Less Than Zero

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 397

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

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 537

Popular Music of the 1980s
Ellis's fiction has been noted for its many references to elements of popular American culture. This novel makes references to a number of pop musicians and bands of the early 1980s, including: Elvis Costello, the Go-Gos, Peter Gabriel, Duran Duran, INXS, Adam Ant, Sting, XTC, U2, the Fleshtones, Aerosmith, Squeeze, the Clash, the Eagles, and Fleetwood Mac. These references appear on posters and T-shirts as well as in discussion of new albums and songs and background noise in various scenes of the novel. These references are partly what lead critics to call the novel "the voice of a new generation," as they locate the characters in a very specific historical and generational milieu of popular entertainment.

Popular Film, Television, and Magazines
Reference is also made to various movies, such as Friday the 13th, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Temple of Doom. Several references to television programs also appear in the novel, such as The Twilight Zone, a science fiction series, and Another World, a long-running soap opera. The titles also pick up on central themes of the novel. Friday the 13th and Invasion of the Body Snatchers are both classic horror films; their association with graphic violence, and the voyeuristic pleasures of watching graphic violence, are recurring interests of Clay and his friends. Popular magazines also figure prominently in Clay's social world of consumerism and glamour, including: International Male, GQ, and Glamour. These pop culture references together echo the book's theme of a shallow, superficial world built on the pleasures of voyeurism and consumerism.

MTV/HBO, and Betamax
Part of what makes this novel "the voice of a new generation" is the many references to newly marketed home video technology that became widely used in the early 1980s. Central to the atmosphere of the story is that televisions are often turned on to the MTV (Music TeleVision) station, featuring pop music videos. While music had been set to video or film images for promotional purposes before 1980, music videos did not become readily accessible to the public until the launching of MTV in 1981.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica entry on "Music Video" has captured the stylistic flavor of music videos in the early MTV era, when:

performance clips had been all but superseded by a conceptual approach whose characteristic surrealism was often more stipulated than invented and whose glib stylistic hallmarks quickly became cliches: associative editing, multiple dramatized situations chosen more for their visual impact than their appropriateness, an air of significance undeterred by lack of actual meaning, and a breathtaking readiness to refer to, pilfer, and rework the 20th century's vast trove of talismanic imagery—drawn from movies, TV, painting, news photography, and so on.

MTV programming was made possible by the newly developed availability of cable television in the mid-1970s, which offered subscribers countless additional TV channels from which to choose. Characters in the novel also watch HBO (Home Box Office), a major cable station founded in 1972 by Time, Inc. In addition, characters in the novel watch videos, most often pornography, on the "betamax." The Betamax was an early version of videocassette recorder (VCR), launched by Sony in the 1970s. VHS soon dominated the market, and Betamax faded out of popularity.

Literary Style

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 467

This story is narrated from the first-person point of view, meaning that the story is narrated from Clay's perspective and is limited to his thoughts and impressions of the action around him. Many critics have noted that Clay maintains a detached sense of irony in his narrative perspective. This detached tone is in part indicative of Clay's nearly constant drug use, and in part an expression of his complete sense of alienation from his own feelings, as well as from any real emotional contact with his friends and family.

Flashback Sequences
The novel is set during Clay's Christmas vacation from college. Yet interspersed with this central narrative flow of events are flashbacks to events from Clay's childhood. The flashbacks are scripted in italic type in order to set them off from the central narrative and indicate a shift in the narrative mode. Although nothing in the story directly indicates that Clay has written anything at all, the flashback sequences have a tone that suggests a personal essay or creative writing assignment for a college course.

The flashback sequences have a slightly different tone from the central narrative; they describe memories involving family interactions with relatives, such as his grandparents and aunt, and are less emotionally detached than the narration of the central story. Clay's memories of earlier times as described in the flashback sequences suggest a time in his life when he was more emotionally expressive and less disaffected from his family and the world around him. In the first flashback sequence, for example, Clay describes one day during his senior year of high school when he drove out to Palm Springs, where the house in which he had grown up stood run-down and unoccupied. He ends the sequence by explaining that, "I guess I went out there because I wanted to remember the way things were."

This novel is set in Los Angeles during the early 1980s. This setting is crucial to the story in several ways. Clay describes a social milieu of financially overprivileged teens who drive around in BMWs purchased by their parents, and spend countless sums of money on expensive drugs like cocaine. Ellis's novel depicts a spiritually and emotionally empty materialism of both the children and the parents in this milieu. Clay's father, for instance, is more concerned with his new car than with his own son.

The setting in LA is also important because many of Clay's friends are the children of people who work in the Hollywood film industry. The careers of the parents take them away from home much of the time, traveling to various locations for film production. Furthermore, the backdrop of the Hollywood film industry echoes a central theme of the novel, which describes a world of voyeuristic entertainment devoid of any real human contact.

