Imperial Bedrooms by Bret Easton Ellis
By Bret Easton Ellis
Picador; Paperback; 178 pages;
Imperial Bedrooms finds Bret Easton Ellis once again raiding Elvis Costello’s back catalogue for the titles of his books, as he did for 1985’s Less Than Zero. Indeed, Bedrooms is something of a sequel to that first novel, which was published when he was twenty-one. Ellis has praised the dynamics of “emotional fascism” that Costello’s songs faithfully portray, a phrase which stands as a very accurate description of Ellis’ own preoccupations as a writer. Imperial Bedrooms, with a title as sexually tyrannical as you could imagine, is certainly no exception.
Clay and company were left a disbanded and disaffected group of college kids at the end of Less Than Zero. When Bedrooms returns to these characters twenty-five years on, middle age has left them no less disaffected, and definitely no less prone to overindulgence in narcotics, empty sex and existential apathy. Clay’s old friend Julian, rent boy and addict in the first novel, is now managing an esoteric escort agency made up of Hollywood hopefuls; Clay’s ex, Blair, is married to Trent (now a Hollywood talent manager), though her hostility towards Clay has not subsided over the years. Clay himself has returned to Los Angeles as a screenwriter in order to cast his latest film. It is not long before he becomes immersed in a sinister and violent conspiracy involving Rain Turner, a third-rate actress he meets at a party and who is desperate to get a main part in his script. Ellis has stated that he wrote this book in order to rehabilitate his earliest novel, which he claims has become an overly sentimentalised ‘artefact of the 1980s’. With a playful wink at the clued-up reader, Ellis begins the novel,
‘They had made a movie about us. The movie was based on a book written by someone we knew.’
This reference to Marek Kanievska’s 1987 adaptation of Less Than Zero suggests that Ellis, or Clay, or Ellis-as-Clay (or perhaps Clay-as-Ellis) is attempting to set the record straight – but readers expecting a radically revamped style will be disappointed.
Imperial Bedrooms reads with all the monochrome eroticism of neo-noir. The novel is prefaced with a quotation from Raymond Chandler, and throughout the book Ellis updates Chandleresque tropes of femme fatales and blackmailed intrigue for a community of Apple-branded and surgically enhanced Californians. He should be praised for the skill with which he does so, because while other writers typically insert contemporary references in a self-conscious, hamfisted manner, Ellis namechecks iPhones, The Hills and Bat for Lashes in a way that blends seamlessly and convincingly with the narrative. Clay receives cryptic text messages from an invisible stalker (“I’m watching you… U r standing in your office“), as well as video emails of his friends being brutally tortured, in an act of detached, panoptical intimidation that recalls the opening of David Lynch’s Lost Highway. Characteristically extreme and deadpan though such glimpses of violence might be, Imperial Bedrooms is a better book for compressing them into momentary flashes, X-rated shots spliced into another film. For the most part, the novel depends instead on dialogue as icy as a mojito, a minimalist and clinical writing style that depicts emotional and physical abuse as if through a narrative anaesthetic.
The trouble is, consistently svelte and sexy as Ellis’ prose may be, there is nothing new here. His characters (it would be inaccurate to use the word ‘protagonists’) are as amoral, apathetic and adept at one-liners as we have come to expect, and all the less interesting as a result. The novel becomes increasingly horrible, its cast-list increasingly sparse, but as the action intensifies, the narrative momentum conversely slows, rumbles on sluggishly. Bored characters do, in this instance, make for a generally boring novel; their disaffection is largely dissatisfying rather than provocative. Indeed, perhaps Ellis is bored of them himself: During an appearance at last year’s Latitude Festival, Ellis was hell-bent on dodging Miranda Sawyer’s questions about Imperial Bedrooms. He preferred to talk about his two-day hangover, and to start a (very interesting) discussion on the significant differences between the film and book versions of American Psycho. Perhaps this is because, fundamentally, there is just not that much to say about his new novel – at least, nothing that has not already been said by him before, in books that provide much more illuminating and entertaining depictions of emotional dysfunction and despotism. As the opening of Elvis Costello’s “Beyond Belief” warns, quoted by Ellis as an epigraph to the novel: “History repeats the old conceits / The glib replies, the same defeats”. Unfortunately, it is tempting to reach the same conclusions about Ellis’ career, based on Imperial Bedrooms at any rate.