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Bret Easton Ellis – Imperial Bedrooms
By Alex Workman
So, this must be what is meant by pulp fiction …
It is 25 years since Ellis released his highly-acclaimed debut novel at the age of 19, Less Than Zero (“the Catcher in the Rye for the MTV generation”). Rather than releasing an anniversary special with a new cover (okay, there is one …), he has written a sequel to update us on how those angst-ridden college kids have developed/failed to develop into the world of adulthood.
The original was a book about the moral bankruptcy of spoilt rich kids in LA. This novella is a thriller noir containing the same detestable characters. Bret Easton Ellis’s critics will again point to his stylisation, reliance on cultural references (now Blackberry and iPhone, Bats For Lashes and The Fray) and shock tactics, especially when not all makes perfect sense. It again takes its name from Elvis Costello, which makes me wonder how ironic the Phil Collins-loving Patrick Bateman in American Psycho actually was, but don’t let that put you off … (obviously it won’t because you probably think Declan’s a genius, right?)
The opening is classic BEE. He uses the narrator to cast doubts on the original work by personally criticising the author and then goes on to slag off the poorly-received film version. This could draw accusations of self-indulgence, but when Martin Amis or Stephen King use this technique you feel like they’re showing off, whereas here I think it is used as a device to make the storyline even foggier for the reader (think of the great American novel The Great Gatsby). Ellis’s previous book, Lunar Park, was semi-autobiographical, with loads of red herrings, and part horror so it’s an experiment he’s been working on for a while. It is also useful as it acts as a recap and, in dismissing the narrator’s voice in the original and claiming the new voice as the truthful one, enables the book to stand on its own.
In true Columbo-style, we then get the gruesome details of his friend’s murder and a clue that he’s not an innocent in this. The protagonist is now a successful screenwriter and, worth noting, a failed novelist—a great get-out clause if the book is shit—returning to LA to escape New York and to work on a film called “The Listeners” (based on BEE’s disappointment at the film version of his The Informers—now that is self-indulgent). He is being followed by a blue jeep and begins to receive threatening texts. All this is within the first dozen pages.
Clay, the narrator, falls for a talentless, good-looking actress who wants to be cast for the film and it’s not clear who is using who the most (key line: “how can she be a bad actress on film but a good one in reality?”) and although they both realise this, that’s just the way it works in Hollywood (highlighted in various sub-plots).
More texts begin to appear, everyone is being followed or thinks they are, the protagonist’s apartment is broken into and veiled threats made, and old friends keep popping up appearing more sinister and sleazy than in the original book. When people start disappearing/getting bumped off, Clay turns detective, although he doesn’t really want to know anything if it’s going to personally affect him and he would rather stay happily ignorant. Especially as his new lover appears to be the common link and it might stop him getting his end away if he asks too many questions.
The reader could be left frustrated at the unanswered questions, but this is hinted at towards the end when Clay is told that things won’t tie up in the third act. What confused me the most was the femme fatale character who is the catalyst to much of the fighting, and later murder, as she is never described in a sympathetic manner (variously a slut, whore, “dumb cunt actress”, fuck-awful, etc.). Surely there must be enough, good-looking wannabes in Hollywood to go round? Any trip to your local Blockbusters would confirm this. The characters are fairly one-dimensional in that they are all sinister pieces of work, which is probably the point but nevertheless detracts something as you never feel much for any of them.
It’s basically a(n) (im)morality play, charting the corruption and sleaze of Hollywood, in the same black satirical way as all his other books. Los Angeles is a city of paranoia, fear, claustrophobia, naked ambition, back-stabbing, jealousy and hatred. Above all else, it is a study of narcissism. This may be a cliché, but it is interesting that Ellis considers that most people don’t mature; they just grow older and sleazier. There’s little change, and certainly none for the better, from Less Than Zero and leads me to question whether the misanthropy of his characters is a reflection on the author or whether BEE just hates a certain type of person (social-climbing yuppies).
There are probably better authors of this thriller/detective/noir genre (there’s more than a nod to Raymond Chandler), but not many who can write dialogue as well or give the reader such a sense of foreboding, unease and menace. Overall, if you like BEE’s stuff, you’ll enjoy this and look forward to the next instalment in another 25 years.
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