Literary Techniques

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 222

Less Than Zero is a realist novel in the naturalist vein. Naturalism, as practiced by authors such as Gustave Flaubert and Stephen Crane, is concerned not with nature but with brutal honesty. Naturalist authors endeavor to neither romanticize their subjects nor exaggerate their shortcomings. The monotonous candor of Ellis' narrator, Clay, gives the novel a strong sense of authenticity and of honesty. Much of the novel's emotional impact lies in its deadpan delivery; events are simply chronicled and not expounded upon. The reader is thus left to supply his or her own judgement.

Ellis employs an episodic structure in Less Than Zero. Rather than long narrative chapters, he breaks his novel down into vignettes, short passages, often less than a page, which tell a minute portion of the story. For the most part, each passage relates only one event or detail. Ellis thus breaks with narrative convention. His novel does not begin with event "A" and then, through a sequence of orderly occurrences, reach event "Z." Instead, the narrative meanders aimlessly. This technique is useful and interesting because it allows the form to follow the content. In other words, Ellis' book about young men and women wandering listlessly through life wanders listlessly itself. The reader enters the lives of Ellis' characters through a medium which mirrors the fragmented, disorganized lives they lead.

Ideas for Group Discussions

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 306

Less Than Zero is a grim representation of eighties youth disaffection that aspires to a brutal honesty. It can be read either as an indictment of a particular social set's excesses or as a criticism of the ethics which transform American individualism into American narcissism. Ellis suggests that personal isolation breeds anti-social, selfdestructive, and outright violent behavior in groups without accountability. Such freedom of responsibility is, unfortunately, easily available to those with the financial wherewithal to free themselves of the burdens associated with adult life. Ellis' characters are spoiled children, whether they are eighteen or forty-eight.

Ellis' presentation of these criticisms alternately compels and shocks the reader. Though distant and enigmatic, Less Than Zero's narrator is sympathetic, if ambiguously so. The novel's action, more than a logically ordered sequence of events, orders itself along the lines of a crescendo of degradation. The details Clay relates become more disturbing, the things characters do become more deviant. Ultimately, the book ends without resolution. One cannot be sure whether Clay has cut himself free from his cohorts' degrading influence or has recognized the inevitability of his connection to them.

1. Ellis' characters all occupy a tiny fraction of the general population; they belong to an economic elite. Is it difficult to sympathize with characters, however painful their experiences, who are the beneficiaries of such material excess? In other words, is it hard to feel sorry for the rich kids that fill the novel?

2. Why might the film version of Less Than Zero take such radical departures from the novel?

3. Did you find the book lacking in structure or does the narrative hold up? Were you disturbed by the book's failure to resolve itself?

4. How might Ellis' book have misled those who see it as condoning drug use?

5. Why might Ellis have set the book in Los Angeles during the 1980s?

Social Concerns

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1198

Ellis' principal social concern is particular to the time and place in which he sets Less Than Zero. Implicitly, however, Ellis' work critiques American society at large and concludes that the prosperity of the eighties was squandered by self-interest. The specific acts of depravity he chronicles—drug abuse, sexual promiscuity, violence, etc.—are part of a much larger problem: personal isolation. A culture that privileges the rabid individualist must accept the consequences of their ethic; Ellis' book outlines these consequences in gritty, shocking detail.

On the surface, Less Than Zero seems concerned with the excesses of young, rich Californians living in the eighties. Clearly, Ellis, unlike authors such as Hunter S. Thompson, sees the drug culture as decadent and depraved. This fact is often missed by critics who detect a sympathetic attention in Ellis' careful rendering of drug abusing characters; there are no clearly good characters against which to compare the clearly bad characters. Those individuals who do provoke sympathy, however, are, at times, apathetic to the point of negligence or self-loathing to the point of narcissism. The reader's response is, then, ambivalent at best. Less Than Zero, therefore, is more complicated than an after-school special, but it is also more powerful.

Ellis' book outlines the damage caused to individuals by the abuse of hard drugs. Ellis demonstrates this capacity for self-destruction when he describes the decomposing body of a rich young man who has apparently overdosed. Even for those not killed by drug abuse, there are profound psychological effects, including apathy and aimlessness.

Ellis seems troubled by drugs' ability to transform earnest young men and women into apathetic malcontents. His characters, so long as they are inured by cocaine and alcohol, are utterly unaffected by the horrific behaviors of those around them. Clay's mother, for instance, shows indifference to his drug habit. Alana, one of Clay's friends, most concisely articulates their emotional insensitivity when, after an abortion, she says "I think we've all lost some sort of feeling." Each character shows this loss in a different way.

