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Bret Easton Ellis' 'Less than Zero' Sequel, 'Imperial Bedrooms', Goes Nowhere

Mike Fischer
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (MCT)
Bret Easton Ellis

Yet another iteration of a dystopian Los Angeles in which networking is really about narcissism, sex is about power, mutilated bodies are inevitable and everyone wears sunglasses.

Imperial Bedrooms

Publisher: Knopf Doubleday
Length: 192 pages
Author: Bret Easton Ellis
Price: $24.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2010-06

Imperial Bedrooms, Bret Easton Ellis' sixth novel, is being billed as "a sequel of sorts" to Less Than Zero (1985), his blockbuster debut about life in the fast lane that catapulted him to fame before he had even graduated from college.

Ellis' publisher promises that Imperial Bedrooms will demonstrate "just how much Ellis has matured as a writer" in the intervening quarter century. What Imperial Bedrooms actually does is confirm, yet again, that Ellis picked the wrong career when he decided to become a novelist rather than a journalist.

Less Than Zero has no plot and flat characters, reflecting a world of privilege and depravity in which truth and meaning are negotiable because they never leave the surface.

In deadpan prose and sharp dialogue, Less Than Zero catches every wrinkle and fold in the skin of this nightmarish world, where casual sex and plentiful drugs grease the skids from desire to boredom and then cruelty — even as the narrator pines for the younger, better California in which his now-lost self had once felt at home.

The best passages in Less Than Zero remind me of Joan Didion's The White Album, which chronicles an earlier turning point in California's history with the same mix of keen observation and narrative restraint. The best passages in Imperial Bedrooms rarely even remind me of Less Than Zero, which is a much better book because it doesn't worry so much about whether it qualifies as a novel.

After opening with an awkward metafictional framing device, Imperial Bedrooms begins much as Less Than Zero did: with Clay getting off a plane in Los Angeles, just before Christmas. More than 20 years older and now a screenwriter, he is in town to help cast a film based on a script he wrote. The central figures from the brat pack in Less Than Zero are all still around, struggling to find their role in "a mosaic of youth, a place you don't really belong anymore."

Trent has become an agent and married Blair, Clay's former girlfriend. Julian, Clay's boyhood companion, has graduated from being an escort to running a service of his own. Rip, already disturbing as a teenage drug dealer, has becomes a sinister figure with an undefined role in organized crime.

But once Ellis reintroduces these characters and puts them on their feet, he doesn't know what to do with them and therefore can't make them move — or make them moving. As a result, we're treated to yet another iteration of the same increasingly tired story Ellis has been telling from the beginning, featuring over-exposed views of a dystopian Los Angeles in which networking is really about narcissism, sex is about power, mutilated bodies are inevitable and everyone wears sunglasses.

What does it all mean? That would require walking in Didion's footsteps and asking some hard questions. Instead, Ellis takes the lazy way out, making his bid for relevance by serving watered-down Chandler: a tacked-on piece of noir in which the femme fatale spawns mayhem and murder. If only she or her story could also spawn interest.

But while Clay falls hard, Ellis never manages to explain why, despite some valiant efforts at pop psychology from various members of his inner circle — and a clumsy pornographic sequence near novel's end, presumably included to illustrate why Clay's relationships with women are so lousy.

Imperial Bedrooms gives us glimpses of the younger Ellis' talent. The dialogue can be crisp and funny. He retains his keen eye for detail, particularly when describing fashion and appearance. And he can still evoke an air of lurking menace, in which paranoia feeds on itself.

But while Ellis can write, he seems unable to generate substance from style by telling a story as well as setting a scene. Rip's indictment of Clay — harsh but fair — applies to Ellis here as well: "You have no imagination. You're actually very by-the-numbers."

Mike Fischer is a Milwaukee writer and lawyer.


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