Less Than Zero is a novel in the ‘bildungsroman’ genre, a novel about the so-called ‘blank generation’. The term blank generation was coined by Richard Hell who released an album in 1977 called blank generation. Richard Hell described its meaning thusly, ‘it’s the idea that you have the option of making yourself anything you want, filling in the blank... It’s saying, ‘I entirely reject your standards for judging my behaviour’’. In literary terms, blank fiction refers to a ‘bratpack’ style group of writers whose subject matter - drugs, violence, commodities and youth culture - is presented using detached or disengaged rhetoric. Of these writers, Bret Easton Ellis is one of the most well-known and his debut novel, Less Than Zero, is considered a cornerstone in this genre of literature.
The novel is told using the narrative voice of Clay, a young man in his late teenage years or early twenties, who returns home from college and finds himself quickly re-immersed in the angry, disaffected, disengaged lifestyle of his high school friends whose prolific drug use and the associated lifestyle begins to pull Clay into a downward spiralling vortex of confused desperation.
In 2008, Ashley Minix Donnelly wrote her graduate thesis, Blank Power: The Social and Political Criticism of Blank Fiction and Cinema, focussing on ‘blank generation’ literature. Within that thesis which is published online, Minix Donnelly explores Bret Easton Ellis’ novel Less Than Zero.
This blog post will examine Minix Donnelly’s assessment of Less Than Zero, focusing in particular on her understanding of the novel’s representation of commodification, drug use and youth culture in relation to ‘the blank generation’, i.e., the wealthy generation of 1980's youths (those in their late teens and early twenties,) growing up in LA.
Minix Donnelly makes the point that often ‘blank literature’ is ‘intended to motivate a complacent audience and ignite passion in American readers against the injustice faced by their fellow citizens’. This idea can certainly be applied to Less Than Zero. If a society has a dominant set of ideas and values that are seen to be shared by the majority of members within that society (organic culture), then examination of Less Than Zero provides an excellent opportunity to counter such a perspective. Less Than Zero offers what one might describe as an anti-culture perspective, that of a group within society whose ideas and values are in direct conflict with the dominant values of the culture within which they exist.
In addition, Minix Donnelly suggests that the debauchery that is often found in ‘blank fiction acts as a cautionary tale that serves to promote the current values of society by showing the malfunction of society if people deviate from those values. She agrees with James Annersley’s view in Blank Fictions: Consumerism, Culture, and the Contemporary American Novel, referring to his suggestion that ‘the violent, destructive and decadent’ nature of this genre is intended to represent ‘the apocalypse culture’ of the late 20th century’. Minix Donnelly suggests that the ‘overwhelming sense of hopelessness’ that is prevalent in the genre is to be explained in this way, and it is certainly my belief that her theory can be applied to Less Than Zero, when one considers the political and ideological backdrop against which the novel is set.
In the U.S. during the 1980s the dominant culture was bred by the embracing of right-wing politics (those of the Reagan administration), which included the celebrated era of consumerism, of which the Yuppie is perhaps the most easily recognised symbol. This new and exciting era was especially well received given that the US was only just beginning to rise from the ashes of ‘Cold War Culture’, a period prior to the era of commodification when a sense of responsibility and seriousness was the dominant ideology. However, the era of consumerism was not regarded as the answer to a progressive society by all Americans. Whilst ‘Cold War Culture’ had been countered by the rise of the 1960's and 1970’s angry youth in what has come to be known as the punk era, the 1980s dominant culture was countered by the ‘blank generation’, the 1980s angry youth who set out to buck against what they perceived as ‘mainstream’ ideologies that they felt did not represent who they truly were. (It is fairly ironic that it would in fact be this generation who would, in just a decade or so, feed into the idea of commodification more than any generation before them, through their total immersion in – and subservience to – the information age.)
This doesn’t mean that Less Than Zero is not a valuable work of literature or that it does not give an accurate reflection of life for some of America’s youth at that time. I would indeed argue to the contrary: Danny Bonaduce, a college student at the time of Less Than Zero’s publication, was very clear in his autobiography that he and some of his fellow students felt that they were the characters about whom Ellis was writing. Less Than Zero offers one perspective, which is particularly easy to recognise due to the first-person narrative that acts as a sort of ‘stream of consciousness’ of the protagonist, Clay, one of LA’s angry youth. What we must recognise however, is that it is only representing this section of society, and however small or large that group is, the book cannot be considered to represent the very many of sections of society whose views, or ideologies differ from – and in many cases directly oppose – those represented in Ellis’ novel. This does not mean that the novel is unworthy of critical reflection, which is a view that Minix argues is often taken by critics who struggle to separate the content of blank fiction literature from its context and thus consider work in this genre as ‘superficial works of popular culture’. Indeed Less Than Zero continues to be regarded as an edgy, stark piece of literature and one worthy of respect in its field.
However, in some ways Less Than Zero is in fact offering the same kind of mainstream approach as, for example, the movies of John Hughes. Hughes’ films are very often seen as ‘the voice of a generation’, and it is certainly true that for some of that generation that is exactly what they were. However, it is utterly false to suggest that any of Hughes films completely represent every member of that generation, or that they represent any one person’s entire ideology, viewpoint, or values. Rather, his movies reflect one or some aspects of life in some parts of America for some people who predominantly belong to a particular generation. In the same way, Less Than Zero can be seen in this light regardless of its dark and at times uncomfortable content, and therefore, whilst I appreciate the novel for its representation of one aspect of 1980s culture, and whilst I hold it in high regard for its literary value, I do not see Less Than Zero as the voice of a generation, instead I consider it to be an enjoyably dark, yet still rather mainstream, ‘coming of age’ novel.
Annersley, J., Blank Fictions: Consumerism, Culture, and the Contemporary American Novel (London, 1998) p.108