And it starts well enough, with an interesting metafictional twist: “They had made a movie about us,” Bret Easton Ellis’s new book begins, and of course, they did. The movie, it should go without saying, is the film version of “Less Than Zero,” Ellis’s headline-grabbing 1985 debut. Neither the book nor the movie is named, but titles aren’t necessary, for here are the old familiar names: Blair, Julian, Trent — and Clay, the narrator of that novel and this one, “Imperial Bedrooms,” which takes up their stories a quarter of a century on. So there’s a neat, postmodern, self-referential beginning, with Clay, the cool observer of his own actions and feelings — or lack of them — observing himself being observed, an acknowledgement that his version of the story may be only one of many.
So what happened to all these people? You could make a cynical argument that sequels are written for the most banal of reasons, to continue a franchise or revive interest in a flagging brand - the “Star Wars” effect. But when authors create memorable characters it’s usually because they can’t help themselves. Imaginary people become lodged in the creator’s consciousness; it can be hard to get them to leave. At any event, Ellis’s work has always been stitched with cross-reference and self-reference, threaded through with a sense that the boundary between fantasy and reality is disturbingly fragile. It’s what makes his work, at its best (e.g. “Lunar Park”}, so striking. I can well believe this nostalgic ‘whatever happened to…?’ fascination sparked off “Imperial Bedrooms.”
But tragically the resulting novel falls flat. For what starts off neat swiftly becomes pat, lazy and effortful all at once. There is a story here, of sorts. “The real Julian Wells didn’t die in a cherry-red convertible, overdosing on a highway in Joshua Tree while a choir soared over the soundtrack. The real Julian Wells was murdered over 20 years later, his body dumped behind an abandoned apartment building in Los Feliz after he had been tortured to death at another location.” So it’s quite a conventional story, really: Who killed Julian Wells? That’s the thin narrative path the novel wanders. As in “Less Than Zero,” Clay has come home at Christmastime. He is now a screenwriter, back in Los Angeles to oversee the casting of a movie he’s written. “This is the official reason why I’m in L.A. But, really, coming back to the city is an excuse to escape New York and whatever had happened to me there that fall.”
That “whatever” is an echo of the weirdly unexplained nothingness that made “Less Than Zero” such a startling, powerful book. Ellis’s first novel has that “Catcher in the Rye,” “Bell Jar” trick, the ability to make something from nothing, to let a willed lack of emotion stand in for emotion. It reveals the void at the heart of a culture obsessed by surface — a culture that in the intervening years has become the norm. It was Ellis’s gift, or curse, to know that it would. There are no mobile phones in “Less Than Zero,” and the Betamax machine is a thrilling new technology. But young Clay’s Christmas break back home in Los Angeles now seems like a premonition of the emptiness that is almost inescapable today: online, on television, on your iPhone. The violence at the end of “Less Than Zero” is shocking; and it shocks Clay, too, though the most he can muster is “I don’t think it’s right.”
Nothing can shock Clay 25 years later. Does that surprise you? Are you, indeed, surprised that Julian ends up dead? No, neither was I. Julian trying to wheedle money out of Clay to pay for an abortion in “Less Than Zero” becomes Julian who owes money to Blair (“Well, 70 grand, but for him that’s a lot of money”). Nobody changes, not really. Rip, Clay’s dealer, has had a lot of plastic surgery: “His face is unnaturally smooth, redone in such a way that the eyes are shocked open with perpetual surprise; it’s a face mimicking a face, and it looks agonized. The lips are too thick. The skin’s orange. The hair is dyed yellow and carefully gelled. He looks like he’s been quickly dipped in acid; things fell off, skin was removed. It’s almost defiantly grotesque.” Like Martin Amis, Ellis still has a flair for such perfect, surreal description. But, again like Amis, he can struggle to set it in an effective context. The plot — the trajectory toward Julian’s death, Clay’s obsession with a girl who may or may not be called Rain Turner, the threatening texts he receives from blocked numbers that say things like “I’m watching you” — is a clunking plot, more distracting than engaging...
“Imperial Bedrooms” is more violent than “Less Than Zero.” It goes without saying, I suppose, that’s it’s not as violent as “American Psycho,” but it is infused with the same toxicity. Toward the end of the novel, Clay buys himself a boy and a girl: “The girl was impossibly beautiful — the Bible Belt, Memphis — and the boy was from Australia and had modelled for Abercrombie & Fitch.” He does terrible things to them, and makes them do terrible things to each other. Why? Maybe because, as Clay himself admits, “I never liked anyone and I’m afraid of people.” Didn’t we know that already? The reader has to wonder what Ellis is trying to prove. That people numbed by the poison of a society based solely on money, fame and beauty are capable of practically anything? If that’s not news to us it’s thanks, in large part, to Bret Easton Ellis. But what purpose can simple repetition serve?
We, the modern audience for novels like this, have gotten over being shocked. There’s nothing left. From “A Clockwork Orange” to “A Serbian Film,” and with “American Psycho” along the way, we’ve seen it all. We too have been poisoned, so that when we see pictures from Syria or from Manus Island, they appal us, perhaps, but not for long. They are part of the landscape: they are what we expect to see, and we blunt ourselves to their power in order to survive as feeling human beings. That’s not a call for a return to the past — but a skilled novelist, one who wants to examine the way we live and why, needs to move the conversation forward. The obligation is even greater if he’s returning to a world he’s depicted before.
“History repeats the old conceits, the glib replies, the same defeats,” runs one of this novel’s epigraphs, a line from Elvis Costello. So it may, but fiction doesn’t have to: that’s the point. Let’s hope Ellis figures that out if he ventures into fiction again...
From a series of recent books involving moral, cultural and emotional isolation; I travel now to a location that is literally isolated – the 50th State of America, lying 2400km from the US mainland and spread over 1200km of islands, this is of course Hawaii. However, the next book on my travel – also called “Hawai’I” by Mark Panek – deals more with a sense of community, albeit an often corrupt and morally dubious one in terms of leadership – in the face of Japanese businessmen, Samoan gangs and haole (white) tourists… a large novel but one I am looking forward to, despite the 6 hour flight from Los Angeles to Kahului, on the island of Maui.