The Greatest Books I’ve Never Read, Part 3: Bret Easton Ellis’ “Less Than Zero”

In each volume of his bound-to-be-award-winning series “The Greatest Books I’ve Never Read”, avid procrastinator Nick Curley profiles a renowned tome of fiction that, for a variety of reasons, he has not gotten around to completing during his tenure on this earth. In other words: an almost entirely uninformed book review. This series aims to be confessional, cathartic, and as embarrassing as possible. It is an inquiry into non-reading where reading should have been: a descent into the illiterate soul. Join him in our shared, faux-bookish plight: we are in this together, and he is dying for your sins.

THIS WEEK’S ADVENTURE: Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis (Simon and Shuster, 1985)

SYNOPSIS OF PRESUMED EXCELLENCE: Infamously penned when Ellis was just 19, Zero is the coke-and-cock-addled story of Clay, a L.A. rich kid home on winter break from Freshman year at a New England college. Watch Clay stare at his ceiling, debate whether or not to keep dating his high school girlfriend, and get to know his homicidal dealer’s sedated twelve-year old sex slave. You know, cause it’s Christmas. This misadventure of Clay and his fellow emotionally stunted yayoheads is today a calling card for disaffected youths who need something to read when the Wi-Fi on the BoltBus is broken. 1987 brought us a substantially modified film adaptation of the novel, refocused on the addictions and prostitution of Clay’s friend Julian, portrayed by Robert Downey, Jr. both in the film and as a performance art piece entitled “The Subsequent 10-20 Years of My Career”.

WHY I DIDN’T READ IT: I feel like I did read it roughly once a week in any and all of my undergrad creative writing classes. Zero‘s themes of parental disillusionment, are constants among young writers aspiring to be the enfant terrible of ENG-107: American Solipsism and You. Ellis in fact modeled Clay’s college days on his own then-ongoing ones at Bennington College, a school not unlike my own alma mater, insofar as it’s a great place to own a pet rat and be buried by an avalanche.

SKIMMING AT THE ELEVENTH HOUR: Acidic comedy “roast” whiz kid Anthony Jeselnik recently cited writing a book like Zero as his own collegiate aspiration, and at its best Ellis’ prose cuts past its deadening small talk and develops fun rhythms. Clay being told he looks pale by everyone he meets is a twist fit for the Coens. A line like “Alana likes guys who are left-handed” shows us how stupidity is funniest when its specific. Clay’s friend Trent keeping his ludes in a Daffy Duck Pez dispenser is a “Why didn’t I think of that?” moment. Perhaps most admirably of all, Ellis’ characters themselves are Greatest Never readers, at one point popping open a glove compartment and passing around Cliffs Notes for As I Lay Dying. Which you actually should read. But the commitment to apathy is pointed and at times vivid. You come away really believing that Ellis has often been truly bored throughout his life, and has essentially made malaise into a skill.

WILL I READ IT IN THE IMMEDIATE FUTURE? If nothing else, this thing makes for one hell of a good Google Books preview. Nice typeface, not too abrupt in its page omissions. You could put away a good 20% of the total book away in the next hour, and then go out and live your life. Yet in a way I feel like what I’m living is this book. Zero‘s Beverly Hills climate feels right here, right now as Brooklyn has become a place of sixty-degree Februarys, affording New York its own unexpected-but-totally-gnarly SoCal vibe. Plus my arms are too long for every blazer I buy, so I’m kind of inherently always doing the smug 80s rolled up sleeve bit, albeit never by choice.

THE TAKEAWAY: A reclaimed thirst for stack convertibles and cold-blooded murder that the milquetoast blogosphere had extinguished in me. In an attempt at participatory journalism, this week’s edition of TGBINR was typed out while driving with an eightball between my legs, on an IBM word processor that rode shotgun. See you on the freeways, True Believer!

You should also read about the other Greatest Books I’ve Never Read: Pride & Prejudice and On The Road

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