IMPERIAL BEDROOMS By Bret Easton Ellis, Knopf, 169 pages, $28.95
'They had made a movie about us. The movie was based on a book written by someone we knew," Imperial Bedrooms begins. "It was labelled fiction but only a few details had been altered and our names weren't changed and there was nothing in it that hadn't happened."
With that, Bret Easton Ellis's eagerly awaited sequel to Less Than Zero - the 1985 debut that won him both notoriety and critical kudos - reveals that it's not about that book's old characters. Imperial Bedrooms is about the "real" people those characters were based on. Not surprisingly, the real Clay and Rip turn out to be as cruel and narcissistic as their fictional selves, if not more.
If you can wrap your head around that, you have a sense of the self-referential universe in which Ellis writes. His previous novel, Lunar Park, even had a protagonist named Bret Easton Ellis. Imperial Bedrooms, strangely, abandons the book-within-a-book conceit after just a few pages, however. Perhaps that allows its characters to behave badly without worrying about their "fame" - the reason, after all, why we read Ellis in the first place.
When Ellis published Less Than Zero at the age of 21, his snapshot of wealthy teens doing drugs and having nihilistic sex in early 1980s L.A. became an instant sensation. Today, in the age of Gossip Girl and The Hills (the latter of which Ellis has said he loves), we are arguably still feeling the effects of that first, devastating portrait of rich, wasted youth. Heidi Montag, Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan could all have been characters in his books (and sometimes one wishes they were).
Imperial Bedrooms takes place 25 years after Less Than Zero, its characters facelifted and fortyish. They no longer have, as Rip said in Zero, "nothing to lose." Clay has achieved some success as a screenwriter, and his friends have become high-powered producers and club owners. Yet the endless hours once spent driving around to house parties and doing cocaine have only given way to Hollywood premieres, more flashy cars and middle-aged drunkenness. They drive their BMWs to STK and Koi and drink Patrón and take Ambien. Clay has another psychiatrist he hates. He seems just as disconnected from the world.
Where Imperial Bedrooms differs from its predecessor is its plot; that is to say, it has one. Clay, once a detached observer in Less Than Zero, finds himself growing dangerously obsessed with a young, untalented but sexually available actress named Rain.
Rain is the catalyst for Clay's emerging desperation, as he lures her with the promise of a role in the movie he wrote, The Listeners, which is a little like Ellis's own The Informers. He also tries to ignore the feeling he's being watched: A Jeep that follows him home, strange texts from a stalker. Somehow, Rain seems the cause of it all.
Clay is more pathetic than he was at 18, made wistful by old restaurants and Elvis Costello songs; both Bedrooms and Zero were named for them. "Sadness: It's everywhere," he thinks.
Ellis is still expert at depicting ennui, the existential state of being bored, alienated and empty all at once. He finds it in bleached teeth, clichéd remarks. What hurts Imperial Bedrooms is its thin attempt at a Raymond Chandler-style plot. Jammed into the novella's slight 169 pages, the reader feels as if she is watching it from a fast-moving car.
Imperial Bedrooms reads like a rehash of Ellis's whole career, without the spark of his earlier efforts. Besides giving us a chilling snapshot of the moral decay of 1980s L.A.'s creative class, what made Less Than Zero special was the way its detached, deadpan delivery channelled the clinical passivity and cool menace of its teenage narrator. Its spare, stark prose recalled, at its best, the grand tradition of American fiction about the young, rich and dissolute, from Hemingway to Fitzgerald.
If Less Than Zero had a documentary rawness, Imperial Bedrooms is a banal Hollywood thriller, complete with a whodunit and predictable plot twists - something Clay might have written. Appropriately self-referential as that may be, when the book turns violent, one's reaction is to glaze over.
Ellis has said his new book will erase any nostalgia readers have for Zero. Imperial Bedrooms gets dark; its final sequence recalls Ellis's most controversial book, American Psycho, in its brutality. It fails to shock, however, reading as a Greatest Hits-type retread. As Elvis Costello would likely agree, those aren't usually as impressive the second time around.
Sarah Barmak is a Toronto freelance ideas and culture journalist.