Generational Narcissism?: Less than Zero, Gen X, and Why Millenials Really Aren’t All That Bad.



Over the past couple months or to be more accurate years, numerous commentators have bemoaned the apparent narcissism of millennials. Social media, more than one study claims, has made “twenty somethings” more self-absorbed than their predecessors and many employers claim millennials exhibit an unprecedented sense of entitlement. Perhaps even worse, earlier this year Fortune published an article asserting that millennials even lacked rudimentary talent, falling short in skills like “literacy (including the ability to follow simple instructions), practical math, and — hold on to your hat — a category called ‘problem-solving in technology-rich environments.’” A recent incident in which a group of sorority sisters were filmed taking countless selfies at a Arizona Diamondbacks baseball game became a symbol of the very self absorption at the heart of the largest generational demographic since the boomers. Then again, in this case, they were responding to the stadium’s request that fans do so; as historian Neil J. Harris pointed out in a recent podcast, they were simply under the thrall of our “corporate overlords,” he noted wryly, a criticism one could lodge at any generational cohort.

For all the public hand-wringing, the fact is that none of this is new. Boomers were “navel gazers” whose counterculture sometimes appeared as invested in itself as change. Many became bankers, lawyers, and corporate titans. Generation X was sometimes depicted as “Generation Me”; consider yuppies, books like Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City, and films like Wall Street, which admittedly traverses boomerdom as well in the character of corporate wraith Gordon Geeko and Martin Sheen’s airline union leader, Carl Fox. None of these depicted the early segment of Gen X as much better. Later, the public got Douglas Copeland’s Generation X and Cameron Crowe’s Singles—better, but one could argue, still self-obsessed.

The point is, as has been said numerous times before, every generation looks at the one behind it and sees the end of civilization. To quote Generation X stalwart Wilco, “every generation thinks it’s the worst/thinks it’s the end of the world.” Take Brett Easton Ellis, whose first book, Less than Zero came out three decades ago this year, and whose other works—American Psycho (speaking of self absorbed yuppies …) , The Rules of Attraction, and Glamorama, to say nothing of the nearly unwatchable (OK, laughably unintentionally, funny and watchable) The Canyons, the screenplay he helped write—are awash in narcissism, indolence, hedonism, and sexual violence. With debates about decline, entitlement, and egotism running rampant today, why not take a journey back to a 1985 Los Angeles populated by college-aged, Generation X adolescents. Thirty years later, Less than Zero provides a useful framework for debunking simple generational categorizations like those lobbed at millennials . Even in the novel’s flaws, its fundamentally white, male, suburban viewpoint, Less than Zero demonstrates why the youngins’ might not be so bad after all.


“Disappear Here”

“The streets are totally empty and I drive fast. I come to a red light, tempted to go through it, then stop once I see a billboard that I don’t remember seeing and I look up at it. All it says is ‘Disappear Here’ and even though it’s probably an ad for some resort it still freaks me out a little and I step on the gas really hard and the car screeches as I leave the light.”[1]

Less than Zero’s protagonist, Clay (nobody has last names in the book), returns home from his fancy Ivy League school for Christmas break and finds himself adrift in Los Angeles. In its own way, the book is a perverse fairy tale that highlights all of the holiday’s negatives. He spends much of his time with his sometimes, sort-of girlfriend Blair and a series of friends from high school; guys named Julian and Trent and girls with names like Alana, Kim, and Muriel. Though, to be more accurate, the novel is definitely male-driven even if it offers brief glimpses into female perspectives like that of Blair.

No surprise that despite their wealth, access to drugs and frequent sex, Clay and many of the others appear unfulfilled. “I don’t want anything,” his friend Daniel tells him.[2] “Disappear Here” becomes a coda for the text, referenced at least half a dozens times throughout the novel; a none-too-subtle mantra symbolizing Clay’s growing alienation.

