L.A. Weekly is determining the best L.A. novel ever by holding a tournament featuring 32 of our favorites in head-to-head matchups, until there's only one novel standing. For further reading check out:
Writing about Charles Bukowski's Post Office in the first round of this tournament, I noted that pitting it against John Fante's Ask the Dust was somewhat unfair when taking into account that Bukowski's novel was heavily influenced by Fante's. (Bukowski even penned a foreword to Ask the Dust, writing at one point that “Fante was my god.”) The same would appear to be true of Less Than Zero: though there isn't as direct a correlation, Bret Easton Ellis did go on to use the opening paragraph of Fante's seminal novel as the epigraph to his short story collection The Informers some ten years later. It thus comes as little surprise that his precocious debut has a good deal in common with Fante's bittersweet masterwork.
Both sparse, semi-autobiographical novels could be read over the course of one long afternoon. Both feature first-person narration from the perspective of a troubled young man trying, and usually failing, to overcome his shortcomings and connect with a woman whom his erratic behavior suggests he's probably in love with. Both, too, are marked by dispiriting treks into the desert: the middle of the Mojave in Ask the Dust, Palm Springs in Less Than Zero.
All of which is a long way of saying that Ellis' portrait of disaffected '80s youth is something of a spiritual successor to Fante's tale of a struggling writer in Depression-era L.A. The Italian-American was one of the most quietly influential writers of the 20th century, and Ask the Dust is the best-remembered of Fante's Arturo Bandini cycle. Shades of this genuinely timeless character — who lives in the now drastically different Bunker Hill, falls hard for a Mexican waitress named Camilla, and is as hilarious as he is miserable — can be seen in Less Than Zero's Clay, who returns to a life of privilege after his first semester of college in New Hampshire to find that either he or it has fundamentally changed.
Fante descriptions of the city are as vivid as any ever written (“Ah, Los Angeles! Dust and fog of your lonely streets, I am no longer lonely. Just you wait, all you ghosts of this room, just you wait, because it will happen, as sure as there's a God in heaven”). But Ellis turns the city into a state of mind, a place his characters inhabit mentally as much as physically. That their many drives down Sunset and trips to Spago always end up leaving them empty (or worse) makes their glamorous sheen all the more depressing.
Less Than Zero is an explicitly L.A. novel from its opening sentence: “People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles.” This is done in part through coy references to local institutions and passing remarks that non-natives would never catch. Clay will describe eating a meal in a yellow train car on one page and, a little while later, mention being at Carney's the other day without explicitly stating that these are two descriptions of the same event. This L.A. is lived in, and you don't have to work hard to see how Fante's vision of it might have led to this one. By the end of Ask the Dust, all hope has essentially faded; by the time Less Than Zero picks up half a century later, the word itself has apparently exited everyone's vocabulary.
Less Than Zero ends with a devastatingly evocative description of “Los Angeles” by X — surely one of the best L.A. songs, it's worth noting — and is preceded by a series of atrocities that remove whatever remaining doubt Clay might have had that this place is no longer for him:
Before I left, a woman had her throat slit and was thrown from a moving car in Venice; a series of fires raged out of control in Chatsworth, the work of an arsonist; a man in Encino killed his wife and two children. Four teenagers, none of whom I knew, died in a car accident on Pacific Coast Highway. Muriel was readmitted to Cedars-Sinai. A guy, nicknamed Conan, killed himself at a fraternity party at U.C.L.A.
Ellis evinces an almost apocalyptic view of Los Angeles, elevating the city from backdrop to a character in and of itself. To the extent that things change at all in Less Than Zero's L.A., they only get worse. It's as if there were something in the water (or, more likely, smog) that makes these trust-fund babies unable to be a part of the normal world, far removed as it is from their Beverly Hills bubble.
Ellis eschews a typical three-act structure and straightforward character development in favor of mood and short, self-contained chapters in which mundane incidents are made ominous simply via the increasingly strung-out Clay's fried perception of them. The world he's returned to is so fundamentally off that he no longer knows how to process it; think of it as reverse culture shock from the perspective of someone whose limited experience with the world beyond L.A. has opened his eyes, even if just slightly.
That the inimitable Arturo Bandini could probably flourish (or, more accurately, flounder) in any locale speaks to what an enduring character he is. But Clay's story is so inextricably linked to Los Angeles that a round-robin endeavor such as this feels tailor-made for him. Transport Ask the Dust to a number of other cities and it works almost as well; do the same to Less Than Zero and it loses its soul. This makes the former more universal and perhaps even better in certain regards, but if the question is which functions better as a specifically L.A. novel, the answer is clear.
Winner: Less Than Zero
Previous matchups, from round one:
Rebels & Outcasts Region:
Lost Souls Region: