Bret Easton Ellis published his first novel Less Than Zero in 1985 when he was only 21 years old. The plot of the book is largely subtextual, as the reader experiences the events of the main character Clay’s Christmas break from college as they devolve from soul-crushing urban nihilism to unspeakable acts of criminal brutality and sadism.
Set in the wealthy and soulless Hollywood Hills of the 1980s, the coping mechanism of choice is cocaine. The Bolivian marching powder is omnipresent in the novel and acts as an important symbol of an entire generation learning to deal with social alienation and ultimately turning to the same substance dependence riddling their absentee parents. Clay returns from his first semester of college to discover that many of his childhood compatriots have either turned to dealing hard drugs or have become slaves to their addiction in other more viscerally horrifying ways.
Clay’s girlfriend/ex-girlfriend (they never bothered to discuss the particulars before he left) lacks any sort of real affect and spends a great deal of her social interactions gossiping about other people in the LA scene and the tragic drama of their lives which is unsettlingly amusing to her. Clay’s parents are divorced alcoholics who chronically neglect their children and take no steps to shield them from the harsh realities of the adult world. Clay’s younger sisters casually watch pornography on TV, drink heavily at Christmas Eve dinner, and Clay’s cocaine use fluctuates from an open secret to completely unnoticeable because his parents pay no attention.
When Bret Easton Ellis sat down to write Less Than Zero he managed to capture the essence of a generational struggle felt by young people across America in the 1980s. What he never expected was the stark and frankly depressing parallels that would allow his work to reverberate in contemporary youth culture 35 years later.
In the year of our lord 2019, we can see the stains of 80s apathy everywhere. Donald Trump, featured prominently in Bret Easton Ellis’ most famous novel ‘American Psycho’ as the main character’s role model, has now seized the highest office in the land. Drama surrounding James Charles dominates the headlines. Millennials/Gen-Z are having less sex than any previous generation, and opioid addiction, depression, and anxiety are at all time high.
In the face of similar cultural alienation and despondency, modern American youth has traded in the booger sugar for an even more tranquilizing drug: social media. It’s always there. Your dealer is never out of the house. It travels with you in your pocket wherever you go. It’s open 24/7 and it can make a house-call to distract you from all that ails you for as much time as your finger dexterity will allow.
Now would be a good time to provide a description of what happens when you take cocaine, for the healthy and inexperienced. The first thing that happens is the shiver down your spine, and a deep exhale. Then comes the elevated heart-rate. The back of your throat, and sometimes your teeth, become numb, and you’re overtaken with the unshakable instinct to act. Go somewhere. Do something preferably loud and raucous and fueled with adrenaline.
Cocaine is equal parts mood booster and distractor. You no longer have the mental cohesion to focus on anything for more than 90 seconds, and your endorphin receptors are flooded with dopamine, so any negative or nagging thought is replaced by the immediate, heightened sense of euphoria and numb satisfaction. Sound familiar?
One of the main themes in Less Than Zero is the loneliness of losing yourself. Throughout the novel, Clay stumbles across seemingly benign phrases which stick in his head and haunt him for the remainder of the narrative.
“People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles.” This is the first thing I hear when I come back to the city. Blair picks me up from LAX and mutters this under her breath as she drives up the onramp. She says, “People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles.” Though that sentence shouldn’t bother me, it stays in my mind for an uncomfortably long time.
I come to a red light, tempted to go through it, then stop once I see a billboard sign that I don’t remember seeing and I look up at it. All it says is ‘Disappear Here’ and even though it’s probably an ad for some resort, it still freaks me out a little and I step on the gas really hard and the car screeches as I leave the light.
– Excerpts from Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis
These seemingly insignificant phrases fuse themselves to Clays consciousness, and embody the feeling of being completely invisible because everybody you’re around — everybody who claims to know you and love you — isn’t really there.
Everyone knows this feeling in 2019. We see the faces of our brothers and sisters illuminated by the white-bluish fluorescence of screens. (Mine’s bigger than yours by the way — with a better camera.) Events aren’t so much actions with real consequences, just fodder for 240 character bee bee’s to be fired into the ether, and nobody’s listening. We have more people on the planet than ever before in the history of time and space, with more ability to contact anybody over any distance in an instant. Yet more of us are feeling alone than ever before.
This is the crux of why I think revisiting the ‘brat pack’ of 1980s writers is important. In the post-truth, post-woke, post-modern era of Trump and Kardashian and the impending climate death of the biosphere, most of us can’t understand why these things don’t seem to be the driving force behind our deflated sense of existential self. These things are troubling, but not especially connected to the sense of aimlessness and deep confusion that we all seem to be keeping at bay by scrolling, retweeting, and snap-a-gramming.
Deep down there are less topical and more profound questions and contradictions that the broader consciousness of young people seems unequipped or perhaps just unwilling to face.
Why are we going into debt for degrees that likely won’t increase our job prospects? Why do I know who Logan Paul is? Why do I get the distinct feeling that if I asked my closest friend if he knew what my deepest fear is, he would not only not know, but be put off by the question? How come none of the certainty and depth promised to us as children can be found now that we’ve entered the world of adulthood? … I don’t know.
Less Than Zero is an analog parallel to our digital anesthesia. Clay makes calls on landlines. He often arrives at meeting places only to be stood up but has to loaf around for an extra hour because there’s no way to know whether they might just be late. These seem, on their face, to be factors which alienate a modern reader from identifying with the narrative, but at its core, the book is about more than characters’ actions.“Less Than Zero” navigates how we deal with a desperation to feel in a vacuum of genuine human connection — the kind that doesn’t happen through screens or when you’re high out of your mind. It’s about how we hide and what we hide from. And in a world where the options of how to distract one’s self are exponentially increasing, we all have to ask ourselves: Do I want to disappear here?