I had better preface this post by saying that although I have read Less Than Zero (Bret Easton Ellis’s 1985 debut, to which this is a sequel), I can’t remember a thing about it. (Let’s assume, though, that it featured privileged teens getting busy and popping Xanax.) I suppose that if I had loved it, I would have remembered. I have, however, loved the other Ellis books I’ve read – even Glamorama, even The Informers. So my appreciation of this book might have been greater if I’d remembered or liked Less Than Zero; but my overall fondness for Ellis’s stuff means I gave it an enthusiastic, even excitable, welcome when it arrived.
Imperial Bedrooms is a short book, particularly by Ellis’s recent standards. True, the gestation period was not as long as that for Glamorama or Lunar Park (seven years apiece) – but five years to produce 168 pages? My immediate fears were of a Beatrice and Virgil-style car-crash of a book, but the reality is not that bad (not quite).
Our narrator is Clay, who along with much of the cast of Less Than Zero, has survived the last 25 years of increasingly dangerous blandness. Clay is now a writer, with “a very successful shark movie” and a “series about witches that ran for two seasons on Showtime” under his belt. Now he has written a movie, The Listeners, which is in the process of being cast. (“It’s just another movie,” Clay says to his old friend Julian, who objects: “Maybe for others it’s something else. Something more meaningful.” “I get where you’re coming from,” says Clay, “but there’s a vampire in it.”) Clay takes advantage of his connection with the movie to satisfy his appetites for beautiful actors and actresses who want to be cast in it.
Imperial Bedrooms opens strongly, and Ellis’s ability to create an atmosphere of creeping menace within beautifully blank prose is undiminished. Call it Ellis Island: a land populated by people like a boy “so blandly good-looking he’s not even a variation on a type” and a “young actress [talking] about fasting and her yoga routine and how superstoked she is to be a movie about human sacrifices.” It is a place where people have what they want and are phenomenally bored as a result. But also here, “the fear returns and soon it’s everywhere and it keeps streaming forward,” because for Clay, in middle age, this “mosaic of youth” is “a place you don’t really belong anymore.” Clay also feels more alone, through apathy (“our friendship had worn out”) or bereavements (“People just disappeared”). We shouldn’t expect introspection from Ellis’s characters, and he puts it perfectly when Clay decides to return to LA from New York because of “whatever had happened to me there that fall.” This is right because it is not authorial concealment to be later revealed (for which he would have said “what had happened to me”), but a disclosure that Clay is interested only in effect but not cause, in how he has ended up but not how it happened.
This ties in well with the unknowability which lies at the heart of Imperial Bedrooms – of all Ellis’s books. In this world, people skate on the surface, while the messiness of real life (represented here, as usual, by depraved sex and eye-popping violence) waits to claim them. Nobody can work out why Kelly Montrose died, or what has happened to Amanda, and whether any of this is anything to do with Rip Millar, or Julian, or even Clay’s latest ingenue, Rain Turner (“On a daily basis there’s a whole new army of the retarded eager to be defiled”). Clay’s relationship with Rain either keeps at bay, or brings about, the horrors that haunt him every time he returns to his apartment. The insight we get comes not from him but from others. “Do you know anything about her,” his old girlfriend Blair asks, “except how she makes you feel?”
Most of the concerns here are familiar to Ellis readers. The recycling of characters, the paranoia, the cannibalisation of Ellis’s previous work and the fictionalisation of his life. What Imperial Bedrooms notably lacks is the wit of earlier books – particularly the comic tours de force that opened Glamorama and Lunar Park – which makes the bleakness here particularly unremitting. The few good jokes seem like retreads.
“Don’t you have a boyfriend?” I ask. “Someone … more age appropriate than me?”
“Guys my age are idiots,” she says, turning around. “Guys my age are awful.”
“I have news for you,” I say, leaning into her. “So are guys my age.”
There is a little less chaos, too: we get a kind of resolution to the mysteries, and the book feels doubly thin as a result. Even the opening and closing lines, always a matter of meticulous attention for Ellis, seem less than heroic.
Shallowness is Ellis’s subject: he satirises the world we suspect secretly fascinates him. The problem with Imperial Bedrooms is that its shallowness seems to go below the surface too. Its greatest achievement is to remind us of the other works. (Though the good news is that there is nothing here as grotesque as the rat scene in American Psycho, or the haemorrhage death in Glamorama. Small mercies.) If American Psycho is Bret Easton Ellis’ Money, then Imperial Bedrooms must be his Yellow Dog: full of interesting things, but disappointing precisely because of the expectations of something greater, and destined, in my view, to be filed under “Other works”.