To say that pretty much every character seems vacant in the novel would be selling vacancy short. They smoke pot, snort cocaine, drink too much, and have lots of sex and not just stereotypical ‘80s heterosexual romps. Much like Taylor Swift’s “Welcome to New York”: “you can want who you want/ boys and boys and girls and girls.” Clay indulges with men and women, but seems to derive little pleasure from any of it. During one conversation where Blair, Kim, and Alana dish on the sexcapades of their social scene, Clay realizes he’s been around the block a bit. “I realize for an instant that I might have slept with Didi Hellman. I also realize that I might have slept with Warren,” he thinks to himself. “I don’t say anything. They probably already know.”[3]

It would seem most of the characters in the book would describe their sexuality similarly: a lazy bi-sexuality punctuated by a dull homophobia. Several characters toss around term “faggot” despite the fact they themselves have slept with both sexes. “‘Daniel’s not a faggot,’ I say bored, turning the channel on the television,” notes Clay in one such discussion.[4]

“Clay is a comic book nihilist (he says at one point, ‘I realize that money doesn’t matter. That all that does is that I want to see the worst’) adrift in the world where materialistic novelty, the objectification of the body, and pursuit of desire have resulted in a death driven culture,” writes Patrick O’Donnell in an assessment of postwar literature on Los Angeles.[5] For O’Donnell, the novel reflects the lives of “young suburban zombies” amidst the trickle-down economics and individualistic emptiness of the Reagan era.

Indeed, much of what O’Donnell says is true. The suburban stereotype taking shape in the mid-1980s does define Clay to some extent. His parents are separated; his sisters, blonde California teens, sip champagne on holidays, and Clay drives a lot, hits the clubs, and lives a fairly characterless life. “People are afraid to merge on the freeways in Los Angeles,” Blair tells him at the novel’s outset. “Though that sentence shouldn’t bother me, it stays in my mind for an uncomfortably long time. Nothing else seems to matter,” Clay thinks to himself, apparently denoting his numb existence.

To be fair, one can see a number of classic literary influences at play in Less than Zero. Ellis channels renowned California writer Joan Didion throughout and one could even suggest, Reyner Banham; the former, a sharp observer of the narcissism of South California in the late 1960s and 1970s. These influences appear most at play in Clay’s relationship to the city’s car culture.

“The customized automobile is the natural crowning artefact of the way of life, the human ecology it adorns,” wrote Banham in his oft-referenced 1971 work Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies.[6] Didion once argued driving equated to the city’s only “secular communion,” but that navigating Los Angeles took a special skill. “Anyone can ‘drive’ on the freeway, and many people with no vocation for it do, hesitating here and resisting there, losing the rhythm of the lane change, thinking about where they came from and where they are going,” she argued in the mid-1970s.[7] Maria Wyeth does just this in Didion’s work of fiction, Play It as It Lays. “[I]t was essential (to pause was to throw herself into unspeakable peril) that she be on the freeway by ten o’clock. Not somewhere on Hollywood Boulevard, not on her way to the freeway but actually on the freeway. If she was not she lost the day’s rhythm, its precariously imposed momentum.[8]

Like a less interesting Wyeth, Clay worries about people worrying about merging on the freeway. He describes his latest route almost like an SNL Californians skit on ludes. “I drive down Wilshire and then onto Santa Monica and then I drive onto Sunset and take Beverly Glen to Mulholland,” he tells the reader, “and then Mulholland to Sepulveda and then Sepulveda to Ventura and then I drive through Sherman Oaks to Encino and then into Tarzana and then Woodland Hills.”[9] Clay’s Southern California is a landscape populated by 76 stations much as is Maria Wyeth’s, though as a character, he lacks her tragedy or gravitas. Blair’s opening comments regarding merging might haunt Clay and might have been meant to be metaphorical, but judging from Didion, it also represented a basic truth about Angeleno life.

