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Book Report: Less than Zero by B.E. Ellis

This is a book report I wrote in college in November, 2007, so it might be a bit outdated but still. There might be some spoilers in terms events and endings, but shouldn’t be any major or story-changing revelations. There is also a film with the same name, which is based on the novel.


Book Report: Less than Zero

    A new generation is rising; youngsters, teenagers, boys and girls, just thought of as adults, have and will develop a new way of living. In the streets of L.A the children are high on coke, affected by alcohol, and in a lifestyle only caring about sex and parties. They have the money, they have the families, but how many of them have the courage to let go of consciousness?

     Less than Zero is written by Bret Easton Ellis, who was born in March, 1964. He was brought up in Sherman Oaks, Los Angeles, but now lives in New York City. His father, Robert Martin Ellis, and his mother, Dale Ellis, divorced in 1982. While he studied a music-based course at Bennington College, he was active in some minor bands, such as The Parents. His debut novel, Less than Zero, was published in 1985, when he was still studying, and it sold more than 50,000 copies the first year. It was not published in Great Britain until a year later. In 1987 he moved to New York to publish his second novel: The Rules of Attraction.

Many people believed that he was heterosexual but when he, in The New York Times in August, 2005, talked about his relationship with his best friend, Michael Wade Kaplan, who also was his lover, the truth about his sexual orientation was revealed. Michael Wade Kaplan sadly died in 2004 at the age of 30 and had at the time been Ellis’ lover for six years.

Ellis is the author of a collection of novels and stories, which have been translated into twenty-seven different languages.

In Less than Zero, Clay is the main character in the story. He is also the person you follow throughout the book. His feelings and emotions are the most reflected ones but Ellis is also very good at reflecting other people’s feelings through dialogs and thoughts, without affecting the main character’s view.

Clay graduated from school together with his two friends: Julian and Blair, but thereafter he left for Camden College in New Hampshire while his friends stayed in Los Angeles. The story begins when he comes back to visit at the Christmas holiday and things have developed to a problematic situation at home. Julian and Blair are both only concerned about parties, alcohol, and drugs. Although even Clay is using drugs and goes to parties, the difference is that he slowly realise during his stay that what they are doing is going to be either their death or the path to a very bad future.

Shortly after Clay left Los Angeles, Blair, who was his girlfriend at the time, went to bed with Julian and this is still on Clay’s mind when he visits, even though they have talked about it. He is very restrained and short towards Blair even though he wants to forget about it and just have her back. Blair wants Clay to forget about it as well, since she feels it was a mistake and she is still in love with Clay.

Throughout the book, Clay looks for Julian but cannot find him. People are just smiling, saying that Julian is trodden, believing everyone has heard about it and then starts to talk about something else. Once Clay meets him, Julian asks for money. Clay asks what for, but cannot get a reasonable answer from him. Clay suspects that Julian is not telling him the truth, which unfortunately is the case.

The longer Clay stays, the more about the situation he finds out. Julian is in deep trouble; he is addicted to drugs, indebted over his head, and his health is very poor. The guy he owes money is called Rip, who is also Clay’s drug dealer. He starts using Julian for business as a replacement for payment and therefore takes him to Finn. Finn, who is dealing with prostitution and shortly starts handling Julian’s appointments, makes sure Julian is not arguing or trying to escape, and moreover making sure Julian gets there; this often by injecting him with heroine.

“Spin’s still talking and when I try to change the subject and ask where Julian might be, Spin tells me that he once got 
 ripped off on what was otherwise real good blow from Julian. Rip tells me that Julian has too many hang-ups.
 ‘For one, he is constantly strung out.’
 Spin looks at me and nods. ‘Strung out.’
 ‘I mean he sells great coke and smack, but he shouldn’t sell it to junior high kids. That’s real low.’
 ‘Yeah,’ I say, taking this in. ‘Low.’
 ‘Some people say that that thirteen-year-old kid who O.D.’d at Beverly bought the smack from Julian.’
 I turn to Rip after a while. ‘What have you been doing?’
 ‘Not too much. Took some animal tranquilizers last night with Warren and went to see The Grimsoles,’ he says. ‘They 
 were cool. Throwing rats out into the audience. Warren took one out to the car.’ Rip looks down, giggles. ‘And killed it. 
 Big rat too. Took him twenty, thirty minutes to kill the fucker.’
 ‘I just got back from Vegas,’ Spin says. ‘Derf and I drove down. Just hung out at my father’s hotel by the pool in our 
 jocks. It was cool… I guess.’
 ‘What have you been doing, dude?’ Rip asks.
 ‘Oh , not too much,’ I say.
 ‘Yeah, there’s not a whole lot to do anymore,’ he says.
 Spin agrees, nods.” Page 115

Clay is blond haired. He is neither short nor tall but yet charming without an intense attractiveness. He has two sisters, both younger. His parents are divorced and have a very bad relationship with each other; though the only reason they are trying is for the sake of their children. His father has found a new girlfriend, which his mother has not really accepted.

Clay does not really develop throughout the book. The book more or less starts where he has come to his final step towards adulthood and in the book he makes his decisions, which will distinguish his future path. His flashback memories described in the book do give him a deeper personality and another self that you otherwise do not get the chance to get to know. These flashbacks also give the story more developed and real characters. The memories themselves are not anything special but a little over the top and even though it gives a good touch to the story it feels very made up and story-like.

