“I never liked anyone and I’m afraid of people”

Bret Easton Ellis’ latest novel, Imperial Bedrooms, is his first book since Lunar Park in 2005; and it is a sequel of sorts to Ellis’ very first novel, Less Than Zero, which made him famous or notorious upon its publication in 1985, when he was just 21. The new novel is retrospective; it looks at the characters from Less Than Zero twenty-five years later, when they have gone from being spoiled, bored, and passive college-age kids to middle-aged people of power and influence in Hollywood. Imperial Bedrooms is also an exercise in what can only be called Hollywood Noir; it’s rooted in this genre, and reflects back upon it, in the same way that Lunar Park was rooted in and reflected back upon the John Cheever-style suburban anomie novel and the Stephen King-style horror novel.

Imperial Bedrooms begins with the narrator Clay (who was also the narrator of Less Than Zero) complaining about the way “the author” of Less Than Zero played with his feelings and violated his privacy. While conceding that the earlier book “for the most part was an accurate portrayal… there was nothing in it that hadn’t happened” (3), Clay nonetheless portrays “the writer” of the earlier book as very nearly a stalker, and certainly an exploiter: “he was simply someone who floated through our lives and didn’t seem to care how flatly he perceived everyone or that he’d shared our secret failures with the world” (4-5). From this, Clay goes on to dissect the film that was made from Less Than Zero, and which notoriously turned the novel into a feel-good tale of Hollywood redemption. Clay makes much of the way the movie transformed him from a passive, continually high, and bored observer into “the movie’s moral compass, spouting AA jargon, castigating everyone’s drug use” (7). In the movie, Clay tries desperately to rescue his former best friend Julian, who is falling into an abyss. In actuality, though (i.e. in the original book), Clay had just watched passively, without lifting a finger, as Julian drifted into prostitution, heroin addiction, and general self-abasement. Julian dies in the movie “while a choir soared over the sound track” (9), because being “punished for all of his sins” is “what the movie demanded,” indeed “what all movies demanded” (8). But this, of course, does not happen in the novel Less Than Zero, or in the actuality that Clay is describing for us in Imperial Bedrooms. Rather, “the real Julian Wells was murdered over twenty years later” — in the course of Imperial Bedrooms, as we will eventually learn — “his body dumped behind an abandoned apartment building in Los Feliz after he had been tortured to death at another location” (9).

In these opening pages, we get the same sorts of impossible displacements, and metafictional arabesques, that were major elements of American Psycho and Glamorama, and that also fueled the opening chapter of Lunar Park, with its scathing and hilarious dissection of the life and literary career of “Bret Easton Ellis.” However, after these opening pages, the novel at least seems to play things pretty much straight. Once he’s established his point in the opening pages, Ellis no longer calls attention to the metafictional games and multiple media references — not because he has returned to some prior or more solid sense of “reality,” but precisely because the ubiquity of the mediasphere, the remediation and premediation of everything, and the indistinguishability of so-called “real life” from the movies (at the very same time that movies are ideological lies about the actualities they depict) are now so banally self-evident that they no longer need to be highlighted or called attention to; they are simply part of the book’s (and of our lives’) taken-for-granted background.

Or to put this same point a bit differently: the movies are always already being referenced at every point in Imperial Bedrooms, because all the characters are either directly involved in the movie business, or circle in its wider orbit. Clay, the narrator, is a successful screenwriter; at the start of the book he returns to L.A. in order to be involved in the casting of his latest film, and his social life seems to revolve entirely around industry parties and meetings at swank restaurants. Clay is also a person who seems determined to script his entire life as if it were a movie; though this becomes something of a joke in the course of the book — he isn’t really powerful, since he is just a screenwriter, not a director or a producer (e.g., 156). At the very beginning of the novel, Clay describes Julian’s actual (as opposed to cinematic) fate as follows: “I had put Julian there, and I’d seen what had happened to him in another — and very different — movie” (10); and then, on the very last page of the novel, he refers to “the fades, the dissolves, the rewritten scenes” of his own life (169).

