Imperial Bedrooms – Bret Easton Ellis
Everyone’s trying to out-Ellis Ellis. So what does Ellis do? He tries to out-Ells himself. That’s the result of Imperial Bedrooms, a curious novel that comes over twenty five years after its prequel, Less Than Zero, the blandly beautiful, minimalist, nihilist novel that catapulted him to stardom. And it almost works.
But not quite. More than a sequel, Imperial Bedrooms attempts to be a summation of Ellis’ entire oeuvre, and yes, that includes the graphic rape and murder bit, too. So Imperial Bedrooms functions more or less as a parody. Whether it’s an intentional parody or not, that’s the question.
We’re greeted to a quote from the master, Raymond Chandler, as soon as we open the book. Ellis’ LA is less than noir, it’s just relentlessly bleak. It’s not black and white, it’s faded and bleached and dried out in the sun, much like Ellis’ characters themselves. Remember Rip, Clay’s drug dealer when he was 18? Well, now Rip’s ‘face is unnaturally smooth, redone in such a way that the eyes are shocked open with perpetual surprise; it’s a face mimicking a face, and it looks agonized.’ Don’t worry, though. The kids are still blandly nondescript and beautiful. But this is a novel about growing up.
Ellis is, in many ways, returning to the scene of the crime. Clay notes that one of their friends “wrote a book about us” and is pretty pissed off about it, twenty five years later. But Clay is also a filmmaker and a scriptwriter and still bears more than a passing resemblance to Ellis himself. And that’s where the conceit comes in — and by conceit, I mean it in both senses of the word.
Unlike Less than Zero, there’s some kind of plot. Clay falls in love with some actress who’s only sleeping with him to get a part in his movie and she’s also dating the guy who used to be his best friend and (look away now if you don’t want to hear any more spoilers) she’s also dating Rip. Quite why Clay falls for her so hard is never explained, although a past history is mentioned — in passing. And that’s the problem. Less than Zero worked because it didn’t really have a plot. Imperial Bedrooms has a paper-thin plot that’s sub-Ellis, sub-Chandler. It’s as convoluted as Glamorama, albeit condensed into 170 pages, making it at least a little easier to swallow.
Imperial Bedrooms isn’t a bad book. It’s an experiment. It’s a novel where Ellis looks back on his career and tries to make some sense out of his changing focus. The fact that the-too-cool-for-school Clay is revealed to be as deranged as Patrick Bateman may be jarring to some, but, as Clay himself points out, the clues were always there. We just weren’t looking for them.
Ellis started getting all postmodern on us with Lunar Park, where a character called Bret Easton Ellis attends a fancy dress party where he attends as himself. ‘You do a pretty good impression of yourself,’ he’s told. Imperial Bedrooms is Ellis’ impression of himself carried out to its logical conclusion. It’s both brilliant and flawed and if you’ve read the original, it’s probably one of the must-read books of the year. Unfortunately, the novel doesn’t stand alone and that should give you more of an impression about the strength of the writing and the characterization and the plot than anything else. When a book functions solely as a coda to an earlier book, it’s not much of a novel.
By all means, buy this book, read it, laugh one more time as Ellis paints the stark, rich world in which his characters live in in black and white. But don’t expect a successor to Less than Zero. This is just the final chapter, the final punchline, delivered by a man who’s getting older, twenty five years too late.
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