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Less Than Zero is a novel by Bret Easton Ellis, published in 1985. It was his first published effort, released while he was 21 and still in college.

Plot summary

Titled after the Elvis Costello song of the same name, the novel follows the life of Clay, a rich young college student who has returned to his hometown of Los Angeles, Californiamarker for the winter break during the early 1980s. He spends much of the novel going to parties and doing drugs with his friends. During this time, he must decide whether or not he wants to restart a relationship with Blair, for whom he is uncertain about his feelings. Meanwhile, Clay has one night stands with a few men and women on the side while his relationship with Blair goes downhill. At the same time, he attempts to renew his relationship with his best friend, Julian, who has become a prostitute and drug addict. Throughout his descent into the netherworld of the L.A. drug scene, he loses his faith in his friends, and grows alienated with the amoral party culture he once embraced. He is greatly disturbed by four events: first, his anorexic friend Muriel intravenously takes heroin whilst people watch and take photos; his friend Trent shows a snuff film at a party and only he and Blair seem to be disturbed by it; later, he is forced to sit in a chair for five hours to watch Julian sell himself to a businessman from Munciemarker, Indianamarker, in order to get money to support his heroin habit; finally, he meets friends at a concert, only to leave and not only find a dead body that everyone wants to see, but a 12-year-old girl who is naked and tied to the posts of a friend's bed, and once again his friends are attracted to it. Eventually, these events lead him to leave Los Angeles, possibly intending never to return. It was first published in 1985 by Simon & Schuster.

Literary significance and criticism

The author on his own novel: "I read it for the first time in about 20 years this year—recently. It wasn't so bad. I get it. I get fan mail now from people who weren't really born yet when the book came out. I don't think it's a perfect book by any means, but it's valid. I get where it comes from. I get what it is. I know that sounds so ambiguous. It's sort of out of my hands and it has its reputation, so what can you do about it? There's a lot of it that I wish was slightly more elegantly written. Overall, I was pretty shocked. It was pretty good writing for someone who was 19. I was pretty surprised by the level of writing."

In the former child actor Danny Bonaduce's 2002 autobiography, Random Acts of Badness, Bonaduce notes the striking similarity between the fictional high school in Less Than Zero and the now closed California Prep High School in Encino, Californiamarker, where Bonaduce, recording artist Michael Jackson, film actor Christian Brando, and other children of wealth and celebrities went to school together. In commenting on the novel, Bonaduce notes, "When the book Less Than Zero came out, all my classmates were pissed. Not because it was an exact portrayal of our school - but because we failed to get any royalties."


Less Than Zero has an extensive cast of characters. Listed below are the main ones who are prominent throughout the novel.

Clay: The 18 year old protagonist, student at Camden College in New Hampshiremarker, who comes home to Los Angelesmarker for Christmas, and meets many of his old friends. He revives his old life, going to parties, concerts, doing drugs, having sex and navigating the city. Clay has affairs with men and women during the course of the book, but goes through periods of apathy and longing towards his girlfriend Blair.

Blair: Clay’s girlfriend. She’s a student at USCmarker and is Jewish. Clay is unsure of his feelings for her throughout the novel and it’s made apparent through the story that neither has been faithful to the other. They go away on holiday together and this at first is good, but becomes tedious and ends sourly for the pair.

Julian: Clay’s friend from grade school and high school. Julian is frequently described as "thin" and many of Clay's friends claim he is "completely fucked up". Julian has become a heroin addict in turn and a male prostitute to feed his addiction.

Trent: Another one of Clay’s friends, a male model who attends UCLAmarker. He’ll say things to Clay that Clay doesn’t understand and as the story progresses gradually Clay becomes disheartened with him. Trent is shown as increasingly unethical and immoral during the book and in his last scene he rapes a twelve-year-old girl.

Rip: Clay’s dealer. Sporting a fedora and a penthouse on Wilshire Boulevard, Rip is also a DJ, but feels his trust fund “might never run out.” At the end of the story, he shows Clay and other boys a 12-year-old girl naked, drugged and tied to his bed to be a sex slave. When a distressed Clay questions Rip as to why he has done this, Rip replies "Because I have nothing to lose," this being the entire point of the novel.

