Less Than Zero (novel)
American 1st Edition Cover
|Author||Bret Easton Ellis|
|Publisher||Simon & Schuster|
|Pages||208 (First Edition)|
|LC Class||PS3555.L5937 L4 1986|
|Followed by||Imperial Bedrooms|
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, California for winter break during the early 1980s. Through first-person narration, Clay describes his progressive alienation from the culture around him, loss of faith in his friends, and his meditations on events in his recent past.
After reuniting with his ex-girlfriend Blair, and friends like Trent, now a successful model, Clay embarks on a series of drug-fueled nights of partying, during which he picks up various men and women for one-night stands. While partying, he tries to track down his best friend from high school, Julian, with whom he hasn't spoken in months. In between descriptions of his days and nights, Clay recounts a vacation spent with his parents and grandparents, during which he seemed to be the only person concerned that his grandmother was dying of cancer.
Over time, Clay becomes progressively disillusioned with the party scene as he witnesses the apathy of his friends towards the suffering of one another and those around them: at one party, he watches as the revellers joke and take Polaroids of his friend, Muriel, while she injects heroin; at another, he and Blair are the only two who exhibit revulsion when Trent shows a snuff film, which sexually excites several partygoers.
Clay ultimately tracks down Julian, who he learns has become a heroin addict and turned to prostitution in order to pay off a debt to his drug dealer, Finn, who emotionally and sexually abuses him. Believing what he has been told, yet still feeling an empty desire to witness this awful scene for himself, Clay accompanies Julian to a rendezvous in a hotel room with a married closeted businessman from Indiana, where he is compelled by the john to watch the man and Julian have sex for several hours.
After attending a concert with his friends, Clay accompanies them to an alleyway, where they stare, fascinated, at the corpse of a young man, presumably dead by overdose. Afterward, Clay follows the group back to the home of his drug dealer, Rip, who wants to show off his latest acquisition: a twelve-year-old sex slave whom Rip has been keeping drugged in his bedroom. After Clay admonishes Rip, and warns him that he risks losing everything he has, Rip chides him, and insists he "has nothing to lose" before encouraging everyone to rape the girl. Clay leaves, but Trent decides to stay so that he can participate.
Now feeling completely isolated and with winter break coming to an end, Clay reflects on the brutal nature of his surroundings as he returns to college in New Hampshire.
Literary significance and criticism
Less Than Zero was Ellis's first attempt at a proper novel, following much roman à clef juvenilia. Its first draft was, reportedly, incredibly emotional and overwrought, and in the third-person. Ellis's creative writing teacher, novelist Joe McGinniss, 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 was so great. 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-relocated California Preparatory High School The Buckley School in Encino, California, where Bonaduce, recording artist Michael Jackson, film actor Christian Brando, 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."
Less Than Zero has an extensive cast of characters; the ones listed play major roles throughout the novel.
- The 18-year-old protagonist, a student at Camden College in New Hampshire, who comes home to Los Angeles 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 for his girlfriend Blair.
- Clay's girlfriend who is studying at USC. Clay is unsure how he feels about her; neither has he been faithful to her. They vacation together and though at first they enjoy the experience, it eventually becomes tedious and ends on a sour note.
- 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 prostitute.
- Another of Clay's friends, a model who attends UCLA. He says things that Clay doesn't understand and Clay gradually becomes disenchanted with him. Trent is shown as increasingly unethical and immoral, raping a drugged twelve-year-old girl in his penultimate scene.
- 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 "Why not? What the hell?"
- 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".)
- The Handsome Dunce
- A minor character who has a cameo speaking to Clay at Blair's Christmas party. 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.
- One of Blair's friends. During the course of the book she's never sure where her film producer mother is and only knows 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."
- 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 until 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".
- An anorexic girl who Clay visits at a rehabilitation center. She appears a few times in the novel, most notably at a New Year's party where she shoots heroin publicly while laughing and crying.
