Less Than Zero
Less Than Zero is a novel
A novel is a book of long narrative in literary prose. The genre has historical roots both in the fields of the medieval and early modern romance and in the tradition of the novella. The latter supplied the present generic term in the late 18th century....

 by Bret Easton Ellis
Bret Easton Ellis
Bret Easton Ellis is an American novelist and short story writer. His works have been translated into 27 different languages. He was regarded as one of the so-called literary Brat Pack, which also included Tama Janowitz and Jay McInerney...

, 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
Elvis Costello
Elvis Costello , born Declan Patrick MacManus, is an English singer-songwriter. He came to prominence as an early participant in London's pub rock scene in the mid-1970s and later became associated with the punk/New Wave genre. Steeped in word play, the vocabulary of Costello's lyrics is broader...

 song of the same name
Less Than Zero (song)
"Less Than Zero" is the eighth track on Elvis Costello's debut album My Aim Is True, and the first Costello single that Stiff Records released.In the liner notes to the Rhino edition of the album, Costello writes:...

, the novel follows the life of Clay, a rich young college student who has returned to his hometown of Los Angeles, California
Los Angeles, California
Los Angeles , with a population at the 2010 United States Census of 3,792,621, is the most populous city in California, USA and the second most populous in the United States, after New York City. It has an area of , and is located in Southern California...

 for the winter break during the early 1980s
File:1980s decade montage.png|thumb|400px|From left, clockwise: The first Space Shuttle, Columbia, lifted off in 1981; American President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev eased tensions between the two superpowers, leading to the end of the Cold War; The Fall of the Berlin Wall in...

. 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 stand
One Night Stand
One Night Stand is an HBO stand-up series that first aired on February 15, 1989. The half-hour series aired weekly and featured stand-up comedy specials from some of the top performing comedians. The series originally comprised 55 specials over the course of its four years on HBO...

s 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
Snuff film
A snuff film is a motion picture genre that depicts the actual death or murder of a person or people, without the aid of special effects, for the express purpose of distribution and entertainment or financial exploitation. For-profit snuff films are generally regarded as an urban legend, whose...

 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 Muncie
Muncie, Indiana
Muncie is a city in Center Township, Delaware County in east central Indiana, best known as the home of Ball State University and the birthplace of the Ball Corporation. It is the principal city of the Muncie, Indiana, Metropolitan Statistical Area, which has a population of 118,769...

, Indiana
Indiana is a US state, admitted to the United States as the 19th on December 11, 1816. It is located in the Midwestern United States and Great Lakes Region. With 6,483,802 residents, the state is ranked 15th in population and 16th in population density. Indiana is ranked 38th in land area and is...

, 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 naked 12-year-old girl who is 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

Less Than Zero was Ellis' first attempt at a proper novel, following much roman à clef
Roman à clef
Roman à clef or roman à clé , French for "novel with a key", is a phrase used to describe a novel about real life, overlaid with a façade of fiction. The fictitious names in the novel represent real people, and the "key" is the relationship between the nonfiction and the fiction...

Juvenilia is a term applied to literary, musical or artistic works produced by an author during his or her youth. The term often has a retrospective sense. For example, written juvenilia, if published at all, usually appear some time after the author has become well-known for later works.The term...

. Its first draft was, reportedly, incredibly emotional and over-wrought, and in the third-person. Ellis' creative writing
Creative writing
Creative writing is considered to be any writing, fiction, poetry, or non-fiction, that goes outside the bounds of normal professional, journalistic, academic, and technical forms of literature. Works which fall into this category include novels, epics, short stories, and poems...

 teacher, novelist Joe McGinniss
Joe McGinniss
Joe McGinniss is an American author of nonfiction and novels. He first came to prominence with the best-selling The Selling of the President, 1968 which described the marketing of then-presidential candidate Richard Nixon, and has authored 11 works since that time...

, advised that he return to the first person style of roman à clef (which Ellis was hesitant to do) and Ellis stripped it back, from there evoking the minimalist style for which it became famous.

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
Child actor
The term child actor or child actress is generally applied to a child acting in motion pictures or television, but also to an adult who began his or her acting career as a child; to avoid confusion, the latter is also called a former child actor...

 Danny Bonaduce
Danny Bonaduce
Dante Daniel "Danny" Bonaduce is an American radio/television personality, comedian, professional wrestler, and former child actor...

