, simply registering "Disappear Here" billboards with no further thought. Clay could've been an iconic, satirical embodiment of the monstrous rich kids of the 80s much like Patrick Bateman is to the Yuppies. But as Horning states, "Ellis explicates too much, and much too implausibly"; perhaps Clay was a Bateman in the making, and if his words were colder to the touch he certainly would've made more of an impact today.

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