Bret Easton Ellis vs. David Foster Wallace; ‘Less Than Zero’ Review (1/19/12)

30 Sep

Late last year, the New York Times published an article by Patricia Cohen that intelligently connected William Faulkner to both David Foster Wallace and Bret Easton Ellis, two recently heralded authors. Even though both are no longer with us, alliances have been made and it would seem that much of the literature community has been split by comments from both of these writers. Yes, it’s unfortunately true: the taboos of celebrity and favoritism still exist in the world of books. For many of us lit nerds, this established feud between DFW and BEE is old news. I’m here to say that both of these writers have their good moments, but the bickering is what kills me. If you look at writing as art, then nobody – not even the artist – has a say in its greatness although the greatness of a work is determined mostly by its resonance. Journalism has long been guilty of rating material, and I’m guilty of it too, yet I try to rate the based on my opinion of it – not in an attempt to strip its potential greatness but to stir up potential debate. As a rule, I graciously welcome intelligent disagreement.

            Anyways, back to the original topic, Ellis stated to the Huffington Post very shortly after Wallace’s suicide that Wallace’s pinnacle work Infinite Jest was “unreadable.” Many agreed that this was a posthumous response to Wallace’s earlier criticism of Ellis as “dependent on a cynic reader… [that if] sadomasochistic, insipid, and emotionally retarded characters should be the stock and trade of good literature, then what’s to stop us all from slapping together stories like Ellis’ American Psycho.” The latter commentary was featured on in blog form. So, as an interpreter and human none-the-less, I’ve formed my own alliance having read works from both authors. While I know many people who are avid fans of Ellis, I can’t see the resonating quality in his work that they do. So, in the situation that I love Wallace’s collection Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, I suppose my alliance can be assumed. However, I offer my review of Ellis’ premier novel as reasoning for my avoidance of him thereafter, and as I’ve mentioned, I graciously welcome disagreement.           


            After just finishing Less Than Zero by Bret Easton, I’m left pondering a bunch of things, one of them being: to what extent am I supposed to take all this to heart? Midst the vast array of literature depicting disenchanted youth, from early Realists like De Quincey to the 20th century’s dislocated Foster Wallace, Pynchon, Selby, and Ellis himself to name just a few, drugs have always seemed to be inherent. Furthermore, a more popular protagonist is the young male left to all the wrong devices in an affluent bourgeois community. Less Than Zero seems to take all of this a step further, although it feels much more like a leap than a step. Every time I turn the page in this book, somebody is doing a line of coke, searching for a lost Quaalude, or passing all of the plot’s duration with a lit joint. Simply put, drug culture is massively overdone in this book. This isn’t to say that a plethora of drugs on the page can’t be done well, simply revisit a master of controversy William S. Burroughs, but Ellis presents drugs (cocaine specifically) in such a flat, necessary sort of manner.

            Another thing Ellis manages to overdo is his own symbolism. [SPOILERS FOLLOWING] Throughout the novel, the protagonist, Clay, consistently refers back to a billboard he saw that said, “Disappear Here.” Not only is it not mentioned, but I have no idea what that billboard would be advertising? A vacation? Not sure, but if it is a vacation, then it adds to the dislocated bourgeois repetition of the novel – to what extent can a middle-to-lower class audience sympathize with a character wearing designer clothes, driving bmws, and still managing to complain? Sure, you can go the Catcher in the Rye route in sympathizing with Ellis’ protagonist, but in my opinion, these similarly uncomfortable “heroes” couldn’t be more different. You’re forced to look at Holden through 1950s culture, as a teen responding to the pressures of a nuclear family and the slow national movement from factory/physical labor to the pressures of the informational age (media, etc). In Less Than Zero, Clay – who seems much more like a puppet than a character – moves through the day-to-day with mostly indifferent responses, what emotion he does show comes toward the end when he’s exposed to the darkest of dark scenarios.

            Those instances were another thing that made me dissatisfied with the novel, as a whole. I followed the dislocation and discomfort in the characters “not getting enough attention from the parents,” “not realizing the state of the world/human consciousness,” I get it. Towards the end, however, when a character -Julian- becomes a sex slave for drugs was when I finally gave the novel some merit. It had “won me,” I suppose, as it was going places that weren’t frequently traveled by any other but Selby [1960s, 1970s: Requiem for a Dream, Last Exit to Brooklyn] since Burroughs [1940s, 1950s]. The problem with the sex slave scenario is that for Ellis, it wasn’t enough to put these characters in forced pederasty, he obviously thought he had to take it further. After the scene, the audience realizes that Julian has been given regular doses of heroin, another character Rip has kidnapped and raped a 12-yr-old, Trent has found a bloated body behind a night club, Blair has had an abortion, and Chris shows Clay a sharp turn drop-off by a major highway where piles of smoldering cars have collected at the bottom. Overkill? I would say so. A better author would’ve gained a greater level of sympathy by managing just one of those plot hooks. By the end of this novel, I cared as much for the characters as I did when it began. They go through many trials, but as they’re presented in a flat manner and not reflected on after their occurrence, the audience is left with little.

2.5 out of 5 – It’s an okay short read if you’re always looking for drug-related fiction like I am, but it’s themes and characters simply don’t resonate. If you’re looking for a better underworld, check out Hubert Selby Jr’s Last Exit to Brooklyn.

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Posted by on September 30, 2013 in Behrend Beacon Articles


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