Less Than Zero

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

This novel is a work of fiction, but its sense of time and place, of a wayward generation consumed by materialism and self-gratification, is both unsettling and real. Its narrator is Clay, an eighteen-year-old student at a college in New Hampshire, who returns home to Southern California for a month-long Christmas vacation with plans to rendezvous with his affluent friends. Somehow, though, the thought of meeting with his friends, his old girlfriend, Blair; Trent, a male model; Julian, Clay’s best friend from high school; and Rip, his drug dealer, fills Clay less with anticipation than with an overwhelming sense of dread and consternation.

For four weeks, Clay reexperiences--or rather endures--the tenuous connections to his privileged Los Angeles life-style: going to parties in sprawling mansions, where cocaine is plentiful and the young and beautiful guests size up one another’s tans and college credentials; keeping dutiful appointments with his psychiatrist, who uses up their sessions to talk about his mistress and the screenplay he is planning to write; struggling through pointless, expensive lunches and strained conversations with his parents; driving aimlessly about the city in his friends’ interchangeably sleek sports cars. The relentless drone of MTV, with its soft-core titillation and glorification of bourgeois values, serves as a fitting backdrop to the vapid and dead-end lives of Clay and his friends.

LESS THAN ZERO is a haunting indictment of a spiritually bankrupt youth culture, a culture where the right clothes, the right car, the precise tilt of one’s sunglasses are the only “statements” that seem to count for anything. For Clay, his so-called vacation is a painful reminder that facades beget facades and that destructive patterns, years in the making, are not easily broken.

Himself reared in a well-to-do environment, Ellis clearly is familiar with the young and restless life-style he so vividly and nightmarishly depicts in this, his first novel. Undoubtedly, few readers will feel sympathetic toward the cast of characters that brings to life this modern-day tragedy of misplaced ideals. Ellis, however, even at the tender age of twenty, is not asking the reader to feel sorry for the petty and vain inhabitants of his elitist vision of hell on earth; he means to illustrate how warped and mechanical a person’s outlook on life can become when dulled by hedonism and material wealth, and he does this with a breathless and terrifying precision.

Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

Popular Music of the 1980s
Ellis's fiction has been noted for its many references to elements of popular American...

(The entire section is 537 words.)

Literary Style

(Novels for Students)

This story is narrated from the first-person point of view, meaning that the story is narrated from Clay's...

(The entire section is 467 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Less Than Zero is a realist novel in the naturalist vein. Naturalism, as practiced by authors such as Gustave Flaubert and Stephen...

(The entire section is 222 words.)

Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Less Than Zero is a grim representation of eighties youth disaffection that aspires to a brutal honesty. It can be read either as an...

(The entire section is 306 words.)

Social Concerns

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Ellis' principal social concern is particular to the time and place in which he sets Less Than Zero. Implicitly, however, Ellis' work...

(The entire section is 1198 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

Less Than Zero makes many references to popular American music of the early 1980s. Learn more about this period in American music...

(The entire section is 207 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Ellis' portrait of a generation gone awry is an excellent example of what some critics have called the oldest American form, the Jeremiad....

(The entire section is 421 words.)

Related Titles

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Though he does not follow Clay, Blair, and their friends in subsequent works, Ellis does focus on similar concerns with a similar style in...

(The entire section is 422 words.)


(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Less Than Zero was made into a film in 1987. The movie was directed by Marek Kaniesvska and followed a screenplay written by Harley...

(The entire section is 384 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Novels for Students)

Less Than Zero was adapted to the screen and produced by Twentieth Century Fox in 1987. The cast includes Robert Downy, Jr. and James...

(The entire section is 24 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

The Rules of Attraction (1985) is another novel written by Bret Easton Ellis. This is his second novel and concerns a love triangle...

(The entire section is 167 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)

Freese, Peter, "Bret Easton Ellis, Less Than Zero: Entropy in the 'MTV Novel'?" in Modes of...

(The entire section is 163 words.)