The indomitable Joan Didion, a clear influence on Ellis
The indomitable Joan Didion, a clear influence on Ellis

In some moments, Ellis even sounds like the world-weary Didion of the White Album, a woman drained by the tumult and violence of the late 1960s and drugged out early 1970s. Didion and her fellow Angelenos witnessed the Watts Riots, Bobby Kennedy’s assassination, and the Manson family murders, all within a short five year window, not to mention violence outside California like MLK’s murder and the 1968 Democratic national convention. As Eric Avila points out for Southern California white residents, “a new sense of vulnerability and terror” entered their lives. “Hillside and canyon homes no longer afforded the privileged seclusion of a David Hockney painting, but instead became prey to the stalkings of deranged killers.”[10]

Ellis taps into this vein of paranoia perhaps unconsciously appealing to aging boomers while also referencing the rising urban crime rates of the 1980s. “Before I left, a women 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,” Clay tells the reader in a passage that sounds straight from the aforementioned Didion classic.[11] Just as a point of reference, millennials have grown up in the sad afterglow of 9/11 in a nation that for nearly a decade and half wakes up to the throbbing uncertainty of terrorism.

Keep in mind we’re not just talking about the fanatical Islamic variant  that tragically struck San Bernardino last week, but also the radicalism of an inchoate, furious America upset over a range of issues as seen in Charleston, Newtown, and Colorado Springs. In either case, this kind of invisible but always present threat has a way of dissembling a nation and fracturing political discourse.  O’Donnell even argues that Ellis satirizes Earnest Hemingway’s famous short story, “A Clean Well-Lighted Place,” and by doing so, suggests that “the ‘everything’ of California is, indeed, nothing, and that Los Angeles is the last place where one might go to be ‘safe and warm.’”[12] Fairly or unfairly, last week’s events, place an exclamation mark on this viewpoint.

Ellis’s literary madness doesn’t end with Didion or Hemingway. Often juxtaposed with the 1980s, the Roaring ‘20s, afloat on a booming stock market and an exploding consumer culture, represents a basic trope about 20th century American life. Few novels have captured the public imagination of a decade seen as equally decadant as its antecedent sixty years later as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Ellis puts the A.P. English standard to work in Less than Zero.

In Gatsby, the eyes of optometrist Dr. T.J. Eckleburg, atop a billboard overlooking the apparent wasteland of Queens (referenced as the “valley of ashes,” if memory serves), functions as a symbol of American corruption and the debasement of the national myth of upward mobility. “Over the ashheaps the giant eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg kept their vigil,” wrote Fitzgerald. The good doctor ruefully watches over the sorry proceedings of Gatsby and the others.


Contrastingly, Less than Zero utilizes the image of Elvis Costello in the role of Eckleburg. Costello lords over them as a sort of disappointed apparition. When Alana intrudes on Clay to confess about having an abortion, Clay tells her he’s sorry but admits to himself, “I don’t know what to say, [or] how to deal with it.” Alana lights up a cigarette and asks what Clay’s sorry for; after all, it’s not like the aborted child was his. Throughout the scene and others like it Costello’s image functions like a latter day Eckleburg. “I’m standing by the door and I look over at the Elvis Costello poster, at his eyes, watching her, watching us, and I try to get her away from it …”[13] When visiting his apparently horrendous psychiatrist, who at one point wants Clay to write a screenplay with him (um, why? Have you not read this book?), his doctor gets up to adjust a Rolling Stone magazine featuring Costello on the cover with “Elvis Costello Repents” as its headline.[14] Later in the novel, as Clay prepares to return to the East Coast, he leaves behind little in his room: books, a TV and stereo, a mattress, a box filled with photos of Blair, and “the Elvis Costello poster, eyes still staring out the window.”[15]

Since we are discussing Elvis Costello, one would be remiss not to point out how pop music references proliferate all through the novel. Here’s a short list of the artists Clay and others make reference to, some of whom they see in concert and others who simply get name dropped: Tom Petty, the Go-Gos (several times), Human League (often), Psychedelic Furs, Blondie, X (almost the spirit band of the novel), Squeeze, B-52s, Devo, Bananarama, Spandau Ballet, Duran Duran, the Eagles (natch), and XTC. An X quote opens the novel, “This is the game that moves as you play …” from the song “Have Nots” with another by Led Zeppelin, “There’s a feeling I get when I look to the West,” from, you guessed it “Stairway to Heaven.”

