Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Less Than Zero: A Social Commentary On L.A's Youth?

When you think of the 80s, it's hard not to think of anything but the great music, awesome movies, daring fashion and comical hair cuts. But there was a much darker side to this decade that becomes rather more apparent in the literature of the time than in any other medium. Before starting this week's post, I decided to google Blank Fiction instead and found this definition:

"Blank fiction is a term that describes the writing of a generation of contemporary US writers whose influence started in the 1980 and is still alive at present in the voice of authors like Dennis Cooper, Bret Easton Ellis and Chuck Palahniuk. Through a flat, affectless, atonal prose and non-committed narrative voices, these writers deal with contemporary urban life, violence, sex, drugs and consumerism."

(Source: U.S Literature: Blank Fiction, Contemporary Narrative in English,

I found it quite difficult to find what I wanted, typing in phrases such as '80s youth culture', 'materialism in Less Than Zero' but finally manged to stumble upon this literature annotation from the NYU website.

It most notably comments that the novel is very much a drug orientated piece of literature and a shocking commentary on the youth culture of LA. I would have to agree, although I have read a lot of literature written in the late 70s/early 80s and there seems to be a reoccurring theme of drugs, promiscuous sex, over indulgence, consumerism and a general materialistic way of life and there is always some kind of death or murder involved. The 60s gave us JFK and flower power, the 70s gave us Disco and the fight against Vietnam and the 80s gave us an MTV generation of spoilt kids and a life of lavish excess. Each decade has a 'stamp' on it, and it just so happens that Brett Easton Ellis managed to pinpoint all that was wrong with the over privileged youth of Los Angeles and channel it into the form of Clay, Blair, Julian and the rest of the characters in Less Than Zero. In fact, there have been comments made that characters in the novel and the high school they went to bears a strikingly resemblance to the California Prep High School in Encino, CA where the likes of Michael Jackson attended. Former child star (and former pupil) Danny Bonaduce said after the novel was published: "When the book Less Than Zero came out, all my classmates were pissed. Not because it was an exact portrayal of our school - but because we failed to get any royalties."

This life of excess and emotional detachment is a disturbing portrayal of life in the early 80s, but one has to question if it was set somewhere else, say Des Moines for example, would any of the disturbing events happen? Probably not. LA is itself a disturbing setting, where any of the vice's described in the novel are freely available. There are multiple reasons why it's called Hollyweird.

The commentary also notes that it is not just the younger characters who have an unhinged and detached way of life; Clay's parent's and his Psychiatrist are also so preoccupied with themselves or what is going on in their own lives, that they care little about the person they are either ultimately responsible for, or trying to help. For the most part, their behaviour is more than a little disturbing, but as the article states, there are rare funny moments. I couldn't help but be slightly bemused at the fact that Clay had no clue how old his sisters were or could even tell them apart.
Less Than Zero, despite being sold as fiction, still has a ring of truth to it. The Porche's, the Bel-Air mansions, the meals at Spago...they all happened. All the drugs happened. All the sex happened. And sadly, the rape happened too. Ellis wasn't the only one to cash in on it, but strangely it seems that it was all acceptable because it was the 80s.

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