Bret Easton Ellis: Imperial Bedrooms

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”.


  1. “even Glamorama“? So it’s considered one of his lesser works? I ask because that’s the book I have of his (I don’t usually just pick up any book without some research, but I got this at a second-hand store for the equivalent of 0.35 GBP).

  2. It certainly attracted a fair amount of criticism on publication, Ronak, and even a sympathetic commentator like J. Robert Lennon in the LRB (in his recent review of Imperial Bedrooms, which broadly chimed with my own assessment) considered Glamorama a mess and a misstep. What that means, I suppose, is that if you read it and don’t like it, it doesn’t necessarily mean that Ellis is not for you.

  3. I reread _Less Than Zero_ the other day, because it had an impact when I read it, as an adolescent. And it mostly read as a writer’s gimmick. It was as if Ellis had said to himself: what if I bring a young guy back home from college, and simply take away any pleasure his home coming may bring?

    So, I’ll only try _Imperial Bedrooms_ if I come across it among some publisher’s remainders, probably.

  4. I really enjoyed Imperial Bedrooms and found it to be very funny (an early scene involving the unenthiusiastically predatory Clay and an up-and-coming actor (great revision of “Let’s roll” as well) was exactly what Ellis does well – murky, shameless degrading laughter-in-the-dark). Some of the writing is wonderful and the sense of polished, moneyed, elegant emptiness and fraught undercurrent are captured perfectly, as ever. But I do take your point: it’s not one of his major works.

  5. That’s the problem with “shallow”–the book can skate that fine line and become the element under scrutiny. I haven’t read any BEE, but I related to the Yellow Dog comment.

  6. I enjoyed Less than Zero, but I read it at the age depicted which is I think the best age at which to read it.

    American Psycho was good, but weakened for me as it became apparent that the things Batemen described were actually happening. For about half the book I was convinced it was all self-aggrandising fantasy. Wonderful sections though where business card semiotics was discussed with all the seriousness of a Middle East peace summit.

    Bateman of course is also a minor character in Less than Zero.

    And I read a couple of others, perhaps Glamorama, but can’t now remember what they were.

    Eh. I’m not such a fan of his major work as to seek out his minor. Interesting review as ever though John.

  7. Interesting, Max, that you should say that “American Psycho weakened as it became apparent that the things Bateman described were actually happening.” My take on it was that they weren’t happening, and there are one or two clues in the book that suggest so – most memorably, the scene when he returns to Paul Owen’s apartment after beheading him to clean up, and finds an estate agent showing around prospective tenants, with no sign of murder or mayhem, and he’s told that Owen has gone to Europe. Of course one could equally say that it was that scene that wasn’t really happening…

    1. My take on this was also that they weren’t happening. Who can say? I’m sure I read Ellis say the same somewhere but can’t confirm (I’ve just had a far more from exhaustive trawl).

  8. I read it some twenty years back or so, so I may misremember. I recall being impressed at the ambiguity of whether or not the killings and all were actually happening – by the sometimes directly conflicting evidence.

    My recollection was that that ambiguity was resolved, but perhaps I misremember (or misread it). Certainly if it wasn’t that would improve it in my esteem.

    The Owen thing comes back to me, I think I read that as suggesting that the characters were so interchangeable that Owen was dead and someone might or might not have gone to Europe but nobody really cared and whether it was Owen or some other guy who’d gone was ultimately immaterial. But again, it’s been so long I can’t be sure.

  9. “The problem with Imperial Bedrooms is that its shallowness seems to go below the surface too.” Brilliant. Reminds me of that wonderful concept “superficial profundity”.

  10. What a shame – ” its shallowness seems to go below the surface too”. There are many authors who cannot keep up the quality over a lifetime of writing – I always felt that J G Ballard was one of those – John Irving too.

  11. Glamorama and The Informer are my favorites by Ellis. I didn’t particularly enjoy this book – it felt like lunar park lite. Part of me wondered whether it wasn’t edited to within an inch of it’s life, as a means of explaining why it felt disjointed.

  12. ‘Its greatest achievement is to remind us of the other works.’ On the button. It does this in the last third, as a kind of medley of all the novels that have come before. This could be read as a creative cry for help – or a blockage resolved in creative tragedy. There is nothing else, not now. Only what came before. More twenty-three-year-old girlfriends and quaaludes and vampires and American psychosis, for ever. More of the same, and then Brett dies. Which is sad, funny, empty, superficial. I think he wishes he didn’t know this.

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