One could suggest the juxtaposition operates to connect the boomer image of California with its 1980s equivalent. Once seen as the alternative to the tradition and hide bound East, SoCal exemplified the kind of open-minded freedom in which the counterculture could flourish. Clay’s L.A. indeed has moved. The game is no longer “peace, love, dope” but rather “dope, sex, and death.” Movies like the recent Inherent Vice or the much maligned second season of True Detective have focused on similar themes.

Still, all the musical references—and this writer would argue they function more effectively in American Psycho, where main character Patrick Bateman’s obsession with Genesis and other pop culture acts intersect neatly with his fascination with name brand clothing and, you know, habitual murder—feel more like nostalgia today than a meaningful way to get at the interiority of characters. Like Facebook photos, the reader projects whatever feeling each group elicits rather than a truly discernable metaphor or meaning.


Just to complete the point (or perhaps belabor it), in American Psycho, banker and serial killer Bateman offers extended treatises on various pop culture figures like Phil Collins, Huey Lewis, and Whitney Houston.   It feels more revealing, and admittedly creepy, but still. Bateman might be a murdering, unfeeling, sociopathic narcissist, but he’s also more interesting (see here, I’m ignoring the movie version of Less than Zero because it wasn’t remotely true to the novel, but the film version of American Psycho was more loyal to the source material).

Did I mention Clay’s hands shake on occasion? Sometimes it seems that all his hands do is violently tremble. When grabbing dinner with his family at an apparently fancy eatery, Clay grows discomforted by the knowledge that his father is going “to ask everyone what they want for Christmas.” An anxiety-driven and notably cokeless Clay reverts to an inner monologue as jittery as his hands. “I don’t look at my parents too much, just keep running my hand through my hair, wishing I had some coke, anything, to get through this and I look around the restaurant, which is only half full … I realize that it all comes down to is that I’m this eighteen year old boy with shaking hands and blond hair and with the beginnings of a tan and semi-stoned sitting in Chasen’s on Doheny and Beverly, waiting for my father to ask me what I want for Christmas.”[16]

Come on, Clay, you want a Scarface pile of Christmas coke, don’t try and make this any more profound than it is. When Ellis then adds yet another “Disappear Here” reference on the same page, you know in the words of Biggie, things have gotten “deep like the mind of Farrakhan.” The motif of shaking hands is meant to convey a level of profundity to the novel, but honestly it happens so much it almost becomes somewhat comical.

Unsurprisingly, despite Los Angeles’s acknowledged ethnic and racial diversity, minorities make only the briefest and most marginalized of appearances. There are jokes about Jewish American Princesses (JAPS) (JewCLA or JewSC, a few characters kid). Nearly all references to Asians relate to fashion (“The girl I came with just left with that Japanese guy in the English Beat T-shirt and tight white pants”). Mexicans lurk in the background as laborers, threats (“There are too many fucking Mexicans here,” notes one character while at a concert just before he yells “fucking spic” at one) or victims.[17]

Unfortunately, even when depicted in more sympathetic terms, the presence of Mexicans or Mexican Americans functions to distinguish Clay from his peers. When he and his sisters pass a car crash with a crying Mexican woman and her children, Clay actually wonders about their fate for an entire paragraph or two. “I don’t know why the fire bothered me, but it did, and I had this vision of a child, not yet dead, lying across the flames burning,” he confides to the reader. “And later that same night I sat out by the pool, thinking about it until I finally fell asleep ….”[18] In the end, none of them rate as citizens or Americans, just Mexicans and Asians. Needless to say the only African American that appears does so in a snuff film consisting of rape, torture, and murder, which of course some of Clay’s friends reenact later in the book.

The Song Remains the Same

“[T]he media saturated children of the postwar baby boomers, always, already jaded with material excess, apolitical, hedonistic, narcissistic,” wrote O’Donnell, encapsulating the stereotype of Generation X. Ellis, he argues, transforms this image into a “caricature of youth culture in a novel that is as conceivably as self-indulgent and superficial as its subjects …” Undoubtedly, O’Donnell makes a solid point. Less than Zero serves more as Ellis’s first step into writing and, like other young writers, (he was twenty one at the time) it feels as much like an author channeling Catcher in the Rye-era Salinger filtered through Fitzgerald, Didion, and Hemingway; your typical A.P. English reading list. Yet at the same time, have we had the definitive millennial novel either, perhaps even a Less than Zero equivalent? Ellis would go on to write the aforementioned American Psycho, which one could argue remains one of the better books of its time.