I could go on analyzing the novel’s phrases closely, as I have done so far, because Ellis writes in a minimalist style in which every line seems to be a throwaway — and yet these seemingly casual and commonplace phrases are dense with portent and meaning. But I need to step back and (in the book’s own metaphoric style) view the book from a greater distance, with a long shot. Ellis’ books always have unreliable narrators of one sort or another; but in Imperial Bedrooms, it seems to me, Clay is unreliable in a new way. He isn’t factually unreliable, but emotionally unreliable. He doesn’t really tell us, or let us infer, how he feels about things. It’s not that he is being deliberately deceptive, so much as that he himself doesn’t know. He’s opaque to himself, and the movies are the screen through and upon which this opacity is played out. You might say, in psychoanalytic terms, that Clay fails to apprehend himself not because something is repressed, but because he seems not to have an “unconscious” at all. There are no depths; there is nothing there for the reader (viewer?) to work out, no way for us to understand Clay in a way that he doesn’t understand himself. Indeed, his motiveless behavior seems more or less clear to the other characters in the novel, who are always telling him, in exasperation at his latest irritating moves, that “you have a history of this, don’t you?” (87), or “what you really want to be doesn’t exist” (121), or “you’ve done this so many times before” (151). Nothing can be revealed, because nothing is hidden in the first place. Clay is almost a parody of the calculative rationality — which of course is anything but rational — that neoliberalism presumes to be paradigmatic of the individual.

As for what it is that Clay does over and over: well, basically, he is a serial sexual abuser and near- (or maybe even flat-out) rapist. What happens in the course of the novel — and what has happened, we are told, many times before — is that Clay, a man in his forties, gets twenty-something women (would-be actresses) to fuck him, in return for his (supposedly) getting them roles in his movies. There’s no naivete about this, on either side. The women are playing the game, in full awareness, as much as he is — albeit a game that is rigged in favor of middle-aged, sexually predatory men, and against the young women who enter into it. For in fact, Clay never delivers on his promises. As the women start sensing this, and seek to withdraw from him, he becomes more brutal and sexually abusive. The relationship is so crass and cynical, that it isn’t even disguised as something nicer. It happens something like half a dozen times in the course of Imperial Bedroom’s brief 167 pages: Rain Turner (the beautiful but incompetent actress who seems to be the object of desire, not just for Clay, but for all the heterosexual men in the novel) says she doesn’t want to have sex, or prepares to leave Clay’s apartment, and Clay gives her an ultimatum: do what I want, now, or I will call up and cancel your audition for the part you want so badly in my new movie. And in fact, “this is the way I always wanted the scene to play out and then it does and it has to because it doesn’t really work for me unless it happens like this” (119).

In addition, whenever the woman in question leaves him, Clay goes into a tailspin of depression and rage and anxiety, as if he had been betrayed by somebody whom he deeply loved — despite the fact that the whole situation, up to and including the woman’s departure, is something that Clay himself has pretty much all scripted in advance. So what we get, in the course of Imperial Bedrooms, is a lot of hysteria and emotional turmoil, all the more disturbing for the fact that it is depicted so coldly and flatly, and that there is nothing whatsoever behind it. Al of this builds up gradually, so it takes a while for the reader to figure out that there really isn’t anything to figure out, and that what we see is what we get. At the start of the book, we are inclined to think that Clay is just passive and vapid, the way he was in Less Than Zero; it takes us a while to realize just how complete a psychopath he is.

I said that, in genre terms, Imperial Bedrooms is Hollywood Noir; in interviews, Ellis has mentioned Raymond Chandler as a particular influence, and Chandler provides one of the novel’s epigraphs: “there is no trap so deadly as the trap you set for yourself.” Another one of the novel’s accomplishments is that it both honors the genre’s conventions, and turns them inside out. There are all the trappings of a violent and sordid Hollywood mystery: a femme fatale (Rain Turner), a menacing gangster  type (Rip Millar, the drug dealer from Less Than Zero), intimations of conspiracies, people spying on Clay and sending him disturbing anonymous messages, etc. But the logic of noir gets inverted, as we gradually realize that Clay is neither solving a mystery, nor finding himself lured into crime, vice, and ruin. Rather, he is one of the perpetrators, one of the people who makes the mystery. He doesn’t commit a murder for money or for a woman — both of these are things that he already has easy access to. The femme fatale is essentially his victim, rather than the reverse. Even the massive betrayal that Clay commits at the end of the book is not a surprise, since he has already confessed to it in the opening pages.

