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.
There isn’t a single funny character in Less than Zero, but it’s a funny book. Its ironies are extreme, its juxtapositions vaudevillean in their obviousness. But Ellis knew this, or seemed to. It was a lark, this grim project, and it dropped into public consciousness at exactly the right time. Americans were poised between the promise of post-recession riches and the inevitable realisation that those riches would be conferred, once again, only on the lucky, and perhaps undeserving, few. We needed some spoiled brats to love and loathe: people we could pretend we were like, and, when our ship failed to come in, claim we had hated all along. Ellis provided them, and so did Jay McInerney, Tama Janowitz and others: these were writers who shared a sensibility and social milieu; they came to be identified with the same unsavoury behaviour of their characters. They were declared spokespeople for a generation that, once the initial enthusiasm wore off, didn’t seem to appreciate being spoken for any longer. Ellis and his contemporaries would eventually be seen as the byproducts of an era, no longer the harbingers of a new age. But there was, and is, real pathos in their early work, particularly in Less than Zero. What moves the reader is Clay’s devastating youth: he and his teenage friends are lost children on the cusp of becoming, or failing to become, adults. When Clay is, at last, shocked by the young girl’s rape, it is himself he sees tied to that bed, surrounded by those leering, coked-up men. The world has hurt him, and the book comes to life in retrospect, like a trick of the light.
Of course, Bret Easton Ellis was a child, too. He wrote Less than Zero when he was 19, and was famous before he graduated from college, making him an object of admiration and envy. Like any child star, he was praised for his youth, the one thing he had no chance of maintaining. The presumed parallels between his protagonist’s life and his own would in time make some people see his work as little more than journal-keeping, his early success a lucky break. It didn’t help that the next book, The Rules of Attraction (1987), wasn’t as good: the disaffected youths were students now, and presumably old enough to know better. Where was the pathos? The novel had just moved the sex, drugs and alcohol to New England. What’s worse, it seemed determined to tick every possible box on a set of literary-pretension guidelines. Starts and ends in mid-sentence? Check. Multiple points of view? Check. Mixes third and first person? Check.
The Rules of Attraction inaugurated, for me, a litmus test for the success of an Ellis novel: if, 50 pages in, you could just shrug and say, ‘So?’, the book was in trouble. This one failed that test. But then … if you could make it to page 75, it was pretty good, and if you were still reading after another 75 pages it was very good. Sean Bateman (the younger brother of what would be Ellis’s most notorious character) carries on two affairs, one with a girl, Lauren, the other with a boy, Paul. He obsesses over the former but never acknowledges the latter – even though we get the affair in lavish detail from Paul’s point of view. When you read it now, you see Ellis beginning to experiment with the narrative unreliability and psychological sharpness that would mark his most accomplished work.
And then, in 1991, there was American Psycho.
I’m having drinks with Charles Murphy at Rusty’s to fortify myself before making an appearance at Evelyn’s Christmas party. I’m wearing a four-button double-breasted wool and silk suit, a cotton shirt with button-down collar by Valentino Couture, a patterned silk tie by Armani and cap-toed leather slip-ons by Allen-Edmonds … After leaving Rusty’s, while wandering around the Upper West Side, I find myself crouched in the doorway of what used to be Carly Simon’s, a very hot J. Akail restaurant that closed last fall, and leaping out at a passing Japanese delivery boy, I knock him off his bicycle and drag him into the doorway, his legs tangled somehow in the Schwinn he was riding which works to my advantage since when I slit his throat – easily, effortlessly – the spasmodic kicking that usually accompanies this routine is blocked by the bike, which he still manages to lift five, six times while he’s choking on his own hot blood.
That’s Patrick Bateman, the protagonist of this brilliant, revolting, original and entirely debased piece of literary kitsch. Bateman presents himself as a decent guy who just happens (‘I find myself’) to be a serial killer as well – much as Ellis had come to be thought of, fairly or not, as a coke-addled playboy who just happened to write books.
Since American Psycho is perhaps the most polarising American novel of the end of the 20th century, let me come right out and say that I think it’s great. In its attention to the nuances of life among the leisured class – parties, clothes and sexual peccadillos – it evokes The Guermantes Way. In its terrifying ability to seduce the reader into accepting, implicating himself in, a madman’s frame of reference, it is reminiscent of Lolita, another polarising novel. But it stands apart from those books in its wild tonal swings, its frantic prose, its air of sickening paranoia and dread. It refines some key Ellis motifs: a narrator who is always being mistaken for someone else; missed and misunderstood communications; Homeresque epithets (every attractive woman is a ‘hardbody’ with ‘big tits’); sudden frank (and probably fake) declarations of emotion.