Blair is outgoing, beautiful, and attractive with long blond hair. She often dresses after the latest fashion. You do not get to know her as a person that much; Clay is mainly trying to forget things about his past and therefore also about Blair. He is very unsure about his feelings. You get the feeling that Blair is being very caring in the beginning, but later you can tell she mostly acts only when she is involved in any way. She seems very childish and with a touch of a trying-to-be-a-grown-up attitude. She clearly cares about Clay and has feelings for him but the books ends with her feelings being unanswered. She studies at the University of Southern California, but is not really doing very well due to alcohol and drugs.

Julian is also one of the main charters in the story. He is Clay’s friend, he slept with Blair behind Clay’s back when he moved to New Hampshire, and moreover he is a male prostitute and a drug-dealer, something that he not was when Clay still lived in the city. Julian is missing in a big part of the story and you do not really get to know him since he is away much with his so called occupation, hence his hasty actions and conversations.

Another character in the book, Trent, is around a fair amount in the book but does not have a big role in the story. He attends to UCLA, University of California, Los Angeles, and works as a male model. He is from the beginning a friend to Clay but as the story develops he becomes more and more unethical and in the end he rapes a twelve-year-old girl. Clay does not really find the same friend in him as he once did and Trent is being incomprehensible while talking, according to Clay. Trent’s way of acting is quite similar to Rip, who is mainly Clay’s drug dealer in the book. He is a DJ but gets his money from selling drugs. In the end of the book he has tied a naked twelve-year-old girl to his bed and is using her as a sex slave, for him and for others.

The theme in the book is, in general, coming-of-age. Trust, abused trust, teenage problems, and struggles throughout your teenage years: how to accept, handle, and find yourself and your own identity. It is hard to understand Ellis purpose with the book, even if the story is very clear and stated. But that might be his purpose; to state how the reality for many teenagers look like today, which necessarily does not have to be that different from the last generation’s teenage life. He could also want to tell adults and teenagers what is going on, and how it looks like from an objective source.

Some important subjects that the book brings to the surface are male prostitution, due to Julian being abused and sold in a complicated story about family, drugs, and money. Ostracism is dealt with, mostly in a bizarre way like how teenagers, and persons who interact with teenagers, look at youngsters, and how you should look and be to be accepted and loved by the society. He also writes about the modern laziness when it comes to traditions, but how families and the inhabitants still tries to keep the spirit floating, and in Less than Zero Christmas celebration is the tradition mentioned. Drugs, alcohol, and sex are also few of the biggest subjects which are involved in every page and every event, bringing a special feeling to the text only once you have read all of it. Just a part of the text might seem dull, but when you read the whole story you notice the emotions and feelings beneath the dull surface and how much problems the persons in the book are dealing with, or are trying to avoid. The drugs and the alcohol binds it all together as an excuse, and makes all the things seem less harsh and might be the reason why it is not so fierce to read all of it without reflecting the story more.

“He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a small vial.
 ‘A little co-kaine,’ he says in a fake southern drawl.
 I don’t tell him I already have some and he takes out a gold spoon and presses the spoon into the powder and then 
 holds it up to his nose and does this four times. He then pushes the same tape that is on at the part into the car’s 
 stereo and hands me the vial and spoon. I do four hits also and my eyes water and I swallow. It’s different coke than 
 Rip’s and I wonder if he got it from Julian. It’s not as good.” Page 27

 Ellis’ second novel The Rules of Attraction has the same general theme but includes other people and is set in New Hampshire, but even here Clay turns up thinking about Blair. And you can tell it is the same Clay as in Less than Zero though the novels are not linked together. In general Less than zero is written out of Clay’s perspective and the people around him while The Rules of Attraction is more a few, short views in different people’s lives. Therefore it seems as if Ellis’ first novel is deeper than his second one.

Less than zero, is as mentioned, written out of the main character Clay’s point of view but in third person. In general, the book and story follow a chronological order but throughout the book some flashbacks from special occasions in Clay’s life, which give great importance to, are included. The book also follows Clay’s movements, but with some exceptions when the author instead writes about one of Clay’s acquaintances. Clay is usually somewhere nearby. It also happens that Ellis’ writes from no ones angle, only describing an occurrence that later will be mentioned by the characters in the story.

Ellis is very spare in his descriptions, and mostly describes the situations instead of the environment. Very much of the actual story is built up upon thoughts, certain events, and its consequences. Short sentences with simple structure, but sometimes with a lot of difficult main words, is something Ellis use a lot. His sentences are usually exceptionally straight forward as well, although the spoken language used by the youths is plain, much slang at some points, and written with very modern expressions. It is still easy to follow, especially as a youth, since the story is about posh people that know the basics of the English language but simply decides not to use it.

Conclusion-wise this book’s morals are adapted depending on the reader’s personality and where his or her priorities lies, but even so Ellis succeeded with his novel since nobody can read the book without getting at least a few insights of the harsh views and events of reality. Money and debts are big problems and leads to misjudgments and even more problems. Likewise do drugs, alcohol, and peer-pressure in many teenagers’ lives and can cause a trap which the majority of teens cannot get loose from.

Due to not being used to read this sort of books, I thought it was a very well written novel. It is written in a very spare way which brings forth the harsh angles of the topics. The story does not really end as expected and the feeling of dissatisfaction appears. As a result, you might not directly after finishing the book like it but the more you think through the main story, the characters, and events in the book, you realise that this is reality and this happens far more often than you would like to admit, if so just under the surface, and explanations are not needed but nevertheless longed for.


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