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.
Less Than Zero Summary
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Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero, a novel split into eleven parts, takes place in Los Angeles in the 1980s. The story follows a group of college-age characters, beginning with protagonist Clay in part 1. Clay is returning home for Christmas break from his college in New Hampshire; his girlfriend, Blair, picks him up at the airport. At home, Clay is alone as his mother and sisters have gone shopping for the holiday. He calls his friend, Julian, but Julian doesnot answer. Clay ruminates on their friend Muriel; Blair told him Muriel is anorexic. He goes to a party at Blair’s house with Daniel and looks for Julian so that he can get some drugs. He spends time with his mother and sisters though they donot get along, as well as his friends and his psychiatrist.
In part 2, Clay goes to another party. Blair is high already, and Clay goes to get high on cocaine with a drug dealer named Rip. The next day, he meets his father, an executive in the film industry. They barely talk, but Clay knows his father will give him money. He goes to visit Muriel in the hospital, but he does not have much to say to her and is glad to leave again. He meets up with Rip to buy more drugs, and sees Julian, though Julian seems uneasy.
Part 3 brings more parties and drugs into Clay’s life. He ends up at Blair’s house where they sleep together, and then he leaves. His Christmas celebration with his sisters and estranged parents is awkward and strained at best. The reader learns in part 3 that Clay collects gruesome stories from the newspaper as a hobby.
Part 4 begins on New Year’s Eve with more partying and drugs. Clay wants to leave, but before he can, Muriel locks herself in a bathroom and takes heroin. The next day, Rip tells Clay that Julian is looking for him. He goes to meet him at a restaurant but Julian does not show, so Clay drives over to his house. Julian asks Clay if he can borrow money to pay for an abortion.
In part 5, Clay still suspects Julian needs the money for something else, since it is more than he expects to pay for an abortion. Knowing that Julian’s parents have frozen his bank accounts, Clay decides to lend him the money. He meets with Rip to discuss business, but Rip does not have the drugs he is supposed to have with him. Clay visits his psychiatrist, who asks for Clay’s help in writing a screenplay. Clay declines. He goes to another friend Trent’s house, where Rip and some other friends are. They decide to go to a restaurant, leaving a young man named Alan passed out on the floor.
In part 6, Clay tells Trent that he and Blair are over, though he has not told her yet. Trent chides him for being tacky. After dinner they go to a club, where Clay has an emotional breakdown in the bathroom. When he returns to the table, he sees a plea for help written on the placements in red crayon. He goes home with a girl he meets at the club, and though they do not have sex, they do have an intimate experience. She tells him to leave quietly afterward so he does not wake her parents. The next day Clay visits his psychiatrist again. His cocaine use has caused him to start sneezing blood, yet, he continues using cocaine. At a party at Blair’s, she will not even look at him.
Part 7 opens with Clay trying and failing to contact Julian. At a club, he sees a message indicating that Julian has died. Blair agrees to go out with him and drinks too much. After getting behind the wheel, she hits and kills a coyote; Clay watches it die. Over the next few days, Clay continues asking about Julian, but no one seems to know where he has gone.
In part 8, Clay decides to stop seeing his psychiatrist. He finally finds Julian, who insists that they have to to go some man’s apartment to get the money he owes Clay. Clay learns that the man, Finn, is a pimp. Finn insists that Julian go on another appointment to get the money. Clay must go too, because the client wants someone there to watch him with Julian. Clay realizes he no longer cares about the money but wants to see what will happen.
Part 9 brings Julian and Clay to the hotel room of Mr. Erickson. Though he feels sick at the prospect, Clay watches Mr. Erickson and Julian have sex. Julian and Clay then go to meet Finn and get the money that Julian owes Clay. Finn promises to give Julian the money after one more appointment. Julian refuses and demands his money from Finn. Finn forces Julian to take heroin and forces him to prostitute himself.
In part 10, Clay meets up with Rip and Trent, and they find a dead body in an alleyway. They smoke marijuana around the corpse, which is leaning against the wall. Rip takes them back to his home where a twelve-year-old girl is tied up and forced to take heroin. Rip’s friends rape the girl; Clay and Trent leave.
In the final and eleventh part of Less Than Zero, Clay is ready to return to school. Rip shows him a car accident, and Blair asks Clay if he ever loved her, to which he replies that he never did. Despite this, she asks him not to go to back to New Hampshire, but he does not plan to stay in Los Angeles.