- Julian's pimp, who "helps" him pay off his drug debt. In public, he acts kindly towards Julian, calling him "Julie" and "his best boy" and often showing him off to 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, aged 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 City. In flashbacks, Clay talks about his grandfather, proprietor of several hotels, and his grandmother, now deceased.
The book Less Than Zero was very loosely adapted into a movie in 1987 by 20th Century Fox in title only. 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 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, the location of Southern California and the names of the characters.
A long-running rumor in the film industry is that Quentin Tarantino has been interested in filming a new version of Less Than Zero. His workmate Roger Avary adapted The Rules of Attraction, (also based on a novel by Ellis) in 2002, and since both he and Tarantino like the works by Ellis,[clarification needed] Tarantino has been eyeing the possibility of adapting Less Than Zero. Ellis stated in an interview for Vice Magazine that Quentin Tarantino has been "trying to get Fox to let him remake it."  At a Q & A at Harvard Book Store (2012) Bret Easton Ellis stated again in a reply to a question of whether Less Than Zero will be remade, that Tarantino "has shown interest" in adapting the story. This Q & A filmed by WGBH Forum Network is called Bret Easton Ellis: Imperial Bedrooms. and can be seen on YouTube.
In January 2008, Ellis announced that his forthcoming novel Imperial Bedrooms would be the sequel to Less Than Zero. In keeping with the original, the title is taken from the title of an Elvis Costello record (both a 1982 album and song). The book appeared in 2010.
Twenty-five 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. 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 and Spencer Pratt and the Kardashians."
- "Song for Clay (Disappear Here)", the opening track of the Bloc Party album A Weekend in the City, is inspired by this book.
- "Disappear Here", a track from Moonspell's "The Butterfly Effect (Moonspell album)", is also inspired by this book. In the album booklet's note for this song can be read "based on an original concept by Bret Easton Ellis".
- Norwegian industrial/rock band Zeromancer cited the novel as the origin of their name.
- Douglas E. Winter's story "Less Than Zombie" is written as a horror-fiction tribute and send-up of Less Than Zero.
- In an episode of The Simpsons, Lisa receives the first volume of the Great Books of Western Civilization as a gift from her uncle Herb Powell, who mentions other volumes "from Beowulf to Less Than Zero."
- "Less Than Hero" is an episode of the cartoon Futurama.
- "Yes Then Zero" is an episode of the TV show Gossip Girl.
- During a cutaway in the 'Ratings Guy' episode of Family Guy, Peter discusses Less Than Zero while presenting an episode of Book Talk on Public Access Radio.
- An episode of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic bears the name "Lesson Zero", focusing on the mental breakdown of one of the main characters.
- Carrie Bradshaw, portrayed by AnnaSophia Robb, attends a publication party for the novel in The Carrie Diaries.
- Pearson, Jesse (June 2010). "Bret Easton Ellis". Vice. Archived from the original on 2013-02-10. Retrieved 2010-06-15.
- "A Conversation with Bret Easton Ellis Amazon.com
- Bonaduce, Danny (2001). Random Acts of Badness: My Story. Hyperion. p. 62. ISBN 0-7868-6722-1. Retrieved 4 June 2009.
- Less Than Zero (1987) - Trivia
- Pearson, Jesse (2010-05-02). "Bret Easton Ellis | VICE United States". Vice.com. Retrieved 2013-02-26.
- "Bret Easton Ellis - Imperial Bedrooms". YouTube. 2012-09-10. Retrieved 2013-02-26.
- 2 gange Bret - 6.11.2005 - dr.dk/DR2/Deadline 22:30 Archived 2007-04-18 at the Wayback Machine.
- Gordinier, Jeff (June 2010). "BRET EASTON ELLIS: THE ETERNAL BAD BOY". Details. Retrieved 2010-06-15.
- News, Pitchfork Media, 8 June 2006.