Less Than Zero
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
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 the winter break. He spends much of the novel going to parties and doing drugs with his friends. During this time, he must decide whether or not he wants to restart a relationship with Blair, for whom he is uncertain about his feelings. Meanwhile, Clay has one night stands with a few men and women on the side while his relationship with Blair goes downhill. At the same time, he attempts to renew his relationship with his best friend, Julian, who has become a prostitute and drug addict. Throughout his descent into the netherworld of the L.A. drug scene, he loses his faith in his friends, and grows alienated with the amoral party culture he once embraced. He is greatly disturbed by three events: first, his friend Trent shows a snuff film at a party and only he and Blair seem to be bothered by it; later, he is forced to sit in a chair for five hours to watch Julian sell himself to a businessman from Muncie, Indiana, in order to get money to support his heroin habit; finally, he meets friends at a concert, only to leave and not only find a dead body that everyone wants to see, but a 12-year-old girl who is naked and tied to the posts of a friend's bed, and once again his friends are attracted to it. Eventually, these events lead him to leave Los Angeles, possibly (as the ending seems to suggest) never to return. There are certain remarks about Elvis Costello in the novel that strengthen the theme of "Less Than Zero."
Literary significance and criticism
The author on his own novel: "I read it for the first time in about 20 years this year—recently. It wasn't so bad. 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."