An early interview with the American author Bret Easton Ellis, who was visiting London to promote his debut novel Less Than Zero. This article appeared in The Beat, April 1986.
MORE THAN ZERO
A 21-year-old writer from Los Angeles has written a book which lifts the lid on the lives of bored, drugged teenagers way out West. Paul Du Noyer met him.
Something is rotten in the state of California. Tanned teenagers, blessed with a surfeit of cents but a deficit of sense, drift blankly inside a sun-kissed existence, taking listless kicks from a an easy supply of drugs, sex and MTV, all sensations sucked ’til they taste as dry as dust. And you thought you had problems. It seems the price of the American Dream is you have to be asleep to experience it.
It’s this new generation of designer-clothed lost souls who populate an acclaimed first novel by 21-year-old Los Angeles writer Bret Easton Ellis. Published last year in the States, and now available here Less Than Zero (Picador, £2.95) is a compelling, finely-observed account of a couple of random weeks in the lives of LA’s gilded youths. Nothing much happens – at least, nothing they’d consider as anything special – just the routine round of promiscuity, overdoses, a murder or two, snuff-film parties and everyday consumer boom binges courtesy of mom and dad’s credit cards.
Who are these people? Ellis, a rather earnest, retiring and soft-spoken young man, attempts an explanation. “They are very specific LA types. Not even LA, but anywhere where there are kids who happen to have a lot of money and free time. These kids have what a lot of kids probably do want: money, nice cars, nice clothes, getting into clubs for free, a lot of material things. A younger offshoot of the Yuppie movement.
“And my main interest was, Well, OK, what happens when you do have all this freedom and there’s no meaning attached to it? What happens when you’ve accumulated all this stuff? What’s the end of the line here? And I think the book acts as a warning to this generation; if you’re not careful, this is where you’re gonna end up. Get your priorities down. The book is more of a warning than an exactly accurate portrait of this generation.”
Like the book’s fictional narrator, a boy named Clay, Ellis is the product of affluent West Coast parents. Like Clay, he left LA at 18 to attend a college at the other end of the country (in Ellis’s case it was Bennington College in Vermont, where he’s currently finishing a course in Literature and Creative Writing – the book itself began life as a college project).
But the similarities stop there. When reviewers guess that Less Than Zero is autobiographical, Ellis reacts two ways: he’s flattered if readers believe the book has the authentic smack of a real-life diary, but he’s not at all content to be confused with Clay. “I don’t think that Clay would ever write a word, he just wouldn’t be capable of it… I think he’s a bit of a wretch!”
Ellis, it’s true, seems some way removed from his amoral, apolitical, apathetic hero; he’s a socially-concerned liberal of the old school, vaguely appalled by the aggressive Reaganite patriotism of his native land, with its attendant culture of fiscal ambition and shallow narcissism (he doesn’t even tan well, or work out on Nautilus machines). And, in person, he’s altogether free of the brattishness you might expect in the author of a best-selling book achieved at the precocious age of 20.
Clay, by contrast, records the passing scene with flat detachment, apparently as numb as the characters he chronicles. It does make Less Than Zero a slick, quick easy read. Ellis describes his own style as “a mixture, influenced by a lot of things: by films, by journalism, the New Journalists like Joan Didion. A certain debt is owed to Hemingway, and then there are videos, and MTV.”
And yet, and here’s where Less Than Zero acquires a deeper dimension, even young Clay begins to twig that he’s living in some sort of void. Coming home to LA after his first term away at college, he’s slowly beset by some obscure sense of the rootless unreality he’s grown up with and hitherto taken for granted. Planting recurrent, almost imperceptible hints in the text, Ellis skilfully suggests Clay’s dawning unease. An “unease”, you might say, that’s gradually rearranging itself to form the word “nausea”.
Beneath it surface of chic anaesthesia, under its hip glibness, Less That Zero is really a rather moral book.
Ellis, indeed, has fears for his contemporaries. The danger is, he feels, “that they become so apathetic and money-oriented, through materialism and decadence, that they end up going into things just for the money and not for any personal satisfaction. Like you finds a lot of kids in the States now who are going to medical school, or out to become lawyers or ad executives when they don’t have any personal desire to do that – it just happens to pay 120 grand a year.
“You make the money, but it’s a hollow victory.”
If there’s one thing Ellis does share with his generation, though, it’s music. “Growing up in this age, it’s unavoidable,” he says. Less Than Zero abounds with casual name checks for INXS, The Go Go’s. Oingo Boingo, The Psychedelic Furs – while the book’s title comes from an early Elvis Costello song. “I’ve always admired him a lot, and I think a lot of writers do, because his word-play is so literate and clever… But my tastes range from The Jesus And Mary Chain to Abba, to The Clash, just a weird variety of stuff.”
Nor does he feel entirely alienated in terms of his art. “I think there is a young group of artists who are blocking themselves off from this rampaging tide of patriotism, this Yuppie nightmare world that America’s becoming, who are commenting on that through their work, whether they’re painters or musicians or writers. I guess I have some hope with them.”
Meanwhile, Ellis is ahead of the pack. Less Than Zero will be made into a film later this year, and he’s already half-way through writing his second book. “It’ll continue my concern with this generation, describing their lives and what’s going on with them. But it will have a campus setting, so there’ll be a few hopefully literate people in it this time… I have an awful feeling that people will expect Less Than Zero Part Two. That won’t be the case, but it makes me a little uneasy.
“Most first novels are treated rather nicely. You’re given a pat on the back, no-one’s really going to knock it.
“They’re waiting to do that with the second book!”