Bret Easton Ellis is by far my favorite author. I have read his novels multiple times, and I even have “Disappear Here” tattooed on my right inner-bicep in homage to Less Than Zero. He entered the literary arena in the 1980s, where he was viewed by society as controversial. Critics felt that his nihilism-inducing works would influence youth in horrific ways, but sadly, Ellis was only exposing the harsh truth about the lives of far too many wealthy kids who lack emotional care from their parents.
Although I cannot relate to the fact that Less Than Zero‘s protagonist, Clay, has a non-existent relationships with his family, I can relate to the fact that he always finds himself in turbulent situations. Perhaps I love that Clay doesn’t “fit in,” but is brought along for the ride by circles of selfish people who are so fucked up that they end up leaving him in control.
Clay is exposed to rampant drug addiction, alcoholism, infidelity, and death, but despite failing to intervene, he seems to be the only character in the novel who notices that something is seriously wrong with this lifestyle. On the other hand, his friends continue engaging in the chaos, delving deeper and deeper into a world of darkness with an extremely high mortality rate. Since Clay realizes that his peers don’t stand a chance in a world of success and security, he finds himself trying to soften the emotional damage of depression by self-medicating with cocaine, marijuana, and alcohol.
Not everyone is able to keep their cool in high stress situations or environments, but Clay, as well as myself, happen to be the type of people who can. I read the novel for the first time during the most chaotic period in my life, and I feel that it is what helped me to pull myself out and focus on healing. At the time, I was a teenager who was disappointed in my failure to achieve a chance at working in film, and in a depressed state where my self-esteem was at its lowest point, I decided instead to place myself in the gay porn industry.
During my short stint in this industry, I was exposed to so many men and women who reminded me of the characters that Clay engaged with in Less Than Zero, who did nothing but contradict themselves. After my flight arrived in San Francisco, the first member of this new crowd I was being exposed to, was the man who picked me up. While at the baggage claim he approached me and called me by my “porn name.” During our drive to the hotel, in Rohnert Park, he informed me that he was an aspiring film producer, but he never mentioned how he found himself working as an assistant to a gay porn studio executive. The next day, I was picked up from the hotel by the two directors, who along the ride tried to comfort me by telling me I was not making a poor choice, as we drove to the porn studio; a mansion in the hills of Santa Rosa. Another among this crowd was a gay pornstar from Washington, who said he was straight, despite admitting that being penetrated by another man was his biggest turn-on. Then there was the makeup artist, who, while doing a gay pornstar’s makeup, engaged in a conversation with the director about her commitment to her Catholic church. I also had the pleasure (or displeasure) of meeting none other than Mr. Stephan Sirard, the gay porn industry staple with a history of being linked to the murders of 3 pornstars, who told me that my safety was his biggest priority. He is the President and CEO of the FCF Agency (or French Connection Francaise), which is one of the largest adult film star agencies in the porn business. He welcomed me with a table of treats and drinks, and gave me a tour of the house, where he had a California king bed with leopard and zebra-print sheets, which looked like something you’d see in the home of Family Guy‘s Glenn Quagmire. Thankfully, I never had to share it with him, though I was told some of the other boys did.
This crowd was chock-full of individuals who have the sad, but humorous essence of Less Than Zero‘s characters. It was on that weekend, that I realized that people like them actually existed, especially in California, where Less Than Zero takes place. But this chaotic era didn’t come to an end after that weekend in Santa Rosa.
Later that year, I entered a relationship, which was the first relationship I had ever been in. He was 8 years older than me, and was a tattoo artist and aspiring MMA fighter. Needless to say, the fact that he wanted a relationship with a teenager while knocking thirty, should have been a warning sign, but unfortunately he was my first love so I was not deterred. During the summer that I lived with him, he began taking me with him to his best friend’s house. His best friend happened to be a drug dealer, and my ex paid some of the bills by selling marijuana for him and taking a cut. It seemed like each time we went to his friend’s place together, there were more types of drugs on the coffee table. Eventually, my ex started bringing home cocaine, and the first thing I thought about was Clay’s favorite habit in Less Than Zero. Sadly, my ex struggled with his own self-esteem after failing to gain traction as an artist and MMA fighter, to the point that he started buying an 8 ball every 3 days. I tried to soften the reality by drinking wine each night until I couldn’t walk straight, which just made him more aggressive and hostile considering he was hopped up on coke. Despite this, he still continued to bring me home 2 bottles every night, and usually I would finish both. During this period we entered a cycle, which started with us having a great week together, then I’d find out he cheated on me, then we would engage in a substance-influenced fight, then we’d make up and start over again. It was exhausting, but it wasn’t until we both were losing weight and looking fatigued that I realized how quickly 3 months had past. I finally left him after a lover’s quarrel, which ended with the wooden floors of the house being littered with glass and blood. I returned to college immediately (a week after classes started) and tried to reform myself after a summer where I nearly lost it. But that summer showed me how quickly that drug abuse can change a person, especially a person who is vulnerable and unhappy with their situation; the reality of every character in Less Than Zero.
I recently read Ellis’ first novel again after 3 years and every chapter included moments that took me back to that turbulent stage of mine, making me thankful that unlike the characters in the book, I was able to escape and make something better of myself. Unfortunately, in the book’s sequel, Imperial Bedrooms, it is revealed that Clay never reformed himself, and instead is still living a lifestyle that millions of people are unaware actually exists in this world.
Regardless of the criticisms of Less Than Zero, I will be thankful for that book for the rest of my life, as I feel being taken on Clay’s journey prepared me for the worst, prior to experiencing the lowest point of my life so far.