Less Than Zero

Bret Easton Ellis

In 1985 twenty-one-year-old Bret Easton Ellis jolted the literary world with his first novel Less Than Zero. Readers and critics were both fascinated and horrified by his depiction of wealthy, degenerate Los Angeles teenagers obsessed with mood-altering drugs and violent debaucheries.

"Ellis conveys the hellishness of aimless lives with economy and skill" (Paul Gray, Time)

"It is one of the most disturbing novels I have read in a long time." (Michiko Kakutani, New York Times)

Ellis was viewed as the voice of a new generation and critics dubbed the book as "the first MTV novel". Less Than Zero is very fast paced and divided into brief scenes much the same way MTV is fragmented into short videos. Additionally, the characters of the novel refer constantly to songs and artists. Songs provide additional meaning to the novel, like, for example, an Elvis Costello song, which is the novel's title. Like the novel the song conjures up an atmosphere of a world out of joint, pervaded by mass media, drifting towards ultimate chaos.

Listen to "Less Than Zero"
by Elvis Costello

The novel starts out with Clay, an eighteen-year-old freshman, returning from his first term at New Hampshire College (East Coast) to spend Christmas vacation with his broken-up wealthy family in Los Angeles. During that month he wastes away his time at endless parties and in fashionable nightspots. He sleeps indiscriminately with the girls and boys that belong to his overprivileged set of bored adolescents, constantly drinks, smokes, sniffs cocaine to get high and takes valium to come down again.

Clay's frantic search for cheap thrills leads to nothing but boredom and desperation. He and his friends are a clique of rootless drifters, who have nothing to look forward to because they already know and own everything. Most of the time Clay drives aimlessly around the sprawling city of Los Angeles in his expensive car.



After leaving Blaire I drive down to Wilshire and then onto Santa Monica and then I drive onto Sunset and take Beverly Glen to Mulholland, and then to Sepulveda to Ventura and then I drive through Sherman Oak's to Encino and then into Tarzana and then Woodland Hills. I stop at Sambo's that's open all night...



Ellis presents Clay as a traveller, who is constantly on the road. Clay's random driving on the Boulevards of L.A. reflects his lapse from inner direction. His journey is numb and aimless. It is monotonous and one place seems much the same as the other.

He and his friends do not question the purpose of their journey. What counts is the zest for motion itself, which reflects a tradition in American literature. Jack Kerouac's novel On the Road shows a similar notion of compulsive wandering:

Clay and his dealer in Less Than Zero:
Where are we going? I asked him.
"I don't know," he said. "Just driving".
"But this road does not go anywhere," I told him.
"That doesn't matter."
"What does?" I asked, after a little while.
"Just that we're on it, dude," he said.

Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise in On the Road:
"Oh, man," said Dean to me as we stood in front of a bar, "[...] Sal, we got to go and never stop till we get there."
"Where are we going, man."
"I don't know but we gotta go."



A road sign assumes a symbolic meaning in Less Than Zero. Clay sees an ad for a holiday resort at the Sunset Boulevard:

I come to a red light, tempted to go through it, then stop once I see a billboard sign that I don't remember seeing and I look up at it. All it says is "Disappear Here" and even though it's probably an ad for some resort, it still freaks me out a little and I step on the gas really hard and the car screeches as I leave the light.

Clay interprets the sign differently than it is meant to be read. "Disappear" for him assumes the meaning "cease to exist" and he applies it to his situation, which is why the sign "freaks" him out. "Disappear here" becomes a motif for the novel. It crosses Clay's mind on different occasions, for example, when he thinks of his friend Julian, who is a drug-addict, or when he sits at the beach waiting for his friends to show up:

...I sit on a bench and wait for them, staring out at the expanse of sand that meets the water, where the land ends.
Disappear here.

The end of the American Dream has been reached at the California beach. The traditional promise of westward expansion, which is associated with new life, hope and optimism, has completely evaporated for Clay.
A quote from the Led Zeppelin song "Stairway to Heaven" appears as the motto of the novel:

"There's a feeling I get when I look to the West..."

The second part of the sentence "...and my spirit is crying for leaving" is never completed. This implies that the urge for westward movement has been lost. It has been substituted by hopelessness and the fear of a meaningless existence.

"...Los Angeles, or Southern California as a whole, constitutes a social world of its own that is peculiarly disordered, speeded up, and artificial. The popular idea (substantiated to a degree by historians) is that because California was for so long the special end point of the westering dream, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow of hopes of countless pioneers, it has received more than its share of restless visionaries and misfits and is therefore a more intensly neurotic version of the neurotic life of modern America." (Janis P. Stout, The Journey Narrative in American Literature)

At the end of the novel Clay has an apocalyptic vision of Los Angeles, of people driven mad by living in the city. He longs to go back East:

It was time to go back. I had been home a long time.


Less Than Zero was made into a movie in 1987 starring Andrew McCarthy. The movie featured a different plot than the novel. It received only mediocre reviews.


The Bret Easton Ellis Page

The Irish Times Interview

The Write Stuff Interview




The Bret Easton Ellis Page

The Irish Times Interview

The Write Stuff Interview


Quotes taken from Less Than Zero,Simon & Schuster Inc., New York 1985, and On the Road, Viking Press, New York 1957.

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Streets in McInerney and Ellis