Watching a new zombie movie recently, I was reminded of Bret Easton Ellis. Put a pair of Wayfarers on any reanimated corpse and they come to resemble one of Ellis’s creations; the blank indifference to life, the remorseless appetite. For over twenty years, Ellis has been hacking away at our world, again and again writing “tan” when he means “damned” and “tried to smile” when he knows one verb cancels the other out. There are no characters in Ellis’s books, there are only bodies. Much the way a zombie looks at the world and callously notes a holocaust, so the rich kids of Less Than Zero stare indifferently at the death of their souls.
A boy named Clay starts the novel with the famous line about how “People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles”. He’s the classic Ellis anti-hero; anaesthetized, young, only conscious of other people in terms of their clothes. Clay’s friends are all one-syllable non-entities: Rip, Trent, Blair, Spin. They’re all so well-off they never mention money. All except his friend Julian; the one who winds up hustling so he can stay out at night. Stay out and keep out. The way Clay stays out. The way the whole of rich, jaded Los Angeles – and Bret Easton Ellis’s every sentence – stays out, wears a look, rejects every sentiment, and epitomises cool.
Reading Ellis is like being poisoned seductively. He’s a hard writer to transfer onto film. To get him right you’d have to cast underwear models and only offer them minimal direction. The key is that – even when characters voice their fears about not feeling anything – we don’t believe them. It’s a mistake to assume anyone can be redeemed. Ellis writes about monsters the way a fellow monster would; knowingly. He’s been to the same parties, worn the same expressions and heard all the hollow recanting. So when he writes about millionaires regretting their debauchery, he knows a lie and how little these people want to change.
As one character says (after doing something terrible), “If you want something, you have the right to take it. If you want to do something, you have the right to do it.” The trouble for characters who want to be good in a Bret Easton Ellis novel is that his world doesn’t seem like a place for good people. In Less Than Zero, Clay’s most honest admission is that: “I want to see the worst”. And Clay is a moralist by Ellis’s standards; he’s actually troubled by some of the things he sees. He doesn’t actually do anything to stop anyone (that would risk being a participant), but he does mourn his void of feeling.
If you directed Less Than Zero right, the best template would be a horror movie. The same nubile young cast, the same lust for blood. There’s “talk of a werewolf” in Less Than Zero, and Ellis’s short story The Secrets of Summer is about vampires. People often overlook the fantastical elements in his fiction, but they offer a good guide as to how his world is supposed to look: like the world of the dead, like all the best cynical advertising; a style that makes you want to buy things and stop thinking, to consume and be consumed. His is a horrible vision, but it’s moreish as a nightmare. When bad things happen in Less Than Zero, they’re written in neon.
In 1987 they made a movie adaptation of the book, as an anti-drugs story. It was the easiest route to take. But the drugs and the drink and the sex and the murder are all symptoms in the novel. What’s wrong with Clay is: he’s a zombie. Even if he didn’t do anything, he’d be a monster. That’s the line all Bret Easton Ellis’s novels take: that the old feeling world has ended, and the best case scenario is that you find you can blend in – you’re shallow enough to survive. There’s no God in Ellis, no fealty, no conscience. In his own way he anticipated the information age (know-all, careless). Sadly, as he must have known, we like to look more than we care to reflect.