By Bret Easton Ellis
Ellis’s sequel to Less Than Zero is as smooth and luxurious as leather. But, like leather, it also has cracks.
The author’s greatest problem is that cotton-thread of a line he walks between needing his reader to care for his characters, but creating characters that are not at all sympathetic. That didn’t matter so much in LTZ, where awful things happened to the characters, but the purpose of the book was to explore the lack of compassion and sympathy one can have in a world of gratification and ennui. In LTZ, that went for the characters and the reader. In Imperial Bedrooms, however, one can’t help but feel that the story can only really work if the reader gives a crap. The novel is suffused with paranoia (more on this shortly) that the central character is being followed and even threatened. Another character flicks between the role of a bargaining chip and a femme fatale with agency. Either way, we should probably feel something for her, as with our main man Clay. And yet Ellis relies too much in this novel on a style he established in LTZ and perfected since: glossy façade with little feeling underneath.
It is true that there are moments when Clay tells us something profound about, for example, how lonely life in this world can be. And Ellis penetrates this truth as neatly as a surgeon – but, then, he always was able to get to the heart of the matter. However, I was simply not able to care enough. Give me American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman any day – a much more sympathetic character for sure. At least we get under his skin and learn of his madness and can therefore egg him on in all his ghastliness. But this novel is so short that there is no time to understand Clay. It is a sketch, a glimpse, superficial. And in that way it is surprising: Ellis is the writer who understands the shallow depths of the superficial. He’s made a living out of exposing superficiality, and showing us the depths that lie beneath it. In Imperial Bedrooms, he seems to forget this almost completely, and it’s a great shame.
There are those who will talk about this novel as an exemplar of atmosphere. They’ll put it down to the way Ellis establishes a sense of paranoia. It is not half as paranoid – or successful – as it could be. Because he does not give himself time to craft a deeper story, Ellis relies on two very conventional techniques to inspire Clay’s paranoia: anonymous contact and a ubiquitous pursuer in a blue Jeep. These two devices are so overused that Ellis becomes the boy who cried wolf. Without the ratcheting of tension, without closer shaves, without scarier encounters, one becomes de-sensitised by such flaky motifs.
That said, Ellis’s choice to slip in LA noir mode is welcome. His approach is creative and, in many ways, this book is the perfect marriage between two great literary forms native to LA: the overgratified-but-empty analysis Ellis invented with classic noir. He brings these two worlds together in the best way possible. It’s just a shame that Imperial Bedrooms is not the sum of its parts.