A sequel to Less Than Zero (1985). Twenty-five years ago, Ellis made his popular debut with a slim novel that took its title from an Elvis Costello song. It concerned drug-addled young hipsters in Los Angeles and was widely perceived as the West Coast equivalent of Bright Lights, Big City, Jay McInerney's novel about drug-addled young professionals in Manhattan. Ellis's sequel takes its name from a later Elvis Costello album, and the young hipsters have gotten older. Some of them continue to lust after young flesh, though that flesh-like drugs and talent-is just another commodity in Hollywood, which may seem like a seller's market to those peddling their wares but may be more of a buyer's market, where supply (particularly for attractive young flesh) exceeds demand. Narrator Clay has become a bicoastal screenwriter, recently returned to Los Angeles from New York. He is either paranoid or the target of a great conspiracy. Or maybe he's part of that great conspiracy. In any event, the narrative meanders from party to party, where Clay encounters seemingly random characters, some of whom he knew in the first novel, until the randomness starts to tighten into a web. A young actress seems attracted to him, or what passes for attraction between a supplicant and someone who might do her career some good. But who holds the power here? And just what kind of guy is our narrator, anyway? "This isn't a script," warns his boyhood friend, Julian, who is also somehow connected with the actress. "It's not going to add up. Not everything's going to come together in the third act." This warning might be better directed toward the reader, who must determine whether another character's insight that"everything's an illusion" is profundity or cliche. The novel is short, elliptical and sketchy-even jumpy-but it feels like it takes forever to end. Don't hold your breath for act three. First printing of 100,000
Ennui is a difficult state to describe. It's a depthless feeling -- part boredom, part discontent, part torpor. It is a look especially suited to the French, since we Americans often lack the gravity to make flatness meaningful. But Bret Easton Ellis is a skilled and subtle writer of ennui; he writes with sensitivity about characters whom we wouldn't mind sucker-punching. Ennui is a narrow feeling, and his new novel Imperial Bedrooms is, correspondingly, a book with a tiny but complex purview. This isn't at all a bad thing.
The key to Bret Easton Ellis might lie in the epigraphs. Imperial Bedrooms, the sequel to that author's first novel Less Than Zero, opens with words from Elvis Costello and Raymond Chandler. Less Than Zero quotes Led Zeppelin and X on its prefatory pages. If the four sources have anything in common, it's a distinct genius at posturing -- at generating an artful, meaningful fakery. Ellis's characters are actors by instinct, some by profession. They're not about to show their hand. Party conversation, cars, and clothes are the signifiers through which we are to understand them. These things may look superficial, but remember, they constitute the surfaces of people who pay a lot of attention to surfaces. Ellis doesn't go for expository internal monologues. He tells us who fake-hugs whom and lets us extract from that what we can. A reader would not be amiss in noting similarities between the author and his epigraph sources. Artful fakery is tricky, interesting stuff. When it fails -- as it does for the main character of Imperial Bedrooms -- it fails big.
In the case of Less Than Zero, the failed posture was that of the book itself. That novel replicated the feeling of riding as a passenger on a long highway drive: it was hypnotic, boring, and required little of a reader. Ellis is a good writer, but he was not then good enough to excuse breathtaking successions of words like Ferrari, cowboy hat and astrologer packed within the space of one inch. His adolescents offered fewer interpretive possibilities than the adults of Imperial Bedrooms. They were bad actors. When I originally checked Less Than Zero out of the library, years ago, I found a pubic hair lodged between two pages, and this seemed significant.
Imperial Bedrooms resembles its predecessor. It is a thin novel, with Lego-blocks of text stacked in short chapters. The narrator is named Clay, but he is a different Clay than the narrator of Less Than Zero. "They had made a movie about us," Imperial Bedrooms begins. "The movie was based on a book written by someone we knew. The book was a simple thing about four weeks in the city we grew up in and for the most part was an accurate portrayal." The Clay of Imperial Bedrooms is the Clay upon whom Less Than Zero was ostensibly based.
