Memory Lane always looked so unthreatening to me. But this is Bret Easton Ellis, so a cast reunion for the characters he first wrote about in Less Than Zero 25 years ago is bound to end in tears, screaming and blood. And so it does, with grim efficiency. No sooner has our protagonist, Clay, checked back into his Hollywood apartment complex, than he is plunged feet-first into a swamp of paranoia, sin and violent double-cross. As the doorman says to him on his return, ‘Welcome back.’
So what’s Clay been up to all these years? Becoming a screenwriter would be the literalist’s answer, but drifting further into Easton Ellis’s subconscious is more the truth of it. Imperial Bedrooms begins with Clay’s description of a movie, ‘based on a book written by someone we knew’. That book: Less Than Zero. That movie: the real-life 1987 adaptation of Less Than Zero. Immediately we know we’re in the same fact-as-fiction twilight zone that Easton Ellis explored so compellingly in his previous novel, Lunar Park.
Easton Ellis’s easy familiarity with this world certainly shows — so much so that, at times, this feels like a work of journalism. The weight and accuracy of description is unnerving. From the buzz of a text message to the pale glow of a thousand iPhones this is nothing less than a book of, and for, the Here and Now. Like John O’Hara, Easton Ellis builds a collage out of the details of contemporary life, and lets whatever plot there is swell naturally from there.
And the overall picture is disturbing in the extreme. There’s the gore and sex, of course, often mixed together as they are in Easton Ellis’s other books. But that’s just a general symptom, not the cause. The root illness here is the characters’ separation from each other, from the city and from themselves. Positioned behind screens, or behind their own neuroses, no one seems to believe in anything they say or do. As Clay observes at one point, ‘I have no choice but to pretend I’m only a phantom, neutral and uncaring.’ And like the best ghost stories, it is gloomy but affecting.
Those who have read Less Than Zero may be thinking: ‘Clay, Blair, Rip and all the others were disaffected and alienated back then — so what’s new?’ But this, I suspect, is the point. The compact discs may have given way to MP3s, the teenage dilemmas may have given way to midlife crises, but the contours of their existence remain the same. In the neon-lit corners of Easton Ellis Land, life is still defined by boredom and lubricated by cash. And even 25 years on, his characters still have a whole lot of growing up to do. The question we should be asking is: what about the rest of us?
This, sadly, is where the book’s strengths flip over to become its weaknesses. Easton Ellis tries a touch too hard to draw parallels with Less Than Zero, disinterring not just its themes and characters, but its abrupt style and structure too. And, inevitably, the result can feel second-hand and worn, lacking both the youthful electricity of his debut novel and the baroque complexity of Lunar Park. Even at its best, Imperial Bedrooms simply hovers around them, a lateral step.
By the time Imperial Bedrooms reaches its brutal conclusion, its final catalogue of perversions, you barely know what to think. It is shocking, powerful and incisive — but it also fails to do anything new. A pity? Yes. But perhaps it is testament to Easton Ellis’s skill that he can pull us so far from our comfort zones while remaining so firmly within his.