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“They had made a movie about us. The movie was based on a book written by someone we knew. The book was a simple thing about four weeks in the city we grew up in and for the most part was an accurate portrayal. It was labeled fiction but only a few details had been altered and our names weren’t changed and there was nothing in it that hadn’t happened.”
So begins Bret Easton Ellis’s new meta-meta-novel, Imperial Bedrooms, a 25-years-in-the-making sequel to his 1985 debut Less Than Zero. This latest effort borrows another line from Elvis Costello and returns us to the dark void of Hollywood, where a familiar cast continues to live out its morally questionable lives. Blair, Julian Wells, Trent Burroughs, and Rip Millar are all here and, once again, Clay is our narrator. He’s a successful writer now, and his novel The Listeners is being made into a film, which he’s writing the screenplay for and has a hand in producing (nudge nudge, wink wink).
Of course, this isn’t The Hills or Entourage (thank God) and so this isn’t a glitzy, glamorous exploration of Hollywood success. Instead, we follow Clay’s navigation of the town’s underbelly, where he is haunted by strange visions, a dubious past, an ominous stalker, and the unspoken darkness that looms just out of the frame. This is all a complex cipher, because you’re never quite sure what’s just in Clay’s mind, what’s merely an extension of Ellis’ life, and what you’re purposely not being told (or being lied to about). But that’s to be expected. Ellis has never been good with a definitive narrative truth and he’s not about to change.
A lack of change is the real problem with Imperial Bedrooms. There’s little new in the story and Ellis’ writing style hasn’t evolved much, either. Like its predecessor, Imperial Bedrooms is a strung-out series of vignettes that rely on paranoia, manipulation, and extreme violence to propel the reader. At times, this violence seems unnecessarily grotesque, as if Ellis is merely trying to top his own previous excesses or, worse yet, trading obscene violence for another shot at seizing the zeitgeist. It’s sad to think that so little has changed for him in the past 25 years. In some ways, Less Than Zero predicted our love of extreme news and celebrities like Paris Hilton and Tila Tequila–which was part of its considerable brilliance–but now that’s just the way things are. Imperial Bedrooms holds an unflinching mirror up to the shallowness of the Thirty Mile Zone (and our fascination with it), but it’s a picture we’ve all seen before.
Bret Easton Ellis speaks tonight at 7 p.m. at Politics and Prose. Free.