It starts so well. ‘They had made a movie about us’. The passivity, the casual glamour, the vague and menacing distrust, the clipped, blank tone: all these are instantly familiar from Bret Easton Ellis’ stunning debut ‘Less Than Zero’. It’s a shame, then, that this sequel, written and staged 25 years after the original, soon falls flat.
Before ‘American Psycho’ established Ellis as a best-seller and agent provocateur in chief, he had made his name with ‘Less Than Zero’, rightly praised as ‘the Catcher in the Rye of the MTV generation’. He shocked readers with his portrayal of the hollowness at the heart of a society in thrall to the superficial. The novel’s narrator, a student called Clay, returns home to Los Angeles for Christmas and gradually finds himself caught up again in a world of dead-eyed privilege, populated by teenagers who, with nothing much to gain or to lose, cruise from event to event searching indiscriminately for drugs or sex. A lethal ennui suffocates the city; little is said, done, or felt.
The pattern repeats itself in ‘Imperial Bedrooms’. Clay, now a successful screenwriter, has flown into Los Angeles from New York to help cast his latest film. Familiar faces dot the party circuit. The descent begins once more. ‘Less Than Zero’ felt like a roving documentary – or, in fact, more like a reality TV show, a chilling forerunner of The Hills (which Clay does actually watch 25 years later). Ellis makes a more concerted effort to shape the narrative of the sequel. As an epigraph from Raymond Chandler hints, the plot is ostensibly a thriller. Early on Clay describes the brutal murder of his friend Julian – a murder Clay is somehow implicated in. The novel loosely sets out to reveal who killed Julian, and why. The reader is soon conscious, however, that an atmosphere of noir paranoia is one of the few devices capable of giving the narrator’s life any sense of direction or linearity. The detail is negligible. In ‘Less Than Zero’ this didn’t matter: the blurred void at the centre of Clay’s life was precisely the point. Here, however, the story struggles under the conceit. It never repays the attention required, as the most satisfying thrillers do.
Fans of Ellis – myself included – might say that the notoriously subversive author is playing with the expectations of genre: the pornographic emptiness of modern life offers no real climax. In truth, it reads more like laziness. The tension of the novel surrounds Rain Turner, an aspiring actress who is sleeping with Clay in the hope of a role in his film. It turns out Rain has been sleeping with almost everyone, and some of Clay’s friends, people who have never encountered a limit in their lives, have taken drastic action. There is manipulation in Hollywood, and privilege can create a vicious narcissism. No reader should be particularly surprised. It’s a far less interesting premise than the listless anomie and casual amorality which made ‘Less Than Zero’ such a powerful assault on convention. In ‘Imperial Bedrooms’ people seek favours from those in power, who in turn abuse their status. If anything, this world is simpler and more obviously codified than that inhabited by the teenagers of ‘Less Than Zero’.
Bret Easton Ellis has shot himself in the foot. If these themes seem tired, it is because he has spent his career telling this story so well. This sequel can’t help, then, but feel gratuitous. ‘Less Than Zero’ needed to be written; Imperial Bedrooms has none of that urgency. We understand the corrosive effects of a society based on manufactured beauty, fame, and wealth. In this novel, Ellis does little more than repeat the point.
That’s not to say ‘Imperial Bedrooms’ is a bad book. It falls well below the author’s high standards but it remains enjoyable. His distinctive minimalist style is still compelling. Clay’s voice is both sinister and naive, a numb tone which infiltrates the reader’s thoughts. At his most incisive few can match Ellis’ ability to skewer modern life. 25 years later, communication is no less stilted or unproductive. Iphones have not changed the fact that the characters are fundamentally egocentric. Text messaging is just another way to stalk, baulk, or simply misread others. The way Clay’s thought is permeated by the language of cinema is another flash of inspiration. Views pan out, people act roles, scenes fade and dissolve. This is not so much the habit of a professional screenwriter as the conditioning of saturation media. There is always a cold distance between act and observation. Perhaps this is why Clay can describe Julian’s murder in such clinical detail, quoting newspaper reports and describing how his Tom Ford suit made the corpse look like a flag. Ellis also has a wonderful eye for description. A brilliantly surreal passage describes the nightmarish face-lift of Clay’s dealer, Rip. In his tranquillised present tense Clay concludes, ‘It’s almost defiantly grotesque’.
The same could well be said for this novel. Bret Easton Ellis appears, for once, to be trying too hard. In an offering to the cult of American Psycho several scenes of degradation attempt to hammer the author’s moral home, but the latent violence of ‘Less Than Zero’, coursing below the surface, was far more effective. The book is stagnant and self-indulgent, revisiting previous characters but adding nothing of value. It is a literary facelift, altering the appearance but not the content. The author has spent his career puncturing the myth of a society obsessed by surfaces, but here he seems to have been consumed by it. This is by-the-numbers Bret Easton Ellis.