The oft-referenced Los Angeles billboard in Bret Easton Ellis' novel Less Than Zero reads simply: Disappear Here. While that normally evokes a sunny, beach bum getaway in beautiful southern California, it's the disappearance of any moral grounding and individuality that become the true meaning behind the phrase. Clay, a young college student home for winter break in the early 1980s, is our guide to the lifestyles of the rich and truly screwed-up, where everyone wears the best clothes, drives the newest cars, and parties all the time, but has nothing to show for it. Drugs and alcohol flow freely. Conversations mostly revolve around party plans and petty gossip. Teenagers don't know where their jet-setting parents are and don't seem to care about anything or anyone. Clay passively partakes in everything around him; he's barely noticeable as a character despite his status as the narrator. He doesn't judge his friends when they lead him into dangerous lifestyles, but he also doesn't fully join in. Clay rekindles a physical affair with his loving ex-girlfriend Blair but insists they're no longer together, allowing him the freedom to sleep with other girls and boys. He's vaguely aware of the moral unwinding of those closest to him, but is unwilling to stop it and is actually intrigued enough to watch it all happen.
This is a bleak world without a shining beacon of hope. Ellis tips his hand at what he thinks are some of the causes: the superficiality of Hollywood and Los Angeles in general, the massive amounts of wealth afforded to the teens, the lack of any decent parenting, a world where people do what they want simply because they can without any consequence. But you'd be hard pressed to find a critical voice in the tone of the storytelling. This is what separates Less Than Zero from other cautionary coming-of-age tales. Clay witnesses a society facing moral collapse and there are ample descriptions about how the characters are affected. Still, outside of any superficial comments, Clay isn't really critical of this kind of moral decomposition and the author allows the world around Clay to exist without a contradictory note. The restraint Ellis shows in revealing the meanings and themes of the novel are in stark contrast to the Twitter-like detail of Clay's horrifying winter break. The countless (and in some instances shocking) stories of teen life in Los Angeles in the '80s combine to create a general sense of societal decay and a kind of death permeates the environment. You're left wondering whether or not Clay will come back home after he returns to college.
Christian Rummel provides the voices of Clay and a cast of reckless teens and parents, as well as a psychiatrist more interested in himself than his patients. Rummel's Clay is a study of passivity, rarely rising above an impassioned whine in all his interaction with others. Everyone else sounds appropriately numb and detached. The teens are drugged up spoiled brats, bravely voiced as such with no pause for how obnoxious they may sound (but then again, that's the point). Rummel easily conveys the impatient cluelessness of valley girls and the cocky, surfer-like aloofness of the lost boys. For the majority of the book, the narration occurs at a disconnected, cool pace. But late in the novel, as Clay accompanies his best friend Julian to a hotel room to partake in desperate act of male prostitution for drug money, Rummel's performance takes on a slightly anxious, panicked tone. The change in pacing here and in a few other important scenes highlights Clay's motivations and is key to understanding the meaning of the novel. In this way and more, Rummel serves Ellis' delicate vision with expert skill. Josh Ravitz