“Less than Zero” by Bret Easton Ellis: Exploring the Depths of Despair

Short review: My thoughts on Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis

After finishing “Less, than Zero” by Bret Easton Ellis I was left with a sense of unease and melancholy. The narrative immersed me in the artificial realm of Los Angeles adolescents. Tracking Clays journey from college I experienced a growing detachment and hollowness. The characters purposeless drifting and casual engagement in substance abuse and relationships deeply troubled me.

I experienced a sense of isolation. The superficial nature of Clays interactions with his circle and family resonated with me on a level. The prevalent materialism and moral decline depicted in the book left me feeling despondent prompting contemplation on the influence of wealth and privilege on individuals often leading them astray without purpose.

There were moments when the stark portrayal of decadence left me numb. The vivid descriptions of behavior and the absence of empathy among the characters were jarring. I found myself torn between pity and frustration for Clay and his companions trapped in a cycle.

In essence “Less, than Zero” was a read that compelled introspection into societys undercurrents. The tale stirred up feelings of sorrow, isolation and profound reflection on the void that often comes with a life filled with extravagance and ethical uncertainty. It stayed on my mind past the page leading me to ponder the actual consequences of living such a way.

Bret Easton Ellis‘s “Less than Zero” is a raw, unfiltered dive into the decadence and disillusionment of affluent youth in 1980s Los Angeles. Through the eyes of its protagonist, Clay, Ellis exposes the underbelly of a generation steeped in excess, numbness, and moral decay. Set against the backdrop of a city pulsating with wealth and excess, this novel serves as a haunting portrayal of the emptiness that lies beneath the glitzy facade of privilege.

Synopsis: A Glimpse into the Empty Heart of ‘Less than Zero’

“Less than Zero” follows the journey of Clay, a college student returning to his hometown of Los Angeles for winter break. As he reenters the world he left behind, he is confronted with the stark realities of his friends’ lives. Amidst the lavish parties, designer drugs, and casual encounters, Clay grapples with a sense of detachment and alienation. His friends, including the enigmatic Julian and the troubled Blair, are caught in a downward spiral of addiction and self-destruction. As Clay navigates this morally bankrupt landscape, he confronts his own existential crisis and struggles to find meaning amidst the chaos.

Quote from Less than zero by Bret Easton Ellis


At its core, “Less than Zero” delves into themes of alienation, disconnection, and moral decay. Ellis paints a bleak portrait of a generation adrift in a sea of excess, where material wealth serves as a poor substitute for genuine human connection. The characters in the novel are consumed by a sense of ennui, drifting from one hedonistic indulgence to the next in a futile attempt to fill the void within. The pervasive sense of nihilism that permeates the narrative underscores the emptiness of their lives and the hollowness of their pursuits.


Ellis’s characters are meticulously crafted to reflect the emptiness and disillusionment of their world. Clay serves as a detached observer, offering a window into the lives of his peers while struggling to maintain his own sense of identity. Julian, with his charm and charisma, embodies the allure of the fast life, yet beneath the surface lies a vulnerability and desperation that ultimately leads to his downfall. Blair, Clay’s former girlfriend, epitomizes the fragility of youth, her innocence shattered amidst the excess and debauchery of their social circle. Through these characters, Ellis explores the complexities of human nature and the ways in which external influences can shape our sense of self.

Writing Style

Ellis’s prose is spare and unadorned, mirroring the starkness of the world he depicts. His writing is punctuated by moments of brutal honesty and raw emotion, offering glimpses of beauty amidst the squalor. The novel’s fragmented structure mirrors the fractured psyche of its characters, with disjointed scenes and abrupt transitions reflecting the disarray of their lives. Ellis’s use of vivid imagery and evocative language creates a palpable sense of atmosphere, immersing the reader in the neon-lit streets of Los Angeles and the shadowy corners of its nightlife.

Impact and Legacy of Less than Zero

Upon its release in 1985, “Less than Zero” caused a sensation with its unflinching portrayal of youth culture and its critique of the emptiness of consumer society. The novel sparked controversy for its graphic depictions of drug use, sex, and violence, yet it also garnered praise for its fearless exploration of taboo subjects. “Less than Zero” remains a cultural touchstone, influencing subsequent generations of writers and filmmakers with its candid portrayal of the darker aspects of contemporary life. Its themes of alienation and disillusionment continue to resonate with readers today, serving as a stark reminder of the dangers of chasing empty pleasures in pursuit of meaning.