We find our man, a screenwriter, back home in Los Angeles after four months of sojourn in New York. He chews Altoids, drinks a lot and owns an Art Deco condominium "minimally decorated in soft beiges and grays" that is broken into shortly after his arrival. Nothing is stolen, but there has been tampering in Clay's absence: a computer turned on, a letter opener moved, a Diet Coke missing from the refrigerator. Around the same time, a blue jeep begins to tail Clay around the city, and he receives a text message that says, I'm watching you. A mystery is afoot.
A young blond actress named Rain is also afoot. Rain is an ingenue auditioning for a role in Clay's new movie; she is possessed of eyes "drained of intent, programmed not to be challenging or negative." Rain is unsuccessful but young, and she has transformed the taint of failure into a provocative neediness. Clay promises to get Rain cast in exchange for nude photos and sex, a contract common in his circles. Sex for the men and women of Imperial Bedrooms is a transactional matter of various holes being penetrated with various objects. The holes and objects are interchangeable, though generally the holes are attached to attractive people and the objects to powerful ones.
Readers will recognize the mood of the book as one of atmospheric doom. Southern California has this effect on a certain kind of writer, and, despite his callous characters, Ellis is as much a neurasthenic as Joan Didion in his perceptions of the place. Both writers are seismometers tuned to dread instead of ground motion, and everyday things might appear to them as sinister and significant as the glass of milk in Suspicion. Clay locates shades of doom in spray-on tans and bleached teeth; he hears old Duran Duran songs and thinks, "Sadness: it's everywhere."
And it is. Clay falls in love with Rain only to find that she's a highly-paid prostitute with unseemly connections. The blue jeep continues to follow him everywhere and the unknown text messages persist: I'm watching you. I can see you. Dead bodies turn up and keep coming: mutilated bodies, bodies dissolved in acid, bodies found in mass graves. Corpses entombed in cement and with missing hands. There are no deaths in Imperial Bedrooms, just corpses, and this fact -- like the pubic hair stuck in Less Than Zero -- is suggestive. Things happen in Ellis novels like they happen in action movies: abruptly and without aftershocks. Characters react but they do not emote. In the place where feelings might be is instead that blank spot of ennui, a vacuum, the opposite of "baggage". This is not an attitude that can process death or suffering, but one that spots the corpse and moves on.
If Less Than Zero was a book that sped by and made no real impression on a reader, its sequel can be absorbed just as quickly. But it shouldn't be. Imperial Bedrooms is a book with pleasurable sentences and tensions; with pulpy twists and shivering scenarios. I suspect it will be an easy novel for detractors of the author to misread. But Ellis is not an easy ironist, and here he is not gratuitous. He asks us a question: What can you do with an artful book about spiritual zombies? Read it and weep.
Ellis explores what disillusioned youth looks like 25 years later in this brutal sequel to Less Than Zero. Clay, now a screenwriter, returns at Christmas to an L.A. that looks and operates much as it did 25 years ago. Trent is now a producer and married to Clay's ex, Blair, while Julian runs an escort service and Rip, Clay's old dealer, has had so much plastic surgery he's unrecognizable. While casting a script he's written, Clay falls for a young, untalented actress named Rain Turner, and his obsession and affair with her powers him through an alcoholic haze that swirls with images of death, mysterious text messages, and cars lurking outside his apartment. The story takes on a creepy noirish bent—with Clay as the frightened detective who doesn't really want to know anything—as it barrels toward a conclusion that reveals the horror that lies at the center of a tortured soul. Ellis fans will delight in the characters and Ellis's easy hand in manipulating their fates, and though the novel's synchronicity with Zero is sublime, this also works as a stellar stand-alone. (June)
From the Publisher
"Hypnotic. . . . A haunting vision of disillusionment, twenty-first-century style." --People
"This sequel is very much on target. . . . [Ellis] uses the thriller framework to infuse nerve-rending unease into this look at Tinseltown mores. Grade: A-" --Entertainment Weekly
“Taut and ultimately terrifying. . . . In six novels, the author has emerged as one of the most gifted and serious novelists working in America today.” —Financial Times
"Enough talk of [Ellis's] literary genius, let's call him what he really is: a terrific horror writer. . . . An absolute creepfest [and] a festival of panting paranoia."--Chicago Sun-Times