Daniel: Daniel is another student who attends Camden and is from Los Angeles. Many of the characters think he's gay. In his earlier appearances, he was worried he had gotten a girl from Camden, Vanden, pregnant, but then doesn’t seem to care. In his final appearance, he tells Clay he won’t return to Camden, opting instead to stay in LA and write a screenplay. (Vanden, who isn't seen in the book, later appears in American Psycho as well as The Rules of Attraction, in which she and Clay are briefly "involved".)

Kim: One of Blair’s friends. During the course of the book she’s never sure where her mother (a film producer) is, and only knows based on what she reads in trade papers. At one point in the novel, she and Clay both agitate each other notably when they repeatedly question each other "What do you do?" "What do you do?" this ending with Kim finally replying "Don't ask me because...I don't know."

Alana: Another one of Blair’s friends. She has an abortion and oddly comes to Clay straight after. Clay lets her stay in his room for the night while he lies by the pool till dawn. When he goes back up, she informs him she has bled a lot and feels weak before thanking him. When he asks "What for?" she says "I don't know" and leaves. When Clay flushes his toilet, it becomes clogged up with tissue and blood clouds the water. Clay puts the lid down as "there's nothing else for me to do"

Muriel: An anorexic girl, whom Clay visits at a rehabilitation centre where she asks him for a cigarette. She appears a few times in the novel, most notably at a New Year's party where she is seen by Clay, Blair, a character named Spit and a photographer injecting heroin, whilst laughing and crying.

Finn: Julian's pimp, "helping" him pay off his drug debt. In public, he acts kindly towards Julian, calling him "Julie" and "his best boy”, often showing him off to all his clients, but in private he abuses Julian emotionally and sexually, and forces him to shoot up heroin.

Clay’s family: Clay has two sisters, who are 13 and 15, although his narration suggests he cannot distinguish between them and is unsure of their age. His parents are separated; his mother occupies their house while his father lives in an apartment. His mom has no job but nonetheless lives a life of luxury off of her ex-husband's large alimony payments, and his dad is “in the film business”, with an office in Century Citymarker. In flashbacks, Clay talks about his grandfather, proprietor of several hotels, and his grandmother, now deceased.

In addition to these characters, there are also many others who only make one appearance in the story, and there are also several who are only mentioned and don’t even appear.

Film, TV or theatrical adaptations

Less Than Zero was very loosely adapted into a movie in 1987 by 20th Century Fox. It starred Andrew McCarthy as Clay, Robert Downey Jr. as Julian, Jami Gertz as Blair, and James Spader as Rip. A then-unknown Brad Pitt also appeared as an extra. In the film, Clay is an anti-drug crusader who returns home from college to try and rescue his friends from their various narcotics addictions.

Due to all the liberties taken, Ellis refused to see the movie. In a recent interview with, Ellis stated that he has warmed up to the movie, and appreciates it visually as a snapshot of a particular time. Ellis claimed that there was no connection between the book and the movie, except for the title and the names of the characters.


Ellis announced (in a Danish television interview available at the network homepage) after the release of his most recent novel Lunar Park that he may write a sequel to Less Than Zero: a story about the same characters set in the present day and focus on their lives as they approach middle age. The book will be available in 2010.

In January 2008, Ellis announced that his forthcoming novel would be a sequel to "Less Than Zero" and would be titled Imperial Bedrooms, which, in keeping with the original, is taken from the title of an Elvis Costello record (both a 1982 album and song).

Cultural References

- The opening track of the Bloc Party album A Weekend in the City, named "Song For Clay ", is inspired by this book.

- Norwegian Industrial/Rock band Zeromancer cited the novel as origin of their name.

- Welsh rock band Manic Street Preachers namecheck Less Than Zero in their 1993 song "Patrick Bateman" - a song inspired by the antihero of Bret Easton Ellis' novel American Psycho.

- Douglas E. Winter's story "Less Than Zombie" is written as a horror-fiction tribute and send-up of Less Than Zero. It is essentially a re-telling of the snuff film scene in the story, except the narrator is just as excited by it as his friends are. After viewing the film, the group resolves to film themselves killing one of their friends in order to try and "outdo" the film they saw.

- "Less Than Hero" is the title of an episode of the cartoon Futurama.

- Portuguese metal band Moonspell named a track in their 1999 album The Butterfly Effect "Disappear Here", having its lyrics inspired by the novel.


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