'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, California
Encino, Los Angeles, California
Encino is a hilly district of the city of Los Angeles, California, United States. Specifically, it is located in the central portion of the southern San Fernando Valley and on the north slope of the Santa Monica Mountains...

, where Bonaduce, recording artist Michael Jackson
Michael Jackson
Michael Joseph Jackson was an American recording artist, entertainer, and businessman. Referred to as the King of Pop, or by his initials MJ, Jackson is recognized as the most successful entertainer of all time by Guinness World Records...

, film actor Christian Brando
Christian Brando
Christian Brando was the eldest child of actor Marlon Brando. He pleaded guilty to manslaughter in the death of the boyfriend of his half-sister Cheyenne. On May 16, 1990, Christian Brando had shot Dag Drollet to death at Marlon Brando's residence on Mulholland Drive in Los Angeles. He was...

, and other children of wealth and celebrity 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." name="random"/>


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 Hampshire
New Hampshire
New Hampshire is a state in the New England region of the northeastern United States of America. The state was named after the southern English county of Hampshire. It is bordered by Massachusetts to the south, Vermont to the west, Maine and the Atlantic Ocean to the east, and the Canadian...

, who comes home to Los Angeles
Los Ángeles
Los Ángeles is the capital of the province of Biobío, in the commune of the same name, in Region VIII , in the center-south of Chile. It is located between the Laja and Biobío rivers. The population is 123,445 inhabitants...

 for Christmas and meets his old friends. He revives his old life: parties, concerts, drugs, sex, the city. Clay has affairs with both men and women, but he goes through periods of apathy and longing about his girlfriend Blair.

Blair: Clay’s girlfriend. She’s a student at USC
University of Southern California
The University of Southern California is a private, not-for-profit, nonsectarian, research university located in Los Angeles, California, United States. USC was founded in 1880, making it California's oldest private research university...

. Clay is unsure how he feels about her and neither has been faithful. They vacation together, and it's good at first, but then it becomes tedious and ends sourly.

Julian: Clay’s friend from grade school and high school. Julian is often described as "thin" and many of Clay's friends declare him "completely fucked up". Julian has become a heroin addict and a gigolo.

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

Rip: Clay’s dealer. Sporting a fedora
Fedora (hat)
A fedora is a men's felt hat. In reality, "fedora" describes most any men's hat that does not already have another name; quite a few fedoras have famous names of their own including the famous Trilby....

 and a penthouse on Wilshire Boulevard
Wilshire Boulevard
Wilshire Boulevard is one of the principal east-west arterial roads in Los Angeles, California, United States. It was named for Henry Gaylord Wilshire , an Ohio native who made and lost fortunes in real estate, farming, and gold mining. Henry Wilshire initiated what was to become Wilshire...

, 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 don't have anything to lose."

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
American Psycho
American Psycho is a psychological thriller and satirical novel by Bret Easton Ellis, published in 1991. The story is told in the first person by the protagonist, serial killer and Manhattan businessman Patrick Bateman. The book's graphic violence and sexual content generated a great deal of...

 as well as The Rules of Attraction
The Rules of Attraction
The Rules of Attraction is a dark comedy and satirical novel by Bret Easton Ellis published in 1987. The novel focuses on a handful of rowdy and often sexually promiscuous, spoiled Bohemian college students at a liberal arts college in 1980s New Hampshire, primarily focusing on three of them who...

, in which she and Clay are briefly "involved".)

The Handsome Dunce: A minor character who has a cameo speaking to Clay at Blair's Christmas party. "They're playing the Eagles' he says and then 'Huh?' as Clay asks him questions, then he laughs at the 'U.C.R.A' comment by Trent when he imitates a Japanese man. He goes on to appear in The Rules of Attraction, where it is revealed that he goes to Camden College and that his name is Steve.

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 comes to Clay afterwards. 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
A pimp is an agent for prostitutes who collects part of their earnings. The pimp may receive this money in return for advertising services, physical protection, or for providing a location where she may engage clients...

