TaB was introduced in 1963 as Coca-Cola’s first diet drink. It used zero-calorie saccharin instead of sugar, an innovation that was intended to inspire people to indulge in carbonated sweetness without worrying about packing on the pounds. Finally, pleasure could be enjoyed without guilt, risk or penalty. Forget water – here was a soda to make life carefree. Drink TaB and you were released from mortal concern and responsibility, the ads suggested. More facetiously, commercials with skinny women sucking down TaB sold consumers the idea that drinking it would make you thin. TaB was less than zero, in this sense.
I remember first seeing TaB in movies in the 80s, when the drink rose to popularity. And it appears in Less Than Zero by the 21-year-old Bret Easton Ellis, with some frequency. Appropriately, within the first several pages, we hear that Muriel, a minor character, has been admitted to hospital with anorexia. TaB’s nothingness seems central to the meaningless luxuries and woes of the 80s youth generation: immunity and ineffectuality are the highest privileges of the young, beautiful and rich. Less Than Zero harnesses that ineffectuality with minimalism, compressing ennui into dread, and then into horror. Thus, it succeeds in making something out of nothing.
The novel’s premise is simple: Clay, an 18-year-old college freshman, returns home to Los Angeles for the winter break. His ex-girlfriend, Blair, picks him up from the airport and drives him home, where he is greeted by no one but a new housekeeper and the ripped poster of Elvis Costello on his bedroom wall. This is not LA at large, but a very specific gated land of multimillion-dollar homes, pool boys, private chefs, Lamborghinis, flawless skin, smog and diamonds, designer clothes, and narcissism so rampant it is considered the status quo. During his few weeks at home, Clay reconnects with old friends, parties, drives around, fools around with a guy and a few girls, remembers things, gets manipulated into loaning money to a friend who has to turn tricks to pay off a debt, the usual rich-kid hijinks.
To say that the youths are badly behaved would be to insinuate that there are well-behaved adults chasing them with rulers. But the parents are absent, if not physically, then certainly psychically, and the attitudes of Clay’s mother and father, who have broken up, are not too far from their children’s – aloof, corrupted and disconnected. Everybody gossips, fucks, drives drunk. These are not the kids in the 90s teen drama Beverly Hills, 90210 trying to manage social lives and please their parents with good grades. This is a higher stratum, one of derangement brought on by wealth earned in a culture where nothing is sacred. Entertainment and its exploitative industry always push consciousness into a void of indifference. Only the alchemical measures of human experience seem to relate: sex and drugs. So it is in Less Than Zero, where everybody’s mom or dad is a film executive or a movie star, and their children are left to fend for themselves, with expensive cars and credit cards at their disposal.
The emotional valence of Clay’s delivery is stark, a voice floating along with the smog and cigarette smoke. As the reader, I align myself with him, but Ellis still gets me to wonder whether Clay is on the inside or the outside of the nothingness. Clay’s is not a pragmatic soul, but has been silenced through the oppression of lovelessness in his upbringing and the culture in which his persona has developed. Teetering between two worlds – New Hampshire, where he is a student, and Los Angeles – he appears to have seen some light. Judgment cannot exist in a vacuum. For most of the novel, Clay harnesses the pacific patience of someone with nowhere better to be, no future, and no hope. But the velocity of his story – running at high speed with silent anxiety, zooming down the freeway doing 100mph on downers listening to KNAC-FM – gives the terse hollowness of the narration its driving force. How Ellis managed to give Clay’s voice the tension and weirdness that make this book unstoppable is beyond me as a writer. It is the calm one feels in the seconds before a car crash, just as you see the truck approaching and it’s too late to switch lanes. The impeccable timing, especially in scenes of dialogue, captures the banalities of Clay’s life in a way that both disgusts me and breaks my heart.
It is perhaps against the rules of the book, canned and sappy, to point out the utter lack of love in it, such is the cage around its heart. Italicised sections throughout the novel narrate more emotional times in Palm Springs before Clay’s grandmother dies, and even then, the world is flat, devoid of tenderness. The past is smoke in the desert. It might haunt you, but it has no bearing on the purposelessness of your current existence. Clay has two sisters, but they, too, are part of the system of drudgery and vanity. His dad takes Clay to dinners and treats him more like an underling or a frivolous employee than a beloved son. His mother is almost invisible in her blondness. She and Clay seem to have an understanding that superficial communication avoids the painful territories of alienation and misery. As it renders the progeny of cold Hollywood elites as hot-bodied consumers and posers in a pantomime version of their greedy, aloof parents – snorting coke, doing lunch, getting drinks at the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills hotel – Less Than Zero satirises a world that feels emblematic of the ills of 1985, but also intensely personal. The lens of the narrator feels close to the author’s.