“Brutally conceived, and effectively done. . . . There is no doubt that Ellis retains the ability to startle and disquiet.” —The Times Literary Supplement (London)
"Arrestingly spare . . . will leave you feeling bruised, guarded and a little nervous about noises at night. . . . What you really notice is Ellis's newfound love of noir. He's reinvigorated and ready to get mysterious and mean. . . . As ever, Ellis's details crystallize into elegant remoteness [and] if this is shallowness, the word needs a new definition." --Time Out New York
"In the same staccato prose that made Zero feel frighteningly fresh twenty-five years ago, Ellis paints a creepy L.A." --USA Today
"Its dirty charms are indisputable." --Playboy
“Reading Ellis is a thrilling and strangely voyeuristic experience, [and] you can’t look away.” —Venus Zine
"A page-turning read. . . . Ellis is showing us what has changed in 25 years--not just in his characters or in Hollywood but in America and maybe the world."--The Oregonian
"Imperial Bedrooms is a quicker, more controlled fire than its predecessor, and, like a good showman, Ellis has learned to save the best of the novel's many tricks for last. . . . Ellis's Godfather II, his Genesis story. . . . Devastating." --The Village Voice
"Visceral and often harrowing, Ellis delivers a work that matches such career peaks as Lunar Park and the infamous American Psycho." --The Examiner
Read an Excerpt
They had made a movie about us. The movie was based on a book written by someone we knew. The book was a simple thing about four weeks in the city we grew up in and for the most part was an accurate portrayal. It was labeled fiction but only a few detailshad been altered and our names weren't changed and there was nothing in it that hadn't happened. For example, there actually had been a screening of a snuff film in that bedroom in Malibu on a January afternoon, and yes, I had walked out onto the deck overlookingthe Pacific where the author tried to console me, assuring me that the screams of the children being tortured were faked, but he was smiling as he said this and I had to turn away. Other examples: my girlfriend had in fact run over a coyote in the canyons belowMulholland, and a Christmas Eve dinner at Chasen's with my family that I had casually complained about to the author was faithfully rendered. And a twelve-year-old girl really had been gang-raped--I was in that room in West Hollywood with the writer, who inthe book noted just a vague reluctance on my part and failed to accurately describe how I had actually felt that night--the desire, the shock, how afraid I was of the writer, a blond and isolated boy whom the girl I was dating had halfway fallen in love with.But the writer would never fully return her love because he was too lost in his own passivity to make the connection she needed from him, and so she had turned to me, but by then it was too late, and because the writer resented that she had turned to me I becamethe handsome and dazed narrator, incapable of love or kindness. That's how I became the damaged party boy who wandered through the wreckage, blood streaming from his nose, asking questions that never required answers. That's how I became the boy who never understoodhow anything worked. That's how I became the boy who wouldn't save a friend. That's how I became the boy who couldn't love the girl.
The scenes from the novel that hurt the most chronicled my relationship with Blair, especially in a scene near the novel's end when I broke it off with her on a restaurant patio overlooking Sunset Boulevard and where a billboard that read disappear herekept distracting me (the author added that I was wearing sunglasses when I told Blair that I never loved her). I hadn't mentioned that painful afternoon to the author but it appeared verbatim in the book and that's when I stopped talking to Blair and couldn'tlisten to the Elvis Costello songs we knew by heart ("You Little Fool," "Man Out of Time," "Watch Your Step") and yes, she had given me a scarf at a Christmas party, and yes, she had danced over to me mouthing Culture Club's "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?"and yes, she had called me "a fox," and yes, she found out I had slept with a girl I picked up on a rainy night at the Whisky, and yes, the author had informed her of that. He wasn't, I realized when I read those scenes concerning Blair and myself, close toany of us--except of course to Blair, and really not even to her. He was simply someone who floated through our lives and didn't seem to care how flatly he perceived everyone or that he'd shared our secret failures with the world, showcasing the youthful indifference,the gleaming nihilism, glamorizing the horror of it all.
