43 pages 1 hour read

Bret Easton Ellis

Less Than Zero

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1985

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Summary and Study Guide


Less than Zero (1985) is the debut novel of Los Angeles-based writer Bret Easton Ellis. It was published when the writer was only 21 and grew out of a creative writing course that he took at Bennington College. The novel brought Ellis fame for his willingness to address controversial topics in contemporary Los Angeles society. Ellis has become known for his deliberately provocative subject matter. A sequel to Less Than Zero, Imperial Bedrooms, was published in 2010. The 1985 Simon and Schuster version serves as the basis of this study guide.

Content Warning: This novel depicts rape, drug addiction and overdose, eating disorders, sex work, and graphic violence, and it describes these actions in detail using graphic language. For fidelity to the original text, this guide includes explicit language in its citations.

Plot Summary

Less than Zero is a provocative and explicit novel that takes place in Los Angeles (LA) during the protagonist, Clay’s, four-week winter vacation during his freshman year of college. From his first-person perspective, the novel showcases the daily lives of the teenagers and young adults who are children of the city’s elites. The novel comprises eleven untitled chapters that explore the drug-filled, shallow culture of the city’s young and wealthy.

Chapter 1 sets the novel’s tone of self-absorption, material excess, and apathy. Clay’s girlfriend, Blair, picks him up at the airport, and he finds her vapid and irritating. He sees his mom for a brief lunch filled with shallow conversation before going Christmas shopping with his sisters at high-end stores, where they spend their father’s money. He also visits a psychiatrist who mostly talks about himself.

Clay goes to a party at his friend Kim’s house in the next chapter. Noticing that Blair is already high on cocaine, Clay looks for a drug dealer named Rip. Clay has lunch at a nice restaurant with his father, an important figure in the LA film industry, prior to visiting his friend Muriel, who is hospitalized for anorexia. Clay then gets more drugs from Rip and encounters a former friend and dealer named Julian.

In Chapter 3, Clay goes to a party at the home of a friend who attends the same New Hampshire university as Clay and spends a characteristically awkward Christmas Eve with his family. Although his parents are separated, they come together for the sake of tradition.

Chapter 4 takes place during Kim’s New Year’s Eve party, which offers more of the drugs and alcohol that are fixtures of all the parties Clay attends in LA. Muriel, released from the hospital, shoots heroin. Rip tells Clay that Julian is looking for him. Julian eventually asks for money to pay for an abortion, which Clay does not believe is the real purpose of the money.

In Chapter 5, Clay meets with Rip to discuss business, disappointed that Rip does not have the drugs that he was supposed to bring. When Clay visits his psychiatrist, the latter asks for his help in writing a screenplay, but Clay is not interested.

In Chapter 6, Trent asks Clay about Blair. After he claims that the two are no longer going out, he spends that evening crying in the bathroom of a club. While high on cocaine, he picks up a teenaged girl from the club. The following day, he sneezes up blood at his appointment with his psychiatrist, due to his drug use.

Chapter 7 begins with Clay trying to contact Julian. When Clay and Blair go to a club together, Clay sees graffiti in the bathroom stall that suggests that Julian is dead. Driving drunk on the way home, Blair hits and kills a coyote with her car. Clay continues his search for Julian at his various homes in Malibu and Palm Springs.

In Chapter 8, Clay finally dismisses his psychiatrist and finally finds Julian, whom he eventually realizes is a sex worker. Before he will give him the money he owes him, Finn, his pimp, orders Julian to attend to another client and insists that Clay must go, too, since the client wants someone to watch the encounter. Clay is shocked but cannot resist the urge to attend.

Chapter 9 finds Julian and Clay at the client’s penthouse. After the encounter, which Clay watches, Finn still withholds the money, insisting on another favor from Julian. When he refuses, Finn lashes out at him, forcing him to inject heroin and perform another sex act for money in the club’s bathroom stall.

In Chapter 10, Trent, Rip, and Clay find the corpse of a teenager who overdosed at a club. Teenage girls look on and giggle, and Rip suggests that they leave because he wants to show his friends something in his apartment: A preteen girl who is being held prisoner and is then raped by Rip’s other friends.

The final chapter finds Clay ready to return to school. On an aimless drive, Rip takes him to the site of dozens of car accidents, the wreckage of which lie visible beneath the highway. Clay tells Blair goodbye, admitting  that he never loved her. He is resolved to go back to New Hampshire, disenchanted with the horrifying images that he associates with his hometown.