Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis
Published by: Knopf Doubleday
Published in: 1985
Page Count: 208
My Reading Format: Audiobook purchased from Audible.com using a credit
Audiobook Published by: Brilliance Audible Modern Vanguard
Narrator: Christian Rummel
Audiobook Length: 5 hours and 23 minutes
Available Formats: Hardcover, paperback, eBook and Audiobook
Note: This review contains spoilers and emotionally charged commentary.
Back in December, I had a couple of Audible credits and I was at a loss for how to use them (it felt that way at the time, but I can’t explain how I could ever really felt that way). I decided to explore new-to-me narrators. I found Christian Rummel. He sounded good, so I explored his catalog. I found Less Than Zero and I thought I found the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Bret Easton Ellis is an author I’ve always wanted to read and a book upon which an iconic movie from my teen years was based. Best yet, it was less than 5 and a half hours long. Less Than Zero certainly featured its fair share of pot among other drugs, but that was as close as it got to my expectations.
I normally discuss the narrator near the end of the review. For this audiobook, I will start with Christian Rummel’s performance because it was the one bright spot in the whole experience for me. I thought his style worked very well with the story. Right from the beginning his reading gave the sense of how removed Clay was from his life. At the same time, he gave some life to characters, however superficial they may have been. There were only two times I cracked a smile while reading this book – when MTV and playing videos were mentioned in the same sentence and when Christian Rummel narrated an exchange between Clay and another character smoking pot. He did a wonderful job reading a difficult book. I’ll be keeping my eyes open for future Christian Rummel reads.
Less Than Zero tells the story of Clay, a college freshman returning to Las Angeles from his first semester away in New Hampshire. His parents are separated and no one is especially close. This was well depicted by the scene of Clay, his sisters and his mother heading to meet his father for a Christmas dinner. His sisters ride his case about locking his doors until he says that he locks his bedroom door. In exasperation, he explains it’s because they stole his cocaine the last time he didn’t lock his door. Their mother didn’t say a word.
Up until the last section, this novel followed Clay from one awful party full of equally privileged drugged out teens to another. None of them have anything of substance to talk about and are equally uncaring about anything unless it annoys them. Clay had a sexual relationship with Blair, but then again he has a sexual encounters with Griffin and a couple other young men. As with the casual drug use, there is nothing but casual sex. I got the idea that something mysterious was going on with his long time friend Julian, but it never seemed to go anywhere. Before and after Clay lent him a substantial amount of money couldn’t find him when he needed him.
Leading up until the end, I was glad I didn’t grow up with anything my heart desired by friends and family who cared about me. I was glad I grew up in the Midwest. I was glad I took Nancy Reagan’s advice. With approximately an hour and 15 minutes remaining, I was more than ready for Clay to go back to New Hampshire and put this painful Christmas vacation behind me (Yes, me. I never really thought Clay deserved much better than his life – for heaven’s sake he cared more about a dying coyote than he did a mother stranded along the side of the road with her kids in the middle of the night). Then it got ugly.
As per my tweet to author Kristina Riggle (@krisriggle), I sum up the novel thusly: “privileged collegiates drugging their way through Christmas break, then WTH, then WTF, then OMG this is messed up!” I’ve covered the privileged druggy collegiates on Christmas break. Here we go with the rest (note that emotional cursing as well as mental images you may not want are forthcoming):
What the Hell?
Things that happen at the parties and places Clay hangs out at get increasingly awkward. The novel’s turn for me happens when Clay is at a house watching what may or not be a snuff film. To Clay’s credit, he leaves the room after the raping of a bound young woman and man, but before they were actually murdered. He can’t escape the screams from the film as he does a line of cocaine outside. Afterwards, his friends were enamored by the whole thing: how much it cost and whether it was real. There wasn’t a hint of concern about the people who would have been the victims of the film were it were a snuff film after all. They were just excited about how gruesome the castration was. His friend Trent, a male model, walked up to him with a hard on and couldn’t figure out why Clay left the movie. Isn’t degradation wonderful?
What the Fuck??
Shortly thereafter, Clay finds Julian, who drags him to yet another house in order to get his money back. Clay there discovers the kind of trouble Julian has gotten himself into. In order to get out from under a huge debt to a drug dealer, Julian turned to Finn. To pay Finn back, he had to become a male prostitute. Clay is uncomfortable, but when Finn “requests” that he follow Julian to his next job because the man likes to have another beautiful young man watch, he goes along fairly readily. There is a part of him that feels somewhat responsible for Julian’s safety (Julian tried to get Finn to let him out of his obligation because he was so unhappy and tired, but Finn just shot him up with heroine instead), but mainly he wants to get his money back and was curious to see just how bad it could get. With friends like Clay… In the end, Clay spends five hours watching a friend he’s known since 5th grade being degraded with not a word or thought as to how he could help Julian escape his personal hell.
Oh, My God!
Just when I thought I had discovered the full extend of Clay’s hedonistic self-absorbed world (for the record, I don’t feel that anyone really got much joy out of their hedonism, but who’s to say, right?), it got much, much worse. Rip, Clay’s drug dealer, invites Clay back to his apartment for something especially amazing. What could possibly be so amazing? Well, somehow rip got a 12 year old girl into his apartment, tied her naked to his bed to be used as a sex slave. He kept her drugged, which may have been a small mercy for her, but Clay could see the evidence of how badly she’d been used with his own eyes before Rip invites those there to have their own turn. Despite friends like Trent trying to talk him in to staying, Clay leaves the room. The conversation that followed made me feel like vomiting almost as much as the mental image of what was happening in that room. Rip felt he was entitled to this girl because he should have everything he wants. Clay pointed out that Rip had everything already and questioned him about what more he possibly could want. Rip said he didn’t have anything to lose.
There was a glimmer of hope in my heart that Clay would do the right thing and take action. I begged him to call the police and safe this girl from further abuse. There had to be some redemption to this novel. Instead, he never seemed to give the girl another thought after he left Rip’s place. What was she worth, anyway? At that point, I had to turn the audiobook off to calm down. I couldn’t believe this complete lack of humanity Bret Easton Ellis has created. If I listened further, I wasn’t sure I wouldn’t vomit.
When I got around to finishing the novel, the blame for all the twisted shit that happened was lousy parents. I wanted to throw something. Certainly there were no responsible parents to be found in this fucked up landscape, but I bet there are sociopath’s who would find the people who inhabited Less Than Zero morally bankrupt. I have no idea how this novel would have come across in my teens or 20s, but as an adult mother of two young girls, I was horrified by the ending. Parents can scar a person. I understand that. At some point, every person has to take responsibility for their own soul. That the characters in this book lost theirs isn’t a sin that can completely be laid at the feet of their parents. There was not an ounce of redemption anywhere. Clay’s commentary at the end fell flat. It is cop out, utter bullshit.
Certainly there is something to be said for the reaction it generated within me. Never before have I felt so dirty and ashamed for having born witness to what I have read a book. As if my tweeting wasn’t enough, I immediately began writing this post the minute I got home. Likewise I had to discuss it with my husband the moment he walked in the door. He told me that his friends were reading this book in college. They didn’t have anything good to say about it. That it was vapid kept him from reading it himself. After he listened to my rage, he said something brilliant. He said, “And Salman Rushdie was the one under a death threat?” Exactly!
I understand that Bret Easton Ellis was making a cultural statement about the Reagan era with Less Than Zero. When you go bold with your delivery, your message may very be obscured. Perhaps once I have come to grips with the fact that I can never unread this novel I will care enough to give it further thought. I wouldn’t suggest holding your breath waiting on that anymore than I would suggest you read Less Than Zero.