But there was no point in being angry with him. When the book was published in the spring of 1985, the author had already left Los Angeles. In 1982 he attended the same small college in New Hampshire that I'd tried to disappear into, and where we had littleor no contact. (There's a chapter in his second novel, which takes place at Camden, where he parodies Clay--just another gesture, another cruel reminder of how he felt about me. Careless and not particularly biting, it was easier to shrug off than anythingin the first book which depicted me as an inarticulate zombie confused by the irony of Randy Newman's "I Love L.A.") Because of his presence I stayed at Camden only one year and then transferred to Brown in 1983 though in the second novel I'm still in New Hampshireduring the fall term of 1985. I told myself it shouldn't bother me, but the success of the first book hovered within my sight lines for an uncomfortably long time. This partly had to do with my wanting to become a writer as well, and that I had wanted to writethat first novel the author had written after I finished reading it--it was my life and he had hijacked it. But I quickly 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 realized after graduating from Brown in 1986 that it was never going to happen.
The only person who expressed any embarrassment or disdain about the novel was Julian Wells--Blair was still in love with the author and didn't care, nor did much of the supporting cast--but Julian did so in a gleefully arrogant manner that verged on excitement,even though the author had exposed not only Julian's heroin addiction but also the fact that he was basically a hustler in debt to a drug dealer (Finn Delaney) and pimped out to men visiting from Manhattan or Chicago or San Francisco in the hotels that linedSunset from Beverly Hills to Silver Lake. Julian, wasted and self-pitying, had told the author everything, and there was something about the book being widely read and costarring Julian that seemed to give Julian some kind of focus that bordered on hope andI think he was secretly pleased with it because Julian had no shame--he only pretended that he did. And Julian was even more excited when the movie version opened in the fall of 1987, just two years after the novel was published.
I remember my trepidation about the movie began on a warm October night three weeks prior to its theatrical release, in a screening room on the 20th Century Fox lot. I was sitting between Trent Burroughs and Julian, who wasn't clean yet and kept bitinghis nails, squirming in the plush black chair with anticipation. (I saw Blair walk in with Alana and Kim and trailing Rip Millar. I ignored her.) The movie was very different from the book in that there was nothing from the book in the movie. Despite everything--allthe pain I felt, the betrayal--I couldn't help but recognize a truth while sitting in that screening room. In the book everything about me had happened. The book was something I simply couldn't disavow. The book was blunt and had an honesty about it, whereasthe movie was just a beautiful lie. (It was also a bummer: very colorful and busy but also grim and expensive, and it didn't recoup its cost when released that November.) In the movie I was played by an actor who actually looked more like me than the characterthe author portrayed in the book: I wasn't blond, I wasn't tan, and neither was the actor. I also suddenly became the movie's moral compass, spouting AA jargon, castigating everyone's drug use and trying to save Julian. ("I'll sell my car," I warn the actorplaying Julian's dealer. "Whatever it takes.") This was slightly less true of the adaptation of Blair's character, played by a girl who actually seemed like she belonged in our group--jittery, sexually available, easily wounded. Julian became the sentimentalizedversion of himself, acted by a talented, sad-faced clown, who has an affair with Blair and then realizes he has to let her go because I was his best bud. "Be good to her," Julian tells Clay. "She really deserves it." The sheer hypocrisy of this scene must havemade the author blanch. Smiling secretly to myself with perverse satisfaction when the actor delivered that line, I then glanced at Blair in the darkness of the screening room.