, "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
Alimony is a U.S. term denoting a legal obligation to provide financial support to one's spouse from the other spouse after marital separation or from the ex-spouse upon divorce...

 payments, and his dad is “in the film business”, with an office in Century City. 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 adaptation

Less Than Zero was very loosely adapted into a movie
A film, also called a movie or motion picture, is a series of still or moving images. It is produced by recording photographic images with cameras, or by creating images using animation techniques or visual effects...

 in 1987 by 20th Century Fox
20th Century Fox
Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation — also known as 20th Century Fox, or simply 20th or Fox — is one of the six major American film studios...

. It starred Andrew McCarthy
Andrew McCarthy
Andrew Thomas McCarthy is an American actor. He is known for his roles in the 1980s films St. Elmo's Fire, Mannequin, Weekend at Bernie's, Pretty in Pink, and Less Than Zero, and more recently for his role in the television shows Lipstick Jungle, White Collar and Royal Pains.-Career:McCarthy...

 as Clay, Robert Downey Jr.
Robert Downey Jr.
Robert John Downey, Jr. is an American actor. Downey made his screen debut in 1970 at the age of five when he appeared in his father's film Pound, and has worked consistently in film and television ever since. During the 1980s he had roles in a series of coming of age films associated with the...

 as Julian, Jami Gertz
Jami Gertz
Jami Beth Gertz is an American actress. Gertz is known for her early roles in the films Sixteen Candles, Crossroads, The Lost Boys, Less Than Zero, the 1980s TV series Square Pegs with Sarah Jessica Parker, and 1996's Twister, as well as for her role as Judy Miller in the CBS sitcom Still Standing...

 as Blair, and James Spader
James Spader
James Todd Spader is an American actor best known for his eccentric roles in movies such as Pretty in Pink, Less Than Zero, Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Crash, Stargate, and Secretary...

 as Rip. A then-unknown Brad Pitt
Brad Pitt
William Bradley "Brad" Pitt is an American actor and film producer. Pitt has received two Academy Award nominations and four Golden Globe Award nominations, winning one...

 also appeared as an extra. In the film, Clay is an anti-drug crusader who returns home from college to try to 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 Amazon.com, 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
Lunar Park
Lunar Park is a novel by Bret Easton Ellis with elements of faux autobiography and pastiche. It was released by Knopf on August 16, 2005. It is notable for being the first book written by Ellis to use past tense narrative.-Plot summary:...

that he would be writing a sequel to Less Than Zero: a story following the same characters, set in the present day, that focuses on their lives as they approach middle age
Middle age
Middle age is the period of age beyond young adulthood but before the onset of old age. Various attempts have been made to define this age, which is around the third quarter of the average life span of human beings....

. The book appeared 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
Imperial Bedrooms
Imperial Bedrooms is a novel by American author Bret Easton Ellis. Released on June 15, 2010, it is the sequel to Less Than Zero, Ellis' 1985 bestselling literary debut, which was shortly followed by a film adaptation in 1987. Imperial Bedrooms revisits Less Than Zeros self-destructive and...

, which, in keeping with the original, is taken from the title of an Elvis Costello record (both a 1982 album and song).


25 years later, upon the release of the sequel, Details commented on Less Than Zero and its original reviews, stating: "Years ago people could have read some of your books and said, "Oh, this is just nihilism
Nihilism is the philosophical doctrine suggesting the negation of one or more putatively meaningful aspects of life. Most commonly, nihilism is presented in the form of existential nihilism which argues that life is without objective meaning, purpose, or intrinsic value...

. These people don't exist! There's nobody that rich and stupid and narcissistic!"". (The article details, "When Michiko Kakutani first reviewed Less Than Zero in The New York Times in June of 1985, she began the review this way: "This is one of the most disturbing novels I've read in a long time."") Ellis remarks "surprise!". They also credit him with "In a way, [inventing] Paris Hilton
Paris Hilton
Paris Whitney Hilton is an American businesswoman, heiress, and socialite. She is a great-granddaughter of Conrad Hilton . Hilton is known for her controversial participation in a sex tape in 2003, and appearance on the television series The Simple Life alongside fellow socialite and childhood...

 and Spencer Pratt
Spencer Pratt
Spencer William Pratt is a former American television personality known for his role on MTV's The Hills, along with his wife Heidi Montag. He is the older brother of Stephanie Pratt, who also appears on The Hills....

 and the Kardashians."

