Simulacra and Nothingness in Bret Easton Ellis' "Less Than Zero"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2015

13 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction - “I don't have anything to lose.”

2. Baudrillard: Simulacra and the Hyperreal

3. Clay's'realities'ofempty images

4. Sartre: Nothingness and non-being

5. Nothing means everything

6. Conclusion - “I wait for something to happen. Nothing does.”

7. Bibliography

1. Introduction - “I don’t have anything to lose.”

With his debut novel Less Than Zero. Bret Easton Ellis set a milestone for a generation, who needed a voice. First published in 1985 when he was 21 and still at Bennington College, Ellis is now considered as the 'celebrity author' of the postmodern era, using the minimalist style for which the novel became famous. Writers of postmodern fiction, also called 'Blank Fiction', elegantly use a minimalist plot with flat characters in a simple style and as validated member of the 'Brat Pack', Ellis combines urban life, violence, drugs and consumerism.

In the novel we follow Clay, the 18-year-old protagonist and student at Camden College in New Hampshire, coming back to Los Angeles for Christmas break. Experiencing several parties, concerts, affairs and drugs with his old friends, Clay explores the apathy, boredom and alienation from his old life. Although criticized for Ellis's straight nihilism, integrating his own celebrity persona into his art and creating a universe of immature characters who seem to grow older but without any growing effect, it is questionable, if Less Than Zero is only just that - a world inhabited by rich and shallow characters without any purpose.

With the help of Jean Baudrillard's simulation theory and Sartre's theory of Being and Nothingness, which will be introduced before analyzing the novel, this paper will address Clays world of simulacra and Nothingness and argue for this being the purpose of the novel; creating a meaningless world. Through conversations and media, a Clay becomes visible, who seeks for more beyond the surface and shallowness and although the novel does not seem to follow a red thread, it suggests that Ellis as an author of 'blank fiction' is well aware of what he is doing with Less Than Zero.

How can a novel be a how-to-torture, but also a book of serious ambition? (Baelo-Allue 2011:1)

This paper will show that an 'in-between' is possible; an 'in-between' between “pornographic gore” and “serious postmodern literature” - and maybe the two phrases do not contradict each other so much as assumed.

2. Baudrillard: Simulacra and the Hyperreal

With the terms 'simulacra' and 'hyperreality', we approach the territory of Jean Baudrillard. In Simulacra and Simulations Baudrillard argues that simulation generates a hyperreal, that does not refer to reality anymore: “It [simulation] is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal.” (Baudrillard 2001:169). He defines simulation as “[...] to feign to have what one hasn't. One implies a presence, the other an absence.” (Baudrillard 2001:170) and we can find a similar idea with Jean-Paul Sartre, but we will approach this later in chapter 3. Furthermore, for him simulation begins with an artificial system of signs, which is not to be imitated, but substituted for the real itself. This means that a sign exchanges for meaning and the system will only be a simulacrum that “masks the absence of a basic reality.”(Baudrillard 2001:170-173). He adds that is is impossible to rediscover the absolute level of the 'real' just like it is impossible to stage an illusion, because the same signs exist for the 'real' and for the simulation of the 'real' (Baudrillard 2001:180-181). So it is verifiable to say that our whole human experience is indeed just a simulation of'reality', a hyperreality in Baudrillards words, because anything like reality is relevant to understand life, but will never be reality. Our ideas, our model of 'reality' are creating this 'reality', simulating it.

In “Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Captialism Frederic Jameson grasps this idea and links it to features of the postmodern era. With examples of postmodern art, Jameson describes “[...] a world transformed into sheer images of itself and for pseudo-events and 'spectacles' [...]. It is for such objects that we may reserve Plato's conception of the simulacrum - the identical copy for which no original has ever existed.” (Jameson 1984:65). He substitutes Baudrillards term 'signs' with the term 'images' and recognizes triviality, randomness, flatness, depthlessness and superficiality as features of postmodern art (Jameson 1984:60).

Instead of a 'hyperreality', Jameson introduces his definition of a 'hyperspace'. With the architectural example of Portman's Bonaventura hotel, he describes an enclosed inner space, a closure of a complete world, a miniature city in one building; that is no longer part of the city, but substitutes the city with itself; an equivalent. A space without real entrances, with escalators and lifts replacing real movement; a space that makes it impossible for human beings to enter and use without having the feeling of emptiness (Jameson 1984:80-81). A dimension beyond human capacity, because dimensions become impossible to make out,just like it becomes impossible for human beings to move through them. For Jameson an obvious link to capitalism (Jameson 1984:77-85).