Narcissism '90s style?
Narcissism ’90s style?

Last month, Lifetime broadcast the Unauthorized Beverly Hills 90210 Story and its Melrose Place counterpart.   As writer Linda Holmes pointed out during NPR’s weekly “Pop Culture Cocktail Hour,” these shows weren’t good but watching them as Twitter dropped snarky comment after snarky comment was. If social media had touched our lives back in the 1990s—remember Melrose Place drinking parties, they existed—we would have tweeted to our heart’s content. Really, millennials are just using the technology in front of them; we would have too.

Also, if you noticed, both shows reflect a dedication to a blinding whiteness and heterosexuality. For all the accusations thrown at millennials, they seem far ahead of the curve in regard to gender, race, and sexuality.   As ToM collaborator and KCET writer Carribean Fragoza pointed out in a recent piece, despite the fact the media portrays millennials as either Mark Zuckerberg geniuses or “self-centered, over-privileged brats” ala Kyrie and Brodie Jenner the reality remains far more nuanced especially in Los Angeles. According to a recent UCLA labor study, millennials aged 18 – 29 account for 40% of Los Angeles’s low wage work force. While critics assert that they labor for the newest iphone in actuality many “young workers in L.A. that live at home often provide an essential part of the family income or pay for most of their own expenses including college,” notes Fragoza. Rising house costs mean more and more continue to live with their parents. Hardly the stuff of spoiled, privileged stereotypes. This is to say nothing of the noted racial and cultural diversity among Los Angeles millennials.

In this context (and perhaps any other really) Less than Zero proves no less problematic: a male-driven, oddly homophobic (despite the obvious presence of homosexuality), and overwhelmingly white story.   With or without social media, Ellis and others saw youth culture in this hyper-self absorbed nihilistic light. While Ellis certainly means to be brightlining Clay et al’s negatives, he also enables their worst habits and glorifies them. I guess the point is, if you look in the right places, thirty years ago, we all looked just as self absorbed as today’s kids.

In the end, kids will be kids, and that means an unyielding focus on, well being a kid. When you’re 18, 21 or 25, no matter what generation from which you hail, you’re still working on you. That’s a recipe for staring in mirrors, bad poetry, and wondering about just “where you are going.” Today, Clay is probably a suburban father in Calabasas with two kids, an ex-wife and a solid job as a mid level studio executive. Give millennials time, one day they two will be a cliché, just Less than Zero


[1] Bret Easton Ellis, Less than Zero, (New York: Vintage House, 1985), 38.

[2] Ellis, Less than Zero, 54.

[3] Ellis, Less than Zero, 28.

[4] Ellis, Less than Zero, 51.

[5] Patrick O’Donnell, “Postwar Los Angeles: suburban Eden and the fall into history,” in The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of Los Angeles, Ed. Kevin R. McNamara, (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge UP, 2010), 64

[6] Reyner Banham, Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1971), pg. 204

[7] Joan Didion, The White Album, (New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1979), pg 83.

[8] Joan Didion, Play It as It Lays, (New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1970) pgs. 15-16

[9] Ellis, Less than Zero, 61.

[10] Eric Avila, “Social Flashpoints,” in A Companion to Los Angeles, Eds. William Deverell and Gregory Hise, (Los Angeles: Wiley Blackwell, 2014), 105.

[11] Ellis, Less than Zero, 195-196.

[12] O’Donnell, “Postwar Los Angeles,” 65.

[13] Ellis, Less than Zero, 157-158.

[14] Ellis, Less than Zero, 122.

[15] Ellis, Less than Zero, 207

[16] Ellis, Less than Zero, 66.

[17] Ellis, Less than Zero, 184-185.

[18] Ellis, Less than Zero, 76.