Quotes from Less than zero by Bret Easton Ellis

  1. “People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles.”
    Interpretation: This quote serves as an opening line and sets the tone for the novel. On a literal level, it reflects the anxiety and apprehension prevalent in the characters’ lives, mirroring their fear of connection and intimacy. Metaphorically, it speaks to the fragmented nature of their existence, where individuals struggle to find their place in a society characterized by isolation and disconnection.
  2. “Disappear here.”
    Interpretation: This recurring phrase appears on billboards throughout the city, serving as a haunting reminder of the transient nature of life in Los Angeles. It encapsulates the characters’ desire to escape from their reality, to vanish into the anonymity of the city’s sprawling landscape. It also reflects the pervasive sense of emptiness and disillusionment that permeates their lives, as they seek refuge in drugs, sex, and materialism.
  3. “I think we’re just about in the right place at the right time.”
    Interpretation: This quote captures the characters’ sense of aimlessness and uncertainty about their futures. Despite their privileged upbringing and access to opportunities, they feel adrift in a world devoid of meaning or purpose. It reflects their longing for something more, a sense of direction or purpose that continues to elude them amidst the excess and decadence of their lives.
  4. “I don’t know if we each have a destiny, or if we’re all just floating around accidental-like on a breeze, but I think maybe it’s both.”
    Interpretation: This existential musing reflects Clay’s internal struggle to reconcile his own sense of agency with the randomness of the world around him. It speaks to the larger themes of fate and free will that permeate the novel, as the characters grapple with the consequences of their actions and the forces that shape their lives. Ultimately, it suggests a sense of resignation and acceptance in the face of life’s uncertainties.
  5. “Things become strange, the corners and the shadows cut across the room. The clock ticks the early hours. The freeway roars and curves around the city.”
    Interpretation: This passage captures the surreal and disorienting atmosphere of Los Angeles at night, a city pulsating with energy and yet suffused with a sense of unease. It reflects the characters’ experiences as they navigate the hedonistic nightlife and confront the darker aspects of urban existence. The imagery of shadows and curves serves as a metaphor for the twists and turns of their lives, as they navigate the murky terrain of addiction, desire, and disillusionment.
  6. “The kids all stand still and stare at each other. They don’t get it. They’re only kids. They don’t know how to act.”
    Interpretation: This observation highlights the alienation and disconnection experienced by the younger generation in the novel. Despite their outward bravado and sophistication, the characters are ultimately just children lost in a world they cannot fully comprehend. It underscores the theme of innocence corrupted by the allure of adulthood, as they grapple with the harsh realities of life in the fast lane.
  7. “We drive to Melrose, we park the car. We walk to a restaurant for breakfast.”
    Interpretation: This mundane description of a seemingly ordinary moment serves as a reminder of the characters’ privileged existence and their detachment from the world around them. It underscores the superficiality of their lives, as they move from one indulgence to the next without ever truly engaging with the world or each other. It also reflects the emptiness of their pursuits, as they seek solace in material pleasures rather than meaningful connections.
  8. “Do you always use so many pronouns?”
    Interpretation: This tongue-in-cheek remark highlights the characters’ self-awareness and detachment from their own experiences. It reflects the fragmented nature of their identities, as they struggle to define themselves amidst the chaos and confusion of their lives. It also serves as a commentary on the superficiality of their interactions, as they engage in meaningless banter and idle chatter to fill the void within.
  9. “The thing I remember most about that night is that when I had told him I would be wearing a suit and a tie he said that was okay because he was wearing a suit too.”
    Interpretation: This seemingly innocuous memory encapsulates the characters’ obsession with appearances and social status. It reflects their preoccupation with image and perception, as they strive to maintain the illusion of success and happiness in the eyes of others. It also speaks to the superficiality of their relationships, as they prioritize surface-level connections over genuine intimacy or emotional depth.
Illustration: Less than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis

Trivia facts about Bret Easton Ellis’s “Less than Zero”:

  1. Youthful Debut: Bret Easton Ellis wrote “Less than Zero” while he was still a student at Bennington College. He began writing the novel at the age of 19 and it was published when he was just 21 years old.
  2. Controversial Reception: “Less than Zero” garnered significant controversy upon its release due to its graphic depictions of drug use, sex, and violence among affluent youth in Los Angeles. Some critics accused Ellis of glamorizing and sensationalizing these themes.
  3. Influence of Los Angeles: The novel is deeply rooted in its Los Angeles setting, with Ellis drawing inspiration from his own experiences growing up in the city. The portrayal of the city’s nightlife and culture became emblematic of the excesses of the 1980s.
  4. Cultural Impact: “Less than Zero” is often cited as one of the defining works of 1980s literature, capturing the zeitgeist of the era with its portrayal of affluent, disaffected youth. It has been referenced in numerous films, television shows, and songs over the years.
  5. Sequel: In 2010, Bret Easton Ellis published a sequel to “Less than Zero” titled “Imperial Bedrooms.” The novel revisits the characters from the original book, exploring their lives as they approach middle age.
  6. Film Adaptation: In 1987, “Less than Zero” was adapted into a film starring Andrew McCarthy, Jami Gertz, and Robert Downey Jr. The film received mixed reviews but has since gained a cult following for its portrayal of 1980s youth culture.
  7. Ellis’s Writing Style: Bret Easton Ellis is known for his minimalist prose style, characterized by short, declarative sentences and detached narration. This style is evident in “Less than Zero,” contributing to the novel’s stark and haunting atmosphere.
  8. Social Commentary: While “Less than Zero” is often associated with its depictions of excess and debauchery, it also serves as a biting critique of consumer culture and the emptiness of materialism. Ellis explores themes of alienation, disillusionment, and the search for identity amidst the trappings of wealth and privilege.
  9. Inspiration from Real Life: Many of the events and characters in “Less than Zero” were inspired by Ellis’s own experiences and observations growing up in Los Angeles. The novel’s portrayal of drug addiction, casual sex, and moral decay reflects the darker side of Hollywood glamour.
  10. Literary Legacy: “Less than Zero” continues to be studied in literature classes and remains relevant as a cultural artifact of the 1980s. It has influenced numerous writers and filmmakers, and its themes of alienation and disillusionment continue to resonate with readers today.

Conclusion: Exploring the Depths of Despair

In “Less than Zero,” Bret Easton Ellis offers a harrowing glimpse into the heart of darkness that lies beneath the glossy surface of 1980s Los Angeles. Through its vivid characters and stark imagery, the novel explores themes of alienation, disconnection, and moral decay with unflinching honesty. Ellis’s spare prose and fragmented structure create a haunting atmosphere that lingers long after the final page is turned. “Less than Zero” is a powerful testament to the emptiness of a life lived in pursuit of fleeting pleasures, serving as a cautionary tale for generations to come.

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