Though there are many pleasures to be gained by living in a world of Beethoven and Blossom Dearie, Thomas Hardy and Eudora Welty, the risk does arise of falling just a teeny bit out of touch. Thus it is that I must confess, with no small measure of embarrassment, to having been blissfully unaware of the existence of a book called "Less Than Zero," which -- so a press release informs me -- "sent shock waves through the literary world upon its publication in hardcover by Simon & Schuster last summer." I have now read the book, and have this to report: It is to open the eyes.
"Less Than Zero," a paperback edition of which has just appeared in Penguin's excellent "Contemporary American Fiction" series, is a novel by a young man named Bret Easton Ellis. No doubt its success derives in some measure from the sheer novelty of it all: Ellis wrote it while an undergraduate at Bennington College, from which he graduated this spring. The phenomenon calls to mind the words of Dr. Johnson, writing in a less enlightened age: "A woman's preaching is like a dog's walking on his hinder legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all."
"Less Than Zero" is not especially well done, either; as a work of fiction it has numerous flaws, several of which shall be discussed presently. But it cannot be dismissed as a mere fluke, a freak to which readers have been attracted solely because its author is barely out of his teens. "Less Than Zero" is a tough, unpleasant book that reeks with the unmistakable odor of authenticity as it describes the self-indulgent, wasteful lives of the overprivileged children of Los Angeles. As fiction it leaves much to be desired; but as journalism -- as a slice of contemporary American life -- it commands a strong hold on our attention.
The book is about four weeks in the life of a young man named Clay, who comes home to Los Angeles for Christmas vacation from his college in New Hampshire. What does Clay do on his Christmas vacation? Well, he passes the time, as most teen-agers do, but he passes it in ways that will stupefy all but the most permissive parents. There is a great deal of sex, both hetero and homo, all of it devoid of love or passion. There is a great deal of hanging around, in expensive restaurants and glittery malls and ostentatious houses, while rock music blasts from the stereo or MTV. There is a certain amount of interaction, most of it perfunctory and disagreeable, with parents (separated, of course) and siblings.
But most of all there is the consumption of non-nutritive substances. Gin and tonics are mentioned from time to time, and white wine, and cigarettes are smoked off and on, but the substances of choice for Clay and his friends and their parents are drugs. These include marijuana and the obligatory lines of cocaine, but they are only the appetizers. Among the others mentioned by Ellis in the course of this tour de horizon are: Valium, Nembutal, lithium, Quaaludes, acid, Desoxyn, heroin, methadone, Librium, Decadron, Celestone and Percodan.
The consumption of these substances is the principal activity of Clay's vacation: smoking, drinking, snorting, sniffing, shooting -- whatever it takes to get the goodies into the veins, Clay and his friends do it. But they do so with no particular joy, no sense of more than fleeting pleasure; the emotions chiefly on display are greed and desperation. These children -- for children, the veneer of worldliness to the contrary notwithstanding, is precisely what they are -- take pleasure so utterly for granted that they no longer have any comprehension of what real pleasure is. The drugs, the sex, the money, the upper-upscale brand names, the chic restaurants, the flashy clothes -- all of it has come to them so easily, so effortlessly, that none of it means a thing. They have nothing to look forward to except more of the same, which is to say they have nothing to look forward to at all.
So they look backward. Like Holden Caulfield in "The Catcher in the Rye," Clay recalls his lost childhood wistfully, longingly. He remembers his grandmother, now dead, "staying at the Bel Air Hotel and giving me pink and green mints, and at La Scala, late at night, sipping red wine, and humming 'On the Sunny Side of the Street' to herself." He remembers his friend Julian, now a homosexual prostitute, "in fifth grade, kicking a soccer ball across a green field." He remembers "the mornings when I would be the first one up and I would watch the steam rise off the heated pool on the cold desert at dawn."
No doubt this helps explain the novel's popularity among young readers: Adolescent nostalgia is a central ingredient of virtually all successful books about teen-agers, since the beginning of the loss of innocence is among the most disturbing events of the teen-age period. But the sharp difference between "Less Than Zero" and "The Catcher in the Rye" is that Holden Caulfield, though a privileged preppy, undergoes experiences that touch universal chords, while Clay is part of a world utterly foreign to most young people.
It is true, as we have been most unhappily reminded by the case of Leonard Bias, that drugs are an everyday part of campus life, but the high-voltage existence that these hyperaffluent children lead is beyond the experience, indeed the imaginations, of most American youths. This may also help explain the book's popularity: It permits vicarious participation in a world its readers will never enter, just as the novels of Harold Robbins and Judith Krantz do for certain older readers. Most young people, even those who take the occasional joint or worse, are sensible enough to recognize the life depicted in "Less Than Zero" as terminally self-destructive; but reading about that life is harmless enough, and fun.
It would be more fun were the novel more artfully constructed. Ellis is at an impressionable age, and the impressions show: a lot of Hemingway, a lot of Joan Didion, a bit of Ann Beattie. His prose is terse, short of breath, loaded with connectives that don't really connect: "I bring Daniel to Blair's party that night and Daniel is wearing sunglasses and a black wool jacket and black jeans." None of the characters except Clay ever acquires any personality or character (and Clay doesn't acquire much), so it is impossible to tell them apart and difficult to care about them; when the long search for Julian ends in the discovery of his prostitution the news means nothing, because Julian never meant anything.
Whether Bret Easton Ellis himself is anything more than what the baseball scouts call a phenom remains to be seen; his second novel, upon which he is said to be working, should help tell the tale -- especially if he writes it without the assistance of his mentor, the estimable Joe McGinnis. But "Less Than Zero" is something to be reckoned with. Its prose and its anomie may be studied, but its depiction of lives that are worth less than nothing has the clear ring of truth -- and truth matters more than artlessness.