Sunday, April 13, 2003

I used to read Bret Easton Ellis' Less Than Zero a lot as a teenager, mostly when I was depressed. When life didn't seem to matter to me, I felt in tune with Clay, the narrator, an 18-year-old coming home to Los Angeles after his first semester at college. Disconnected, nihilistic, willing to go out on a limb. The rich, wild, not-old-enough-to-drink cocaine users of the book had very little to do with my nerdy life, two hours a day on a school bus to the IB magnet school -- I was living vicariously through the characters, while some of my classmates were going out and drinking, fucking, whatever, stuff I only knew from bits of overheard gossip. But there was a sort of envy in me of people not saddled with shyness or a sense of responsibility; their lack of care about anything seemed kinda glamorous. They were doing something, not sitting at home with a science-fiction novel.

Now, I'm 30. I pulled the paperback off the shelf a few days ago -- it's been years since I last read it. Now, I'm no one's picture of "settled down into adult responsibility." I work part-time, sleep late the rest of the days, and cohabit with my boyfriend in an apartment full of Simpsons and Powerpuff Girls toys never touched by physical children. Nonetheless, Less Than Zero hit me in a new way -- as a chronicle of boredom. Constant boredom. Hanging out in restaurants and movie theaters waiting for your drug dealer to show up. Sitting around alone, watching TV. Going to parties that don't turn out to be very good. One gets the feeling that Clay isn't even bothering to look for something interesting -- he's just passing the time because he can't get rid of it any other way. It's not that the things he does couldn't be fun -- but the interactions and conversations transcribed are superficial and don't seem to bring people closer. Some of this is the narrative style -- Clay's story of accompanying his friend Julian, who's working as a prostitute to pay his drug bill, on a trick and having to go throw up in the bathroom, is given in the same tone as he talks about Christmas with his family or having a one-night stand. We don't know why Julian ran up such a drug debt, but when Clay has to do some lines of cocaine to get through lunch with his dad, and Clay's younger sisters steal his cocaine if he doesn't lock his door, Julian's problem seems like only a slight difference of degree. None of these people are seeking extensive thrills; they just want to bring their moods from negative to average. (The movie based on the book is a very different story and makes Clay an average guy with some feelings.) I don't find the book's characters at all glamorous anymore -- I think they need to find something to do with their lives, some people they can actually get close to, and maybe some anti-depressants. (And that change in my view makes me feel a little old.)