Cultural references

  • The opening track of the Bloc Party
    Bloc Party
    Bloc Party are a British Indie rock band, composed of Kele Okereke , Russell Lissack , Gordon Moakes , and Matt Tong...

     album A Weekend in the City
    A Weekend In The City
    A Weekend in the City is the second studio album by British indie rock band Bloc Party. It was recorded at Grouse Lodge Studios in Westmeath, Ireland, in mid-2006 and was produced by Jacknife Lee. The record was refined and mixed at several locations in London at the end of 2006...

    , named "Song For Clay (Disappear Here)
    Song for Clay (Disappear Here)
    "Song for Clay " is the opening track from Bloc Party's second album A Weekend in the City and was set to be the fourth single released from the album. The band had even begun work on a music video for the song...

    ", is inspired by this book.
  • Norwegian industrial/rock band Zeromancer
    Zeromancer is a Norwegian industrial rock band formed in 1999 by members of the band Seigmen. The current lineup is Alex Møklebust , Kim Ljung , Noralf Ronthi Lorry Kristiansen and Dan Heide...

     cited the novel as the origin of their name.
  • Welsh rock band Manic Street Preachers
    Manic Street Preachers
    Manic Street Preachers are a Welsh alternative rock band, formed in 1986. They are James Dean Bradfield, Nicky Wire, Richey Edwards and Sean Moore. The band are part of the Cardiff music scene, and were at their most prominent during the 1990s...

     namecheck Less Than Zero in their 1993 song "Patrick Bateman"—a song inspired by the antihero of Bret Easton Ellis' novel American Psycho
    American Psycho
    American Psycho is a psychological thriller and satirical novel by Bret Easton Ellis, published in 1991. The story is told in the first person by the protagonist, serial killer and Manhattan businessman Patrick Bateman. The book's graphic violence and sexual content generated a great deal of...

  • 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 to "outdo" the film they saw.
  • "Less Than Hero
    Less Than Hero
    "Less Than Hero" is the fourth episode in the fourth production season of Futurama. It first aired on March 2, 2003 as the sixth episode in the fifth broadcast season. The episode was directed by Susie Dietter and written by Ron Weiner.- Plot :...

    " is the title of an episode of the cartoon Futurama
    Futurama is an American animated science fiction sitcom created by Matt Groening and developed by Groening and David X. Cohen for the Fox Broadcasting Company. The series follows the adventures of a late 20th-century New York City pizza delivery boy, Philip J...

  • Portuguese metal band Moonspell
    Moonspell is a Portuguese gothic metal band from Brandoa, Lisbon. Formed in 1992, the group released their first EP Under the Moonspell in 1994, a year before the release of their first album Wolfheart...

     named a track in their 1999 album The Butterfly Effect "Disappear Here", having its lyrics inspired by the novel.
  • In the 2009 movie 17 Again
    17 Again (film)
    17 Again: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack was released on April 21, 2009 by New Line Records.-Track listing:# "On My Own" by Vincent and The Villains# "Can't Say No" by The Helio Sequence# "L.E.S...

    , the novel is referenced during the courtroom scene, where Mike says his high school sweetheart was reading Less Than Zero when he first saw her.
  • Andrew Weatherhead's short story Bret Easton Ellis' First Novel references in its title and in the story Less Than Zero.
  • In NYC-author Tao Lin
    Tao Lin
    Tao Lin is an American writer. He was born of Taiwanese parents and grew up on the East Coast of the USA.He is the author of two novels, Eeeee Eee Eeee and Richard Yates ; a novella, Shoplifting from American Apparel ; a short story collection, Bed ; and two poetry collections, you are a little...

    's novella Shoplifting from American Apparel
    Shoplifting from American Apparel
    Shoplifting from American Apparel is Tao Lin's first novella, fifth book, and first published fiction since the May 15, 2007 simultaneous publication of his debut novel, Eeeee Eee Eeee, and debut story-collection, Bed...

    a character is said to be "reading a Bret Easton Ellis novel" while on a bus to Atlantic City. In interviews Lin has said the character was reading Less Than Zero.
  • Yes Then Zero is the title of an episode of the show Gossip Girl
    Gossip Girl
    Gossip Girl is an American young adult novel series written by Cecily von Ziegesar and published by Little, Brown and Company, a subsidiary of the Hachette Group. The series revolves around the lives and romances of the privileged teenagers at the Constance Billard School for Girls, an elite...

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