By Bret Easton Ellis
The songs, I was surprised to see, have remained the same. The Imperial Bedrooms soundtrack, even including the playlist at its hip Hollywood parties filled with young starlets, is dominated by “songs from the eighties.” Duran Duran, the Go-Gos, Warren Zevon, the Eurhythmics, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”, “Boys of Summer,” “China Girl” . . . whoever would have thought L.A. in 2010 would sound so retro?
Of course some things have changed. In 1985 (Less Than Zero), videogames like Ms. Pacman, Space Invaders, Galaga, and Centipede were being played at arcades, one watched porn on something called a Betamax, and when busy executives needed to make a call in a restaurant a phone with a really long extension cord had to be brought to their table. Imperial Bedrooms brings all of this up to speed, with iPhones and iPods, text messaging and Facebook. But while no one watches MTV anymore, that music is still with us.
I don’t think it’s nostalgia that makes me wish Imperial Bedrooms had more than this in common with its precursor. Billed as a sequel to Less Than Zero it reintroduces us to the same characters 25 years later (don’t worry, they’ve “had some work done”). Clay, now a successful screenwriter, has again returned to L.A. to visit the old gang. But the only thing new we find out about Blair and Trent and Rip and Julian are their last names. Instead of picking up loose threads from the earlier novel, what we get seems more like a continuation of Lunar Park. The self-referential gamesmanship that acknowledges the publication of Less Than Zero but here seeks to set the record straight (Clay distances himself from the previous author, presumably Ellis), and the sinister stalking of the narrator by mysterious, almost supernatural strangers are elements that borrow heavily from Lunar Park but which are totally alien to the world of Less Than Zero. Before long I found myself wondering whatever happened to Clay’s charming little sisters, and thinking I would have preferred to read a sequel just about them.
Instead of a plot the book is structured around a bunch of evasive, insinuating conversations. People are continually insisting that Clay meet with them so they can “talk.” “Things” have to be “explained” discreetly, far from watching eyes, in private. And when they do meet the results are invariably vague and threatening, leading to much absurdity and not a little exasperation.
“You discover new things as you go along,” Rip says. “You discover things about yourself that you never thought were possible.”
I turn back to him. “Why don’t you just move on? Let him have her and just move on?”
“I can’t do that,” he says. “No. I just can’t do that.”
“Why can’t you do that?”
“Because he’s compromising the structure of things,” Rip says, enunciating each word. “And it’s affecting my life.”
I’m about to get out of the limousine.
“Don’t worry. I won’t come around anymore,” Rip says. “I’m through with you. It’ll play out like it’s supposed to play out.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means I just wanted to warn you,” he says. “You’ve been officially implicated.”
Almost all of the dialogue, and there is a lot of it, is like this. Here’s some more from just a couple of pages earlier:
“What are you saying?” I’m asking, the fear pushing forward. “What does any of this mean?”
“It means so many things, Clay.”
“I want to get out of here,” I say. “I want you to drop me off.”
Rip says, “It means she’ll never love you.” A pause. “It means everything’s an illusion.”
And here we are just ten pages later:
“Why is Kelly Montrose dead?” I say, almost murmuring to myself instead of directing this at Trent. “What happened to Amanda Flew?”
Trent isn’t cool enough to hide the desperation that quickly flashes across his face. “It’s not just about Kelly and it’s not just about Amanda.” Trent breathes in and looks around. “You don’t understand . . . This . . . thing . . . it has . . . a scope, Clay . . . ” Trent stops. “It has a scope . . . There are other people involved and it’s – ”
“Can’t you just answer my question?”
“But you’re asking for an answer where there just isn’t one.”
Actually there is a pretty simple answer, involving a high-end prostitution ring and friends falling out over a pretty blonde wannabe movie star, but if anyone just came out and explained what was going on in so many words then the book would be over even sooner than it is.
The moral of the story is scarcely any more complex. Hollywood, it turns out, is a giant snuff factory, swallowing up the dreams of young people and then streaming the discarded, bloody wreckage on the Internet. Like the sex, the violence is more mechanical than an act of passion. It’s also hard to shake the unsettling feeling that Ellis uses it in this book merely as a sensational way of lending otherwise weightless lives a perverse kind of gravitas. These aren’t just a bunch of spoiled losers popping pills, driving nice cars, and attending an endless round of parties. They actually kill people! This is real!
That Ellis’ last two novels have been revisitings of earlier books strikes me as remarkable for a writer still only in his forties. I guess too much early success does that to one’s career. In both cases the results have been tremendously disappointing. Such a turning inward suggests Ellis really has run out of things to say. And, on the evidence of Lunar Park and Imperial Bedrooms, ways of saying it. A couple of stylistic tricks are repeated over and over in both books. This is a shame since I think Ellis is still a talented and important writer. But it’s clearly time for him to move on and, in the spirit of 2010, hit the reset.
Review first published online July 26, 2010.