As the movie glided across the giant screen, restlessness began to reverberate in the hushed auditorium. The audience--the book's actual cast--quickly realized what had happened. The reason the movie dropped everything that made the novel real was becausethere was no way the parents who ran the studio would ever expose their children in the same black light the book did. The movie was begging for our sympathy whereas the book didn't give a shit. And attitudes about drugs and sex had shifted quickly from 1985to 1987 (and a regime change at the studio didn't help) so the source material--surprisingly conservative despite its surface immorality--had to be reshaped. The best way to look at the movie was as modern eighties noir--the cinematography was breathtaking--andI sighed as it kept streaming forward, interested in only a few things: the new and gentle details of my parents mildly amused me, as did Blair finding her divorced father with his girlfriend on Christmas Eve instead of with a boy named Jared (Blair's fatherdied of AIDS in 1992 while still married to Blair's mother). But the thing I remember most about that screening in October twenty years ago was the moment Julian grasped my hand that had gone numb on the armrest separating our seats. He did this because inthe book Julian Wells lived but in the movie's new scenario he had to die. He had to be punished for all of his sins. That's what the movie demanded. (Later, as a screenwriter, I learned it's what all movies demanded.) When this scene occurred, in the lastten minutes, Julian looked at me in the darkness, stunned. "I died," he whispered. "They killed me off." I waited a beat before sighing, "But you're still here." Julian turned back to the screen and soon the movie ended, the credits rolling over the palm treesas I (improbably) take Blair back to my college while Roy Orbison wails a song about how life fades away.
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 sound track. The real Julian Wells was murdered over twenty years later, his body dumped behind an abandoned apartment buildingin Los Feliz after he had been tortured to death at another location. His head was crushed--his face struck with such force that it had partly folded in on itself--and he had been stabbed so brutally that the L.A. coroner's office counted one hundred fifty-ninewounds from three different knives, many of them overlapping. His body was discovered by a group of kids who went to CalArts and were cruising through the streets off of Hillhurst in a convertible BMW looking for a parking space. When they saw the body theythought the "thing" lying by a trash bin was--and I'm quoting the first Los Angeles Times article on the front page of the California section about the Julian Wells murder--"a flag." I had to stop when I hit upon that word and start reading the article againfrom the beginning. The students who found Julian thought this because Julian was wearing a white Tom Ford suit (it had belonged to him but it wasn't something he was wearing the night he was abducted) and their immediate reaction seemed halfway logical sincethe jacket and pants were streaked with red. (Julian had been stripped before he was killed and then re-dressed.) But if they thought it was a "flag" my immediate question was: then where was the blue? If the body resembled a flag, I kept wondering, then wherewas the blue? And then I realized: it was his head. The students thought it was a flag because Julian had lost so much blood that his crumpled face was a blue so dark it was almost black.
But then I should have realized this sooner because, in my own way, I had put Julian there, and I'd seen what had happened to him in another--and very different--movie.
The blue Jeep starts following us on the 405 somewhere between LAX and the Wilshire exit. I notice it only because the driver's eyes have been glancing into the rearview mirror above the windshield I've been gazing out of, at the lanes of red taillightsstreaming toward the hills, drunk, in the backseat, ominous hip-hop playing softly through the speakers, my phone glowing in my lap with texts I can't read coming in from an actress I was hitting on earlier that afternoon in the American Airlines first-classlounge at JFK (she had been reading my palm and we were both giggling), other messages from Laurie in New York a total blur. The Jeep follows the sedan across Sunset, passing the mansions draped with Christmas lights while I'm nervously chewing mints from atin of Altoids, failing to mask my gin-soaked breath, and then the blue Jeep makes the same right and rolls toward the Doheny Plaza, tailing us as if it were a lost child. But as the sedan swerves into the driveway where the valet and a security guard lookup from smoking cigarettes beneath a towering palm, the Jeep hesitates before it keeps rolling down Doheny toward Santa Monica Boulevard. The hesitation makes it clear that we were guiding it somewhere. I stumble out of the car and watch as the Jeep slowlybrakes before turning onto Elevado Street. It's warm but I'm shivering in a pair of frayed sweats and a torn Nike hoodie, everything loose because of the weight I dropped that fall, the sleeves damp from a drink I spilled during the flight. It's midnight inDecember and I've been away for four months.
"I thought that car was following us," the driver says, opening the trunk. "It kept moving lanes with us. It tailed us all the way here."
"What do you think it wanted?" I ask.