Of course, the book also contains scenes of unparalleled repulsiveness: multiple rape-murders, dismemberments, disembowelments and the like. That several small logical impossibilities, scattered throughout, suggest that these crimes are little more than Bateman’s fantasies doesn’t lessen their impact. American Psycho irrevocably marked Ellis’s career. He became that guy – the guy who wrote that book. And his next two books did little to distract the world from its influence. The Informers (1994), a story collection, wasn’t bad, but it was all old material, stories he’d written in college. And the long-awaited, much delayed Glamorama, which arrived in 1998, was an unfortunate mess. Today, it reads like unintentional self-parody: pages and pages of interminably trite banter – as if Ellis were desperately trying to get his ear back.
He did seem to discover something while writing it, though: plot. Glamorama is packed with it. You couldn’t say there is ‘a’ plot, since none of it really makes any sense; rather, it’s as if Ellis had taken a box off the shelf marked ‘plot’ and dumped the whole thing in. Terrorists, fashion models, a film crew, bombings, murders. Where American Psycho is narrowly focused, Glamorama is diffuse; its horrors, in consequence, are no longer horrifying. Though it glitters now and then with bits of inspired zaniness, the book is mainly a failure. But without it, we probably wouldn’t have 2005’s Lunar Park, as unexpected a novel as I’ve ever read. A fake literary memoir that evolves into a cornily overwritten ghost story, it is creepy, hilarious and consistently delightful. Its style is that of heavily elaborated psychological realism shot through with adverbs (rare flourishes for Ellis), bizarre cliffhangers and expository dialogue. The best thing about it, though, is its merciless self-parody. Its protagonist, a writer called Bret Easton Ellis, is a thoroughgoing S.O.B. with a wife and two kids, and he is hard at work on the outline of a new novel:
The original title of Teenage Pussy had been Holy Shit! but Knopf (who’d shelled out close to a million dollars for the North American rights alone) assured me that Teenage Pussy was the more commercial title … Knopf was going to call it a ‘pornographic thriller’ in their catalogue, which excited me immensely, and told me privately that Alfred and Blanche Knopf would be rolling over in their graves when the thing was published.
Lunar Park is itself a thriller that is nearly as chaotic as its bloated predecessor (there are missing children, a haunted video, demons, a serial killer who is mimicking the murders from American Psycho, terrorist attacks and a possessed plush toy), but it coheres just enough to feel like an artful send-up of genre tropes rather than a lame attempt at co-opting them. And in the end, we watch as ‘Bret Easton Ellis’ (and perhaps, you never know, Bret Easton Ellis) earnestly comes to terms with his abusive father and chequered career. The last few pages, which involve the scattering of that father’s ashes, are very affecting – and they suggested that the real Ellis, whoever he might be, was back.
Imperial Bedrooms reads like a mash-up of Bret Easton Ellises – the minimalist, the thrillerist, the fake-memoirist. It is narrated by Clay, the protagonist of Less than Zero – or wait, maybe it’s not the same Clay, because this Clay, in the new book’s opening pages, claims to resent the writer of the previous book for having written it:
I had wanted to write that first novel the author had written after I finished reading it – it was my life and he had hijacked it. But quickly I had to accept that I didn’t have the talent or the drive. I didn’t have the patience. I just wanted to be able to do it. I made a few lame, slashing attempts and realised … that it was never going to happen.
So this new book is being narrated by a guy who says he can’t write, and who is criticising the guy who he says wrote the previous book as him. (‘It was labelled fiction but only a few details had been altered and our names weren’t changed.’) Indeed, the writer in question upset Clay so much that he transferred out of Camden College (the fictional alma mater of many of Ellis’s characters, including ‘Bret Easton Ellis’ from Lunar Park) just to get away from him. It is that writer’s name we see on the cover of Imperial Bedrooms, and we have to decide whether what we’re reading is written by Clay via Bret, or by ‘Clay’ via Bret, or by ‘Clay’ via ‘Bret’ via Bret.
Like its predecessor, the book centres on Clay’s return to LA from the East Coast one winter. Now a screenwriter, of all things, he is in flight from a failed relationship, and finds himself reunited with some of his old friends from previous novels, including his ex-girlfriend Blair, her now husband Trent, and Julian, now a recovering addict who runs an escort service. He gets involved in casting a movie based on one of his scripts, and falls into an affair with a much younger woman who has auditioned for a part. Though she lacks talent, he promises he’ll get her the job if she will keep sleeping with him. Intruding on this (by Ellis standards) rather straightforward romantic entanglement are a number of vaguely ominous narrative threads. Somebody is following Clay in a blue Jeep, and someone is following the blue Jeep in a black Mercedes. His apartment has been disturbed: some papers have been moved, and his computer, which he left off, has been turned on. We are told in the novel’s opening pages that Julian is going to be stabbed to death, and soon he shows up bruised and beaten; another friend disappears and is found murdered. Clay also has a run-in with Rip, the architect of the gang rape in Less than Zero. Rip is in sorry shape: ‘He looks like he’s been quickly dipped in acid; things fell off, skin was removed.’ And through it all, Clay keeps getting anonymous text messages from whoever is watching him.