Although Jameson argues against postmodern art, because for him the high modernism era was where art was at its best, we will not investigate this any further. What matters is that for him modernism takes the level of reality and adds a level of reflection in which reality is questioned. Postmodernism takes the level of reality away and Jameson's images become what reality used to be; images that do not refer to anything deeper, that are without original meaning.

3. Clays ’realities’ of empty images

In the last chapter we entered Baudrillard's and Jameson's world of hyperreality and hyperspace, which now helps us to further investigate Ellis's novel Less Than Zero. If we look at Clays world in the novel, we cannot make out any stable reality; the events “[...] may as well be part of one or two movies or a product of [...] [a] disturbed imagination.” (Kloeckner 2012:126). Reading the novel literally feels like watching a movie. It begins in medias res with Clay and Blair being at the LAX airport (Ellis 2011:1) and when we look at just the paragraphs after that: “Blair drives off the freeway and comes to a red light.” (Ellis 2011:2); “Nobody's home. The air conditioner is on and the house smells like pine.” (Ellis 2011:2); “I bring Daniel to Blair's party that night (Ellis 2011:4), we see that every paragraph starts with new characters in a new location; they feel like separate unconnected scenes in a movie or the 'zapping' through TV channels. Clay is “[...] literally mise-en-scene [emphases by original author] and enters the diegetic world of his own life's movie.” (Kloeckner 2012:126). Although the first-person-narrator tries to make it appear real and critics have often claimed that Less Than Zero is biographically written by Ellis documenting his own life (which is to no further interest to this paper), the novel keeps a “cinematic style” with “quick tapes” reducing the “attention span demanded” (Baelo-Allue 2011:41-42). What adds to this cinematic style Ellis uses, is the intermedial use of music, which makes the novel appear artificial again. For Clay music and the musician Elvis Costello are very important:

The walls are still white; the records are still in place; the television hasn't been moved; [...] And with my hand on my forehead I look up with caution at the poster encased in glass that hangs on the wall above my bed, but it hasn't changed either. It's the promotional poster for an old Elvis Costello record. Elvis looks past at me, with this wry, ironic smile on his lips, staring out of the window. (Ellis 2011:3)

Furthermore David Bowie (Ellis 2011:8), Crimson and Clover by Tommy James and The Shondells (Ellis 2011:12), Doyou really want to hurt me by Culture Club (Ellis 2011:22), Straight into Darkness by Tom Petty (Ellis 2011:40), Billy Idol (Ellis 2011:53), INXS and Psychedelic Fur (Ellis 2011:65), The Doors (Ellis 2011:69), Outgo Boingo (Ellis 2011:71) and many more artists are mentioned but most obvious is of course Less Than Zero, the novel title itself; a song by Elvis Costello; the soundtrack of the novel.

What differentiates the novel from a movie is the plot. It is questionable if the action in the novel can even be named a 'plot'. The above mentioned unconnected paragraphs strengthen the feeling that there actually is no action that follows a red thread or a climax, although the reader might expect one; the plot looks like a flat line - “Definite anticlimax.” (Ellis 2011:57).

To see that the characters' world is created by images it is useful to look at further media in the novel that surround them everywhere at any time. Here advertisement seems to play an important role, telling those teenagers who and what to be. The reader is confronted with Clays' sisters' “GQ cutouts pasted on the wall” (Ellis 2011:3) or them watching “porno films on the Betamax with the sound turned off” (Ellis 2011:66); magazines like “Glamour”, “Vogue” and “Interview” are mentioned (Ellis 2011:37); the teenagers constantly watch MTV or play video games, “I turn on MTV [...] and feel a little sick as the videos begin to flash by.” (Ellis 2011:4), and most of the time shop in malls or boutiques, “[...] probably at Neiman-Marcus, [..] and then to MGA and Camp Beverly Hills and Privilige [...]” (Ellis 2011:15). Confronted with those images, which are not 'real' and refer to no 'reality', the only thing they see in persons or objects are flat images: as the reader is introduced to Clays psychiatrist the only features he mentions are his “450 SL” car and his “house in Malibu” (Ellis 2011:17). Although constantly consuming media, nobody in the novel ever consciously consumes or focuses on anything; the videos “begin to flash by” and often the sound is turned off or turned up really loud (Ellis 2011:31-32), like a background noise being there to be there and nothing else. To survive in the shallow reality dominated by empty images, the teenagers theirselves have become shallow and flat.

However, the novel presents not one but rather two 'realities'. Clay seems to constantly distinguish between his world before he left for vacation, the world in Los Angeles he is in while the novel takes place and the world after he left, being in New Hampshire. It is not only Clay himself, who cannot make up his mind in which 'reality' to stay in, but the characters around him notice that Clay is stuck in between those two.

