Review: Imperial Bedrooms by Bret Easton Ellis
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2/5 (Out Now; Macmillan)
It's a hard task to look back at long gone accomplishments and not want to pick them apart. It must be even tougher for an achievement spawned in adolescence, when most are too haughty to realise their proneness to errors.
That was, nonetheless, what Bret Easton Ellis set out to do by opening Imperial Bedrooms - his seventh book - with a smart plot machination that allowed him to reappraise and reframe the characters of his breakout debut Less Than Zero, whilst preserving the series of grim and callous events that took place in the nihilistic vignettes in that novel (published when he was just 21). Everything that happened to narrator Clay back in LA during his first Christmas holiday from university did indeed take place, but doubt is cast on the portrayal of the characters .
So we fast-forward twenty five years as Clay returns to LA as a screenwriter, and almost all of Less Than Zero's overflowingly affluent and morally bankrupt cast are reprised in their middle age. Whereas Less Than Zero revolved around the aimless, inebriated wanderings of Clay (visiting old flame Blair, lending money to school friend and addict Julian, scoring from his dealer Rip, meeting Trent at parties and going home with strangers, etc), Imperial Bedrooms actually takes a plot; the characters becoming embroiled in a crime noir thriller (a la James Ellroy) centred on the failed actress/escort Rain Turner, who Clay becomes infatuated with as he tries to help her secure a role in his upcoming movie.
Less Than Zero scored originality points for showing the dankness of teenaged disaffection: there was no need to plot a course for Clay, whose medicated indifference to the brutality around him was shocking enough. As the cast have long passed a period where they toil with ambivalence about their purpose in life, an injection of drama may well have been needed. Unfortunately, as Clay discovers Rain's relationship with Julian (transfigured from prostitute to pimp) and Rip's designs for her, the attempts at tension are flat and clumsy. It just isn't handled deftly: Clay's largely too stupid to react to a stalker plaguing his iPhone with texts from a jeep sitting outside his window, and Trent's hard-boiled urges for him to sidestep the whole affair are almost laughable ("Just walk away", "this thing has a scope…" and so forth).
Ellis' economical matter-of-fact style doesn't help matters, although plenty of writers build more constrictive scenes without any fancier prose than he uses. The numb tone is necessary for showing that Clay is too detached for redemption, but the long winding paragraphs of deadpan recollections leave the flow of the novel barren.
Descriptive texture also suffers. People champion Ellis for littering his novels with contemporary pop-culture references and modern technology. But that's bullshit. Having your protagonist irrelevantly quoting lines by The National or checking IMDb doesn't spare the novel from monotony. The only things well depicted are the ultra-violence (for which Ellis has had an unhealthy amount of practice) and LA, still festering with the same alienation, shallow business lunches and meaningless sinning as it was 25 years ago.
The most afflicting grievance though, considering how Ellis granted himself breathing space to re-adjust his characters, are where his cast have ended up. In fairness, they haven't all grown into roles that are objectionably surprising: Rip had a menacing disregard for humanity in adolescence and Julian was always damaged goods. But Blair, who steps out of the fringe at Imperial Bedrooms' conclusion, is crippled by an insulting amount of arrested development. As a teenager she had her faults (chiefly, being stuck up and vain), but she actually had a conscience and the good sense to abandon the loveless Clay. It's difficult to accept that the middle-aged woman still pines for a man she'd long ago turned her back on, especially when she's aware of his deterioration into a narcissistic monstrosity. Clay wronged in Less Than Zero by doing nothing in situations where he could have helped, but he's an almost unrecognisable beast here and willingly drives the descent into barbarity and torture at the novel's end. Many readers will have been drawn in, with morbid curiosity, to find out that this was the trajectory the battered youths of Less Than Zero were forced along. By this account, aging is anything but graceful.