Clay never betrays deep concern for his friend Julian's need to work as a prostitute to pay off a drug debt. Instead, having seen his boyhood cohort injected with heroin and led to a bedroom, Clay remarks monotonously, "I turn away and leave the house." Clay turns away from all disagreeable appearances, rarely commenting and never making any but the most feeble attempt to ameliorate unpleasant situations. Even the loss of his girlfriend, Blair, leaves him disturbingly untroubled: "She tells me that she doesn't think that Blair likes me much anymore. I shrug and look out an open window." Clearly, Clay's drug use causes this disconnection from his personal experiences. Such apathy, even at the loss of a loved one, makes reading about Ellis' characters an eerie experience.

Another side of apathy is aimlessness. Of all the members in Clay's set, only he and his friend Daniel leave the Los Angeles area in an effort to begin the rest of their lives. Though Clay has, at the novel's opening, just finished his first term of college, he seems unsure of what he will do with his life. Even so, Clay seems highly motivated by comparison to his friends. Some of them who are enrolled in college are unsure even when the new semester starts. Several wonder aloud if classes have already begun. Clearly, education and self-advancement is, at best, a ploy to kill time in the lives of Ellis' young characters.

Ellis describes a generation of children without the slightest notion of how they might contribute to society. In part, of course, this aimlessness derives from their economic backgrounds: without the need to work, few of Ellis' characters have any desire to find jobs. Unfortunately, this lack of direction and absence of productive pursuits lead them to fill their days and nights with destructive activities. Each day Clay moves through a series of social interactions and parties. There is, in short, never anything for him to do. Ellis thus criticizes any group, whether a social set or an entire nation, without clear goals. In Ellis' view, dissipation necessarily follows when one loses sight of a definite purpose.

The absence of parental guidance might cause the lack of direction in Ellis' teenaged characters' lives. The parents Ellis describes are as narcissistic and apathetic as their children. They never take any interest in their kids lives, except to give them some money. The children reciprocate by taking no notice of their parents, to the point that one character, Kim, remarks that she is unsure of her mother's whereabouts because Variety and Vogue had printed conflicting reports. Ellis' characters actually learn how to live a degenerate life from their parents. Less Than Zero suggests, then, that the children of the privileged inherit their forbears' iniquities as much as their money.

Ellis is also concerned about the effects of personal isolation. American society, it seems, has made a horrible mistake in its lauding of individualism. Rugged individualism was important for pioneers such as Daniel Boone, but members of a civil society must live together. Ellis' wealthy Californians have, through their prosperity, withdrawn from civil society to create their own world, one with the unpleasant appearances of the poor moved to the margins. Co-existing with the idle rich is the unfortunate majority of working and homeless poor. Members of the underclass appear briefly on Clay's radar from time to time. They are always remarked upon in brief, however. Clay recognizes a homeless woman, for example, but does not even condescend to give her change. His friend Daniel remarks on the drug abuse of his Mexican maid but does not demonstrate an interest in her. The poor appear only when they stand in the path of Clay and his friends. Even then, they are merely dismissed with a turning of the head.

In addition to removing themselves from American society, Ellis' idle rich have withdrawn from each other. Left to make their own laws, each of Ellis' characters become laws unto themselves. This rabid self-involvement allows them to laugh at a snuff film and even perpetrate their own acts of violence. In the novel's closing pages, Clay's friends bring him to their home where they have tied up a twelve-year-old girl they use as their sex slave. Clay, whose own emotional capacity has atrophied to almost nothing, can only say, "It's . . . I don't think it's right." His friend's reply might be the most concise summary of the callousness lying at the heart of American culture: "What's right? If you want something, you have the right to take it. If you want to do something, you have the right to do it." Though coming from the mouth of a young man who coldly abuses a twelve-year-old, these words invoke the principal tenants of American freedom. Capitalist ideology advocates succeeding at all hazards; freedom means the right to define one's own moral code. When taken to their extremes, these ideologies can, Ellis asserts, become green lights for individuals to commit violent, anti-social acts. In fact, these freedoms can, it seems, provoke individuals to actively degrade themselves and others so that they might sense the force of their freedom.

Literary Precedents

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 421

Ellis' portrait of a generation gone awry is an excellent example of what some critics have called the oldest American form, the Jeremiad. This genre, popular with the Calvinist preachers of colonial New England, is, essentially, a complaint against the morality of the time and a warning that such laxity might inspire the wrath of God. American Jeremiads, unlike their European forbears, also emphasize the fact that the sinners chastised are actually a chosen people, destined to find their way to the right path. Ellis' novel fits this pattern. The privileged characters he describes are indicted for debauchery in the face of providential blessings. The rich, California elite of the 1980s are endowed with an economic prosperity beyond comprehension, yet they shun their good fortune by their flights of excess. Ellis' novel is at once a criticism of this excess and a reminder that plenty abounds.