Perhaps that is my projection as a reader, one I make to explain how a voice so unaffected in its delivery could make my heart crash: I so badly want this world to be tethered to something real, to be the scratches on the prison walls, and for those marks to be rich with meaning. Expert satire functions this way; despite the straight read, we still identify and comprehend. It is not just a criticism of the world, but a full experience of it. With a little digging, I learn that Ellis’s parents split in 1982. One must wonder how autobiographical the novel really is. Not that it would change its impact, but the intimate knowledge of such a niche sphere of life raises the question.
I can only imagine the alienation this literary prodigy felt in a world that commodified art as entertainment designed to make us slaves of fashion and attitudes, to work hard to buy the right cars, date the right people, imbibe non-nutritive soft drinks, zone out in front of the TV. Only a bright young person can look at the contemporary world and see where it’s going, unhinged from the static of the past. One political reading is to say the book functions as a condemnation of the evils of media. Los Angeles is a factory of illusion. It manufactures illusions, and creates an illusion around that making. Hollywood, which looks like shimmering magic from afar, is a complex system of egomaniacal executives responsible for feeding the masses narrative media, those box office hits we celebrate as the expressions of our cultural identity. Having grown up in Sherman Oaks, in the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles, Ellis would perhaps have experienced this culture first-hand.
Less Than Zero was published in 1985, the same year TWA Flight 847 was hijacked by Hezbollah, the US version of the Nintendo Entertainment System came out and the Unabomber killed his first victim. Life-insurance companies began screening for HIV. The CD-Rom was introduced. Ronald Reagan, a former actor deeply entrenched in corrupt Hollywood politics, was US president. The economic collapse of the middle class was romanticised in Hollywood for great profit, selling the trappings of suffering back to the people living the real deal with no exit strategy but their own eyes and ears fixed to their screens and radios. And to think, these were more innocent times! Decades later, with Trump in office, it seems that when there is an entertainer in the White House, our culture descends into indecency – we lose track of what we mean by “humanity”.
The concept comes up only in the context of pain and death. Meanwhile, the division between art and entertainment becomes wonderfully clear. Entertainment is fodder for the masses, something to keep them busy and shopping while the world dies. Hollywood capitalises on misery by canning culture and feeding it to us spoonful by spoonful. Art, by contrast, is critical of the system of brainwashing, dehumanising, consumerism and greed. The difference between sincerity and satire is in the eye of the beholder. Someone with critical thinking can detect satire. Someone who is used to swallowing blindly whatever is served will never understand subtlety. I think this is why Less Than Zero was so controversial. The end of the book is the product of so much indifference. There is a dead kid in an alley who Clay’s friends make into a spectacle, a 12-year-old sex slave drugged and tied to a bed. Clay, initially running on the fumes of his habituated high-school patterns, begins to see his way out of the fog by the end of the novel. It’s the shock of the dead kid or the 12-year-old, or it’s his self-disgust as a participant in passivity. The ambiguity is precise.
Subtlety is necessary to satire, but is not prized in the US. We value outgoingness, aplomb, direct attacks and celebrations. We favour straight arrows over innuendo. This is a weakness. Satire is the most difficult mode in literature because it functions with a delicate, invisible layer of self-awareness – which readers often lack. An insensitive reader of Less Than Zero might think, “Well, that was disturbing,” and point to the moments of vivid exploitation as “inappropriate” and “wrong”. Such a reading does not appreciate the incredible timing, restraint, and synchronicity in the writing, nor the fact that these “inappropriate” scenes are actually a direct reflection of reality. We often refuse to acknowledge the ugliness in ourselves and in our world, out of shame or vanity.
The generative experience of reading this book is that of staring at a portrait of the human world – LA is its costume – for long enough to see through the facade. The underbelly is always dark, but that darkness isn’t what’s so interesting. It’s what the darkness is obscuring – a blank place unmarred by romanticism and sentimentalism, the hard truth. It is invisible because it is true. One must detach from the mundane activities of life to see this blankness, this freedom. This is the beauty of Less Than Zero. The quiet transparency of existential terror is precisely what blew my mind. I am not horrified by a 12-year-old girl drugged and tied to a bed while getting gang-raped. I’m horrified by the silence around it. If this book is an existential satire, its premise is that the world is hell disguised as paradise.
• Less Than Zero is published by Picador Classics (£8.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.
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