Trent firstly notices “You look pale.” (Ellis 2011:6) and after Clay responds with “Ive been in New Hampshire for four months.”, Trent hands him the address of a tanning salon; as if Clay left one 'reality' and Trent tries to bring him back into it. There is a second attempt in doing this as Trent notices the missing chili on Clays burger: “'Jesus, you're weird. Been up in fucking New Hampshire too long.' he mutters. 'No fucking chili.'” (Ellis 2011:12). On the other side Rip suggest the opposite trying to let him go: “Are you going back? [...] Or are you gonna stay ... and play ... in L.A. [...] Well I think you should go back.” (Ellis 2011:24-25). Clay openly says here: “I don't know if I want to.” What supports his trouble in decision is that Clay constantly reminds the reader of the world before he left for New Hampshire with several flashbacks throughout the novel. A day of skipping school (Ellis 2011:35-36), a vacation with Blair (Ellis 2011:50-52) or last years Christmas (Ellis 2011:59-62). At the very end of the novel the two 'realities' seem to merge: “Images so violent and malicious that they seemed to be my only point of reference for a long time afterwards. After I left.” (Ellis 2011:195). Clay leaves Los Angeles and enters the 'after-I- left'-world again.

It is not only plausible to split Clays 'realities' into two, but also Clay himself - it appears like there are two different Clays; different 'I'-narrators. The novel does not suggest a “split-off persona” or “delusions”, like Kloeckner suggests for Victor, the protagonist in Ellis's Glamorama (Kloeckner 2012:128), but Clay still experiences a change in persona. Although many critics criticize the “minimalist plot and shallow characters” (Baelo-Allue 2011:3), this cannot be truthfully said about Clay. Ellis's neutral tone and descriptive style we encounter makes Clay appear shallow; him not reacting to snuff movies (Ellis 2011:141-142) or a twelve year old girl being raped; but still, on one hand we have Clay stuck in this world that is not only created by images but completely replaced by images and a Clay longing for something beyond these images.

4. Sartre: Nothingness and non-being

With discovering that the character of Clay is reaching out for a 'beyond' behind images, this paper will first briefly suggest the concept of 'Nothingness'. Introduced by Jean-Paul Sartre in his 1943 work BeingandNothingness, first published in French, he suggests that

we come to a point where we recognize a necessity [...]. It is because we are nothingness and lack that we are obliged to (re)make our selves, but this being-lack is not a distinct metaphysical cause of the experience of obligation. We do not first discover ourselves to be nothingness, and on that basis judge that we need to acquire being. [...] we lack being, as opposed to merely finding ourselves composed of nothingness, [...]. (Gardner 2009:154)

Linking it to Existentialism, Sartre claims that this Nothingness still belongs to 'reality', because in 'reality' both can exist: objects in the mode of being and objects in the mode of non-being. Furthermore it is important to understand the link of Nothingness to consciousness, because “[...] the possibility of real nothingness is explained by the identity of consciousness with nothingness.” (Gardner 2009:61). His argument here invokes that Nothingness is always a concrete object of experience and derives from the consciousness's power to negate (Gardner 2009:61). The second thing one has to understand here is the link to freedom. As András Bálint Kovács puts it: “Between what is and what could be there is a gap, an empty space, where man is free to choose.” (Kovács 2006:2). He defines nothingness as “an empty moment [...] where man is liberated from his past and has to choose. In this sense, Nothingness is the definition of freedom; (Kovács 2006:2). In Sartre's words is “absolute freedom the very being of a person” (Gardner 2009:157). That being said, the link to Baudrillard's claim becomes visible; that simulation implies a presence and an absence, because that is what Nothingness does. Nothingness becomes visible only through presence, just as we can understand non-being only through being. To grasp this thought an example is suggested that Sartre makes: when someone looking for Peter steps into a café and meets John, then Peters absence is marked by Johns presence (Kovács 2006:2).


Excerpt out of 13 pages


Simulacra and Nothingness in Bret Easton Ellis' "Less Than Zero"
University of Cologne  (Englisches Seminar I)
American Postmodern Literature
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Bret Easton Ellis, Easton Ellis, Ellis, Sartre, Baudrillard, Jean Baudrillard, Nothingness, Simulation, Hyperreal, Less Than Zero, simulacra, meaning, meaningless, Clay, media, postmodernism, american literature, literature, american studies
Quote paper
Katharina Wagner (Author), 2015, Simulacra and Nothingness in Bret Easton Ellis' "Less Than Zero", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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