NEW YORK — It is noon, brilliantly sunny outside, and inside a darkened Hard Rock Cafe here, Bret Easton Ellis is downing his third gin-and-grapefruit. This fact alone is fairly unremarkable, although at 20, Bret Easton Ellis is slightly under age.
He is also a Los Angeles native, a junior at Bennington College and the author of a novel that Simon & Schuster has seen fit to laud as "startling," "electrifying" and, to wit, "this generation's 'Catcher in the Rye.' "
It is heady praise for someone whose high school English chairman, marveling that "the kid obviously had enormous talent," remarked also that "I couldn't tell then whether this was someone who would turn out to be a genius or someone who would overdose on cocaine."
The novel is also a scathing indictment of a life style with distinct parallels to Ellis' own. Like Clay, his primary character, Ellis has parents who are separated: Mom is a housewife in Sherman Oaks; and Dad, a real estate analyst, lives in chic MountainGate in Bel-Air. Ellis and Clay each have two sisters, "but mine are a lot older." Both Clay and Ellis bolt Lotusland to study in the East.
Still, Ellis insists the book is not some kind of New Age first-person journalism. His parents have read it, "and they're very supportive. They understand it is not Bret Ellis' autobiography." In any case, Ellis said, "a lot of people want to believe it, but I hope people don't take it as four weeks in my life."
"Less Than Zero" takes its title from an old Elvis Costello song. It is a novel of fast flashes, scenes that shift and drift like Southern California freeway traffic, like frames from MTV. It is bleak, morally barren, ethically bereft and tinged with implicit violence.
Ellis' characters suffer from anorexia, their fathers have face lifts and their mothers shop and take younger lovers. Because they are young, affluent and live in Southern California, they see psychiatrists, drive wonderful cars, take drugs or all three. Mostly they take drugs, many drugs, frequent drugs. They are sexually active, if equally ambivalent. They party tirelessly. Life is a definite lyric from some song and group obscure to anyone over 28.
Or, as narrator/protagonist/anti-hero Clay observes in sentence one, "People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles." Clay is 18, and returning home to Los Angeles on winter break from his Eastern college. The notion eats at him. While Clay and his characters lunch at Trumps, dine at Chasen's and deal drugs at the local sushi bar, it becomes a refrain: "People are afraid to merge."
"Less Than Zero" began nearly two years ago when Ellis, then 18, returned to Los Angeles on his winter break. Bennington College, a school where avant-garde is the perennial modifier, requires one off-campus term for work or study each year, and that year, Ellis said, "I didn't have a job, so this was going to be my project."
What Ellis did have was an outline: carefully plotted sequences and character sketches, because "I really need to be organized. I'm sort of anally retentive about my writing."
He also had a goal. Ellis wanted to capture the Southern California youth culture he both loved and loathed. Clay, he decided, would represent "your average blond surfer boy from California who slowly begins to realize what is going on around him." And Clay was no angel: "I do not see him as this totally heroic person at all," Ellis said. "I see him as passive to the extreme. I wanted him to be cool, almost timid, so the scenes could bounce off him."
'Discovery in Japan'
It helped, too, that Ellis had written an earlier novel that dealt with similar themes. "Discovery in Japan," written while Ellis was still a student at the Buckley School in Sherman Oaks, was seen only by very close friends. A comparably small handful of people had read his very first novel, written "when I was, God, I think 12." An early and voracious reader, Ellis, after all, remembers writing "ever since I was, say, 5," and in his first novel he undertook an examination of "a 15-year-old guy who goes to a small town in Nevada for a month." Ellis smiled. "The original title was 'Ain't Misbehavin,' ' that was what it was called."
As a child, or perhaps one should add as a young child, Ellis recalls bringing home third-grade report cards that read along the lines of "Bret shows great promise as a writer." The same evaluations, Ellis added, usually also foresaw absolutely "no promise in math or anything else." As an all-around student, he said: "I didn't do very well. I did very well in literature and English, but poorly in anything else."