Another work that engages in this simultaneous criticism of and praise for contemporary American morality is Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971). This nonfictional (but wildly imaginative) account of Thompson's trip to Las Vegas to cover two stories looks back on the failed experiment of sixties counterculture. The wave of freedom which the sixties ushered in broke, Thompson argues, with the election of "the forces of old and evil" in the guise of Richard Nixon. American democracy was, in Thomspon's mind, nearly achieved by the counterculture's efforts. But in the early years of the seventies, Thompson sees a return to the conservative oligarchy and a general apathy about serious political issues. Thompson's book, like Ellis', depicts an American people who shun their privileges and wallow in excess and apathy.

For the character of his narrator, Ellis is clearly indebted to J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye (1951). This novel's legendary narrator Holden Caulfield addresses his surroundings with a sneer that looks remarkably similar to Clay's. Both are disaffected with their cohorts to the point of physical illness; both are socially inept young men who would rather be alone than deal with others. Clay and Holden both exude a fury that purports to echo the sentiment of their respective generations. This anger makes both classically unreliable narrators; their description of events is colored by the strength of their emotions. The similarities between Ellis' protagonist and Salinger's narrator do not suggest a lack of vision or originality on Ellis' part. Instead, the recasting of Holden, one of American literature's best known mouthpieces, firmly entrenches Less Than Zero in the tradition of American letters.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 384

Less Than Zero was made into a film in 1987. The movie was directed by Marek Kaniesvska and followed a screenplay written by Harley Peyton. Peyton's script makes radical departures from Ellis' novel. The story told by the movie is, in essence, entirely different than that told by Ellis. The film is still a useful companion to the book because it displays the California landscape in rich detail. Ellis' sense of detail is strong, and his descriptions are excellent. Nevertheless, the movie's visuals add a more immediate understanding of the space in which the book's events occur.

The most substantial difference between the novel and the film adaptation is the shift in the narrative stance. Clay (played by Andrew McCarthy) is clean in the movie; his character is a far cry from Ellis' strungout, confused narrator. This constitutes a reformulation of the narrator's position in relation to the reader. Peyton's screenplay transforms Clay from an unreliable narrator to an objective voice of reason with which the viewer can feel an easy kinship. It is difficult to sympathize with Ellis' Clay; he is as deeply involved in drugs as the unlikable characters he describes. Thus, Peyton's changes make the movie much easier to watch. Characters are easier to categorize with simple definitions like good and bad, sober and wrecked. Though clearly a function of his medium, this simplification robs the text of much of its narrative complexity.

The story's sequence of events also changes a great deal in the translation from book to movie. Unlike Ellis' character, Peyton's Clay returns from college with a strong desire to resume his relationship with Blair (played by Jami Gertz). Unfortunately, Blair has taken up with Julian (Robert Downey, Jr). Thus, Julian, who functions as a shady, undeveloped character who is the subject of an unexplained fascination of Clay's, becomes a principal character with a great deal more time on screen than he occupies on Ellis' pages. A convoluted but clearly presented sequence of events sees Blair and Clay back together and Julian, worn out by fear of his dealer's reprisals and the shock of trying to get clean, dies quietly. This clarity and neatness of this narrative line is an unfortunate departure from Ellis' vision. It is void of the ambiguity which makes Ellis' a haunting and complex story.

Media Adaptations

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 24

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

Bibliography and Further Reading

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 163

Freese, Peter, "Bret Easton Ellis, Less Than Zero: Entropy in the 'MTV Novel'?" in Modes of Narrative, Konigshausen & Neumann, 1990, pp. 68-87.

Pan, David, "Wishing for More," in Telos, No. 76, Summer 1988, pp. 143-54.

For Further Study
Baughman, Judith, American Decades: 1980-1989, Gale, March 1996.
This is primarily an outline of events that happened in the United States during the 1980s. The book focuses on the arts, education, government and politics, law, and sports.

Coupland, Douglas, Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, St. Martin's Press, October 1992.
This book contains several stories about the culture and attitudes of people born in the 1970s and 1980s.

Sewall, Gilbert, ed., The Eighties: A Reader, Perseus Books, November 1998.
This ultraconservative book covers an array of articles that deal with the politics and culture of the 1980s.

Winter, Gibson, America in Search of Its Soul, Morehouse Publishing Company, November 1996.
This book takes an in-depth look into the lives of today's young people through social, ethical and spiritual views.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Critical Essays


Teaching Guide