The night doorman, whom I don't recognize, walks down the ramp leading from the lobby to the driveway to help me with my bags. I overtip the driver and he gets back into the sedan and pulls out onto Doheny to pick up his next passenger at LAX, an arrivalfrom Dallas. The valet and the security guard nod silently as I walk past them, following the doorman into the lobby. The doorman places the bags in the elevator and says before the doors close, cutting him off, "Welcome back."
From the Hardcover edition.
What People are saying about this
From the Publisher
“Taut and ultimately terrifying….In six novels, the author has emerged as one of the most gifted and serious novelists working in America today.” —Hari Kunzru, Financial Times
“Brutally conceived, and effectively done….There is no doubt that Ellis retains the ability to startle and disquiet.” —Stephen Abell, The Times Literary Supplement
“Ellis remains a bold ignorer of literary boundaries. Imperial Bedrooms is but another unexpected swerve in a wonderfully weird career.” J. Robert Lennon, London Review of Books
“Enough talk of [Ellis's] literary genius, let's call him what he really is: a terrific horror writer. Imperial Bedrooms is an absolute creepfest [and] a festival of panting paranoia.” —Thomas Conner, Chicago Sun-Times
“A profoundly talented—and occasionally even brilliant—writer…Ellis has a fictional territory all his own and, heaven forbid, a mastery there.” —Jeff Simon, Buffalo News
“A page-turning read [with] a sneaky subtlety…Holding a mirror to our desires, Ellis shows us how much scarier what we think we want can be when severed from even the possibility of innocence, [employing] noirish staples to lure his reader along while subtly circling back to the older—and more frightening—theme: the dead soul.” —Michael McGregor, The Oregonian
“This is the most Chandleresque of Bret’s books, and the most deeply steeped in L.A. noir…As Dante’s hell is circular, so is [Ellis’s] L.A. Everywhere in Imperial Bedrooms there is a sense of time frozen, time collapsed and time rounding back on itself in various diabolical ways…What stays with [the reader] is not so much the concluding note of betrayal and horror as the mournfulness of the book, its eerie sense of stasis: clear skies, vacuum-sealed calm, the BlackBerry flashing on the nightstand in the middle of the night, everywhere the subliminal hum of menace.” —Donna Tartt, Amazon.com
“A page-turner…Imperial Bedrooms is a quicker, more controlled fire than its predecessor, and, like a good showman, Ellis has learned to save the best of the novel’s many tricks for last…Devastating…Old age and treachery have served Bret Easton Ellis quite well.” —Foster Kamer, The Village Voice
"Arrestingly spare…Imperial Bedrooms will leave you feeling bruised, guarded and a little nervous about noises at night…What you really notice is Ellis's newfound love of noir. He's reinvigorated and ready to get mysterious and mean…As ever, Ellis's details crystallize into elegant remoteness (and) if this is shallowness, the word needs a new definition." —Joshua Rothkopf, Time Out New York
“It’s worth following Ellis down this rabbit hole.” —Sam Kaplan, Philadelphia City Paper
“Hypnotic…A haunting vision of disillusionment, 21st-century style.” —People Magazine
“This sequel is very much on target…[Ellis] uses the thriller framework to infuse nerve-rending unease into this look at Tinseltown mores, a dissection that also comes nicely weighted with both bleak hilarity and firsthand authorial experience.” —Clark Collis, Entertainment Weekly
“Visceral and often harrowing, Ellis delivers a work that matches such career peaks as Lunar Park and the infamous American Psycho…It is remarkable how [he] has tailored the narrative in exactly the same style as the original novel, yet offering an assured and mature voice to chronicle Clay’s nightmarish return to L.A.” —Jorge Carreon, The Examiner
“Reading Ellis is a thrilling and strangely voyeuristic experience, [and] you can’t look away.” —Venus Zine
“Its dirty charms are indisputable.” —Amy Grace Lloyd, Playboy Magazine
“Ellis explores what disillusioned youth looks like twenty-five year later in this brutal sequel to Less Than Zero….The story takes on a creepy noirish bent as it barrels toward a conclusion that reveals the horror that lies at the center of a tortured soul….Though the novel's synchronicity with Zero is sublime, this also works as a stellar stand-alone.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review