You could be forgiven for thinking that all this will eventually add up to something. Clay certainly thinks it should. A lot of the second half of this book consists of him trying to get people to tell him what’s going on, and people responding that it’s complicated and that he should just drop it. The incoherence of the narrative even tries to justify itself through a self-referential metafictional conceit:
Julian looks at me and realises something. Still staring at me he debates whether to say anything. ‘Look, don’t try and connect it all.’
‘This isn’t a script,’ Julian says. ‘It’s not going to add up. Not everything’s going to come together in the third act.’
Every negative review of this novel will probably quote that exchange, in order to show that it gets lost in the wilderness of its own sloppy intrigues.
Ellis is asking for it, of course. But that’s part of what I like about him – he always asks for it. He did something similar in Lunar Park, when a police detective shows up at the Ellis mansion to question ‘Bret’ about the American Psycho copycat killings:
‘Why do you think this person isn’t gonna come after me or my family?’ I asked again …
‘Well, the author of the book isn’t in the book,’ Kimball said, offering a pointlessly reassuring smile that failed utterly. ‘I mean, Bret Ellis is not a character in the book, and so far the assailant is only interested in finding people with similar identities or names of fictional characters.’ Pause. ‘You’re not a fictional character, are you, Mr Ellis?’
It will surprise no one to learn that the detective in American Psycho is also called Kimball, and that the detective in Lunar Park turns out to be impersonating the detective in American Psycho.
In Imperial Bedrooms, Ellis has two things working against him. One is that, unlike in Lunar Park, he has adopted a fairly conventional noir-thriller structure, and has therefore created the very reasonable expectation that all will be revealed. He does give us answers in the end, but they aren’t very satisfying, and they make us wonder what the point of all the subterfuge was. Lunar Park’s gleeful recombination of genre elements was an end in itself; here, the metafiction distracts us from the plot, and isn’t strong enough to carry the book on its own. The other problem is more significant. The strength of Less than Zero came, in large part, from the zeitgeist it was riding. Its style and structure maintained a dialogue with the era it documented, and it still does when you read it today. It feels very much of its time (in a good way). Imperial Bedrooms attempts to import that style and structure into an era with different preoccupations and needs, and the fit is uncomfortable. Besides, Ellis is a different, more mature writer now, and disaffection can no longer plausibly be thought of as his natural subject. Perhaps this is why, near the end of the novel, Clay stops being a mere observer of the novel’s violent events and becomes a participant. This is not unexpected, but it feels like a parlour trick, to make up for the lack of the first book’s cool restraint. And of course a similar turnabout occurred in much more striking form in American Psycho, where the foregrounding of violent impulse allows the reader to examine and contextualise it at his leisure. Here, in the rush of events, there’s no time for context.
At least the beautiful one-liners are everywhere. A man spying on Clay ‘could not be more obvious if he were holding a hundred balloons’. A young actress at a party is talking ‘about fasting and her yoga routine and how superstoked she is to be in a movie about human sacrifices’. When sex turns violent, Clay muses, in a rush: ‘this is the way I always wanted the scene to play out and then it does and it has to because it doesn’t really work for me unless it happens like this.’ And the last line, which I will refrain from quoting, is terrific.
It is also oddly satisfying – flattering, almost – to see the old Ellis magic applied to the popular culture of our era. The early novels gave us Raybans, videocassettes, Elvis Costello and cocaine, and put them under glass vitrines in some imaginary museum of the 1980s. Here, we get iPhones, Apple stores, internet videos and Lost (not to mention more Elvis Costello, by way of the title), all of them crated up and ready to go on loan to the Historical Archive of the Post-Bush Era. It makes me think that there is a very fine new novel to be written about Clay, even if this isn’t it. Maybe it will define the 2040s. Maybe Clay and Blair and Trent and the rest will live in a retirement home together, snort powdered Enfamil, score stool softeners and commit mercy killings. Hell, why wait: Ellis should write it now and call it science fiction. In the meantime, in middle age (and it’s hard to believe this mainstay of contemporary American letters is only 46), Ellis remains a bold ignorer of literary boundaries. Imperial Bedrooms is but another unexpected swerve in a wonderfully weird career.