Via ‘Bret’ via Bret
J. Robert Lennon
- BuyImperial Bedrooms by Bret Easton Ellis
Picador, 178 pp, £16.99, July 2010, ISBN 978 0 330 44976 2
The marketing blurbs for Bret Easton Ellis’s new novel, Imperial Bedrooms, would have it be a sequel to Less than Zero, the 1985 novel that made him famous. It is, after a fashion: all of Ellis’s books are sequels, prequels, spinoffs and derivatives of each other. They share a universe, or perhaps a multiverse, of interconnected fictional lives and storylines, all of which bear, or are supposed to bear, or are trying to convince you they’re supposed to bear, some resemblance to Ellis’s actual life experiences, family members, enemies and friends. But if a sequel is a continuation of a previous storyline, or a recapitulation or recontextualisation of one, then Imperial Bedrooms doesn’t quite fit the description. It shares a narrator with Less than Zero, along with several other characters, a distinctive and highly self-conscious prose style, a time of year, and a milieu of urban self-abuse and disaffection. But there is nothing straightforward about the relationship between the books.
I’m glad to have the connection made for me, though, because it affords me the opportunity to consider the totality, so far, of a strange and misunderstood career. Ellis isn’t always good (though in Imperial Bedrooms he is sometimes very good), but he is always interesting, more interesting than people sometimes give him credit for. His work is best looked at as a whole: you can’t really read an Ellis book without thinking about his whole career. If you don’t, you may end up dumping him into one of the convenient pigeonholes (brat, druggie, pervert, creep, minimalist) that have already been created for him. Ellis has the gift, or perhaps the curse, or perhaps the tactic, of being able to hide in plain sight: his novels introduce themselves as pop-cultural artefacts and invite you to ignore their implications. Like his characters, they dress like hipsters and play dumb. Ellis seduces you into thinking, wrongly, that you’ve got his number: he seems to be telling you everything when really he’s telling you nothing at all.
Less than Zero was a good book tainted by association with the badness of everything around it: bad cultural trends, a bad society, bad kids and their bad behaviour. And, not long after its publication, a bad movie. It told the story, if you could call it that, of a group of rich teenagers back home in Los Angeles after their first semester away at college. They go to parties and clubs, they have sex and do drugs. They wear sunglasses and have tans. Their parents are idiots and anyway are never home. The narrator, a boy called Clay, delivers this material in an artful, affectless present-tense monotone:
I think I see Julian here, leaving, and I get up from the table and go to the bar and then outside and it’s raining hard and I can hear Duran Duran from inside and a girl I don’t know passes by and says, ‘Hi,’ and I nod and then go to the restroom and lock the door and stare at myself in the mirror.
Emotions are repressed, diverted, shunted off into dependent clauses, while the rest of the sentence anaesthetises you with its flash and bluster:
The psychiatrist I see during the four weeks I’m back is young and has a beard and drives a 450 SL and has a house in Malibu. I’ll sit in his office in Westwood with the shades drawn and my sunglasses on, smoking a cigarette, sometimes cloves, just to irritate him, sometimes crying.
Less than Zero is full of casual cruelty. The kids are blandly hostile to one another. Ominous offstage violence sneakily asserts itself: a dead body in an alley, an overdose, a snuff film, the gang rape of a 12-year-old. Clay coolly records everything he sees and hears, and when he finally opens up – there is some stuff near the end about his grandmother and his elementary school and a time when his parents were happy – it’s almost a joke. He’s so numb, he’s forgotten what sincerity is supposed to sound like.
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