There’s an incredible coldness in Imperial Ballrooms; and this is something that has to do with the background of comfort and power and privilege that the novel depicts: a comfort and power and privilege that all the rich white men in this novel have, and take entirely for granted. In this sense, the novel is not about the fictions that Hollywood produces, so much as it is about the people who produce them. Beneath the flatness and coldness, there’s a savagery about Hollywood here that rivals the great portrayals by Nathanael West (Day of the Locust) and F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Last Tycoon). It’s as if Ellis has updated these portrayals for the postmodern age, so distant from the classic Hollywood of West and Scott, and yet in basic continuity with it; and combined it with James Ellroy’s take on Hollywood’s sleazy underside. What Ellis adds to all of these, perhaps, is a sense of the everydayness of what, from another angle, might be seen as depravity. This is both because of the privileged status of his narrator, and that narrator’s friends and milieu, and also because of the way, as I said before, a total media immersion is taken for granted as one of the story’s premises.

Where Lunar Park ended on a note of at least potential hopefulness (the closest Ellis has ever come to suggesting even the glimmer of something like redemption), and where even Glamorama (still Ellis’ craziest novel, and the one most engaged with a broader social reality even though, or because, its narrative is entirely delirious) had a slight metaphorical suggestion of improvement in its final words, Imperial Bedrooms leaves us with an unrelieved chill. It’s intentionally narrow focus has a strongly intensifying effect. Where American Psycho (1991) totally nailed the ethos of the Reagan 80s, and Glamorama (1999) presciently divined the social maladies (terrorism and reality television) of the decade following it, Imperial Bedrooms glancingly suggests the psychological malaise (can we even call it “narcissism” any longer?) of a society in which capitalist realism survives, and continues to dominate, despite its utter loss of all credibility.

11 thoughts on ““I never liked anyone and I’m afraid of people””

  1. Longtime lurker, first time poster. Looking forward to reading Ellis’ book.

    The title is taken, I assume, from an Elvis Costello and the Attractions lp Imperial Bedroom, which is fitting considering Less than Zero is a track from Costello’s debut lp.

  2. Very thoughtful and insightful review. I think yours is the first I’ve read that grasps why Ellis ‘drops’ the mention of the framing device of the opening chapter for the rest of the novel. The reality/image conflict is always what I’ve seen explored most clearly in Ellis’ work and Imperial Bedrooms continues to probe that prescient subject. Again, very impresssive review.

  3. Great piece — but you really should change its title — what a frickin’ spoiler, dude! And in the title, no less, so you can’t avoid it if you stumble across the article in a google search or something.

  4. It’s odd that after so much engagement with your blog on Whitehead and OOO and so on, I should be posting my first comment to a review of a novel by Ellis. You have I think got something exactly right about Ellis’ narrators, except that you restrict it to this novel, whereas I think this “emotional unreliability” is more of a staple. I had such a visceral and negative reaction to Glamorama, that I found myself breaking into hives just reading this review (talk about the affective fallacy!), for precisely this reason. The narrator there has ‘feelings,’ of a sort– fear, jealousy, lust– but (as I read it) no clue what these actually are (he’s even cued what to feel). It’s as if the reader has to register the emotions in order for them to exist. I was exhausted. The “straight ahead” and the metafictional are more or less the same thing in such a context: “with the real world, we have also banished the apparent one.”

  5. Agreed about the narrator in Ellis’s other books, Glamorama (which is my single favorite book by Ellis) in particular. The difference, perhaps, is that the narrator in Glamorama is essentially clueless on top of everything else, in a way that the cold narrator of Imperial Bedrooms is not. One of the things I enjoy in Glamorama is that the narrator is totally incapable of comprehending metaphor — anytime anyone else in the novel, in speaking to him, uses a metaphor of any sort, he fails to grasp it and takes it literally.

  6. Yes, it (Glamorama) is like an extended essay in the horror of flatness. Your point re. metaphor makes me realize how ‘deep’ its shallowness goes, if one can put it that way. One of the scariest books I’ve ever tried to read, actually. Brilliant, but my God how I hated Victor Ward. Possibly the shallowest narrator I have ever met…and yet, I hated him as if he was a real person in the room–so how ‘shallow’ can that be? Feeling his emotions ‘for’ him was far more icky even than, say, empathizing with Humbert Humbert.

  7. Render unto Caesar and all that.

    I rather like the Eugene Fama hypothetical market analysis or whatever it’s called.

    It doesn’t make as much sense as Two Kingdoms, but what are you going to do?

  8. I love the way BEE re-shuffles members of the same clan & family throughout his novels. Is not Clay a cousin of Patrick Bateman?

    …Leave alone the recurring presence of the Christian Bale character (who played Patrick Bateman in the movie) in some of the previous novels…

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