‘They made a movie about us,’ begins Imperial Bedrooms, referencing Bret Easton Ellis’s 1985 debut Less Than Zero, and the first nine pages of this sequel are dedicated to a post-modern post-mortem of that infamous work. The self-referential, fictionalized dissection of his 1980s artifact sets the scene for those who didn’t catch the original and promises those that did something similar. For those not familiar with Less Than Zero, think how fun and disturbing Beverley Hills 90210 would’ve been if Brenda and Brandon never turned up to preach sobriety, safe-sex and sympathy to affluent LA brats.
It’s the festive season in Imperial Bedrooms and Clay, the narrator of the original book, is back in Los Angeles, navigating a landscape haunted by desperate and willing actresses, old acquaintances and sinister Christmas trees. A successful screenwriter casting roles in a movie, The Listeners (a thinly veiled reference to Ellis’ 2009 adaption of his book The Informers), Clay is deposited directly into the bowels of the Tinseltown monster.
Ellis seems to deliberately betray Clay’s pop-cultural significance in this book, taking the Holden Caulfield of the 80s and bending him into an even less endearing (if that’s possible) Patrick Bateman from American Psycho. While the younger incarnation of Clay remained detached and decidedly passive to his privileged, excessive existence, the middle-aged man we follow through Bel-Air appears to relish the perks of his influence. It becomes apparent that the title of the book not only references an Elvis Costello song, but the selection process for stardom. Indeed, much of Imperial Bedrooms documents sleazy casting couch techniques and takes place in Clay’s knotted bed sheets; a place Ellis renders both foreboding and bland, malevolent but minimalist, much like his main character.
The book jacket promises those who haven’t read Less Than Zero that this book is a powerful stand alone effort, but much of the interest comes from finding out what has happened to the cast from the original. Now they’ve hit their forties, most of the dissolute, disaffected teenagers from Less Than Zero are working in the movie industry, or servicing the fortunate few in other ways, such as providing teenage escorts. The disposability of people, the Disappear Here factor, is rampant and fans of Ellis’s work will find themselves rediscovering the moral slipperiness of the winding Hollywood hills.
Typically Ellis skates the edges of plot, fashioning a conspiracy around haunted apartments and vanishing actors who turn up tortured and decapitated in the desert, with some vague references to Mexican drug cartels. Though, as bisexual philanderer Trent tells Clay, ‘You don’t need to know why. You’re not going to get any answers.’ The result is like an episode of the Hills played by psychopaths and sex fiends you may have watched during an acid binge while playing with a Ouija board app on your iPhone.
Yet this paranoid, almost noir hallucination does well what many of Ellis’ books have, exploring the farce of post-modern reality and our supposedly sane society while drawing emotional truths with a bristled satirical brush. There is real depth to Imperial Bedrooms its just the further you go the darker those depths become and the book struggles not to disappear amongst the throwaway horrors it describes. Fans may feel jibbed, newcomers to Ellis may be delighted or dismayed, but either way the book achieves its anticipated controversy, not for its depictions of violence and sex, but for the path Ellis forces a previously sympathetic character down. Definitely worth reading and finding out for yourself.