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."
Early on, Buckley's English department chairman Dawn Hood remembered, Ellis' writing ability brought him faculty attention. "He was in our creative writing classes, and he was obviously very talented," Hood said. Once, she said, "Our creative writing teacher, Mr. Robbins, came running to me with some of his essays, and said 'take a look at these.' I read them and agreed with Mr. Robbins that the kid had real talent."
On the other hand, Hood said, "whether somebody's going to prove a child prodigy or not is always a good question." As for Bret Easton Ellis, she said, "The only question I would have had about Bret would have been whether he would have had the drive and the discipline to sit down and apply himself, or whether he would remain one of those vaguely talented people who never do anything."
By the time he was 18 and off to college, Ellis' essays on Southern California's youth culture had already attracted a New York literary agent, and, at Bennington, the interest of author, writing instructor and eventual Ellis mentor Joe McGinnis. It was with McGinnis' encouragement that Ellis sat down on his bedroom floor that winter term of 1983 and spent eight furious weeks cranking out the 500 pages that would become "Less Than Zero."
As always, Ellis wrote longhand, then corrected his copy on a typewriter, never a word processor. Ellis cringed. "I am not ever, ever going to use the processor." Another shudder. "All those glowing green letters. It just doesn't seem real to me."
Written "in a frenzy," that first draft was "terrible," Ellis said. "It was extremely long, and needed a lot of cutting." Particularly in view of his aim of capturing a short-attention-span life style, "I felt this novel should be quick, short, that it should have the feel of very short scenes."
'Mergings and Meshings'
Several rewrites later, Ellis had trimmed the book by "I don't know, 100, 200 pages." His characters were clear, well-developed and in some cases borderline recognizable. Many, said Ellis, are "fictional representations of friends of mine," although, "I couldn't say, 'this is Scott,' or 'this is Julie.' I don't think they are going to be able to clearly recognize themselves." Rather, they are "mergings and meshings" of his acquaintances "and also, in a very literary way, they represent certain ideas and metaphors that I wanted to represent."
Many of those ideas are bleak, at best. "Yeah," he said, "it is a bleak book." Idealism is absent: "There is none. There is solipsism and self-involvement, yeah, and a weirdly huge need for material things and for sensations." Ellis' characters "have this desperate need to feel something, anything. There's a real pathetic need, but it is the way they feel it. It's warped." To satisfy that need, they go to extremes: male prostitution, voyeurism, bisexuality, drugs, drugs, drugs. Said Ellis, their creator: "There is no need for them to go that far."
In some ways, many ways, the characters and their actions both mirror and parody the very bad side of Southern California's very good life. "I mean, L.A. has always been that cliche of the good life," Ellis said. "But hasn't that always been an empty cliche?
"Being blond and tan--is that the thing that is so satisfying? I guess in our country, today, yes, those are the things that are so satisfying."
They are empty, vapid, valueless, Ellis is saying: "And I guess that is why there is so much disappointment and disillusionment."
Ellis has lived some of the life he writes about. For instance, "I did go through a period where I was doing a few drugs, yeah." It was part of life in Southern California, but then, "I also did a lot of drugs when I went to Bennington, Vt."
Among his age group, he said, "there seems to be a drug culture and it's spreading. It's not a good thing."
What he is saying, Ellis said, is that "in terms of specifics," much of his book does center around Los Angeles: "Yeah, I would say so." But on a broader scale, "in terms of universality, there is this weird aimlessness that seems almost purposeful. I think it's symptomatic of what is happening among youth in general."
Ellis acknowledges a major debt to the writing of Joan Didion, his primary inspiration and role model even as a high school student, and also to Joyce and Hemingway. As for the inevitable comparison of Clay to Holden Caulfield, J. D. Salinger's principal character in "The Catcher in the Rye," Ellis shrugged: "I think I would rather hang around with Holden than with Clay. I like Holden better."
But Ellis does acknowledge a certain parallel: "I guess a lot of people will see it as a logical progression from the mid '50s to the 1980s." And maybe, "this is where Holden would have evolved to, he would become blond and drugged."
How America's Changed
Certainly the message is relatively dispiriting, and that, said Ellis, "is a conscious decision on my part. I guess if you took the two books, 'Catcher in the Rye' and 'Less Than Zero,' and compared them, you would get a pretty interesting sociopolitical commentary on how America has changed." He grimaced. "That sounds awfully lofty."
Already, "Less Than Zero" has been optioned by a Hollywood producer. Ellis has been showered with attention. "It is a buzz, yeah," he conceded, "but then you have to remember you have classes to go to, you have relationships to deal with."
And what will Bret Easton Ellis do when he grows up?
"I don't know, when you graduate from college, are you grown up?"
But yes, there will be more stories from Ellis.
"Yes," he said. "Hopefully."