Saturday, July 10, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 157 (7/10) -- Imperial Bedrooms by Bret Easton Ellis

A belated sequel is never a good sign. (I'll throw that out there, in hopes that someone, somewhere, can dredge up a counter-argument or two to stand against the legions of Foundation and Earths and Dune: House Atreideses and Closing Times and Scarletts on the negative side.) Whether the impulse to return came from commerce or art -- and the latter is usually declared to be the case, even when it so obviously had nothing to do with anything -- a sequel coming a couple of decades after the original is, at very best, a collaboration between the current writer and his younger self -- and, if you know anything about writers, you know that they don't work well with other people, and usually don't even like themselves that much.

And so Imperial Bedrooms washes up on our shores; the title declares it to be the sequel to Ellis's acclaimed first novel, Less Than Zero, which was written and published a quarter-century ago. [1] It's particularly sad to see Ellis returning to the old well, since he's coming off an excellent, gnarly, literally fantastic novel, Lunar Park (a World Fantasy Award Nominee for Best Novel, no less), and because this is only his seventh book in all -- I'd like to think that he's more inventive and has more options than this. Perhaps Imperial Bedrooms is the novel that Ellis really wanted to write right now -- but, if so, that makes it even worse.

Clay, the central character of Less Than Zero, has aged into a middle-aged screenwriter, and is returning to Los Angeles late in whatever year this is supposed to be, running away from what seems to be the end of a relationship in New York. Of course he runs into his old youthful posse from Zero, Trent and Blair and Julian, who are all the-same-but-different, because of course they're still afraid to merge, like everyone else in LA. Imperial sets up to be the story of Clay in pre-production for a movie called The Listeners (which he wrote, and is getting a producer's credit for), and it also flirts with updating the lives of Trent and Blair and Julian, but, really, it never escapes the gravitational pull of Clay's black-hole ego.

Now, Ellis is possibly most famous for American Psycho, so it would be tiresome and anti-climactic for any reviewer, or reader, to jump up and down and loudly condemn the things Clay does in this short novel, since Ellis has already set the bar so high for horrible behavior by his protagonists. But I will say that Clay begins the novel looking like a damaged man whom we hope can find redemption, but that reader learns, before too long, that nothing about Clay is redeemable. Ellis piles on the sordid details as Imperial goes on, first subtly, but then -- as if realizing that he may have readers who instinctively identify with the protagonist of a book, no matter how reprehensible he may be -- starts hurling large gobs of unpleasantness at the wall during Imperial's last quarter, his flop sweat obvious as he tries to make sure no one will misunderstand his intentions.

Not a hell of a lot happens in Imperial; Clay doesn't do anything that looks like work to the untrained eye, and even his partying is on the quiet side -- again, he's a middle-aged man, and has to pace himself. There are a lot of Ellisian fragmentary conversations, in which Clay and whoever don't talk about whatever it is they're not talking about that time. And there's some attempted suspense, mostly centering around Rip Millar, who was a dealer in Zero and now is something like a pimp. But, mostly, it's yet another literary novel about a guy who wanders around aimlessly, talking to people who never say much.

Imperial is also a novel of violence in which everything happens off the page; it's one long flinching away from what Ellis claims to want to confront. In its favor, I can say that Imperial is quite short, and entirely made up of very short sections, so it's an easy, quick read, suitable for wallowing in decadence for a day on the beach and then entirely forgetting about afterward. Alternatively, one can forget about it ahead of time -- and that's what I recommend.

[1] Speaking of declaring things, the front flap copy, describing the plot of Imperial Bedrooms, ends with a nakedly pleading paragraph that says only "A genuine literary event." No, really, it is, says some nameless copywriter, falling to her knees. Please treat it kindly!
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Listening to: Mono In VCF - There's No Blood In Bone
via FoxyTunes


Bookseller Bill said...

When I saw this reviewed in EW, I was amused at how his covers have evolved. Less Than Zero had the title huge and his name small, which has of course been reversed for Imperial Bedrooms.

Anonymous said...

How about "A Presumption of Death" by Jill Paton Walsh, loosely based on the Wimsey Papers by Dorothy Sayers? It was published in 2003 and Sayers died in 1957. It was a good book and true to the characters.

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