Imperial Bedrooms begins with the narrator Clay (who was also the narrator of Less Than Zero) complaining about the way â€œthe authorâ€ of Less Than Zero played with his feelings and violated his privacy. While conceding that the earlier book â€œfor the most part was an accurate portrayal… there was nothing in it that hadnâ€™t happenedâ€ (3), Clay nonetheless portrays â€œthe writerâ€ of the earlier book as very nearly a stalker, and certainly an exploiter: â€œhe was simply someone who floated through our lives and didnâ€™t seem to care how flatly he perceived everyone or that heâ€™d shared our secret failures with the worldâ€ (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 â€œthe movieâ€™s moral compass, spouting AA jargon, castigating everyoneâ€™s drug useâ€ (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 â€œwhile a choir soared over the sound trackâ€ (9), because being â€œpunished for all of his sinsâ€ is â€œwhat the movie demanded,â€ indeed â€œwhat all movies demandedâ€ (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, â€œthe real Julian Wells was murdered over twenty years laterâ€ — in the course of Imperial Bedrooms, as we will eventually learn — â€œhis body dumped behind an abandoned apartment building in Los Feliz after he had been tortured to death at another locationâ€ (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 â€œBret Easton Ellis.â€ However, after these opening pages, the novel at least seems to play things pretty much straight. Once heâ€™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 â€œreality,â€ but precisely because the ubiquity of the mediasphere, the remediation and premediation of everything, and the indistinguishability of so-called â€œreal lifeâ€ 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 bookâ€™s (and of our livesâ€™) 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 isnâ€™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 Julianâ€™s actual (as opposed to cinematic) fate as follows: â€œI had put Julian there, and Iâ€™d seen what had happened to him in another — and very different — movieâ€ (10); and then, on the very last page of the novel, he refers to â€œthe fades, the dissolves, the rewritten scenesâ€ of his own life (169).
I could go on analyzing the novelâ€™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 bookâ€™s own metaphoric style) view the book from a greater distance, with a long shot. Ellisâ€™ 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 isnâ€™t factually unreliable, but emotionally unreliable. He doesnâ€™t really tell us, or let us infer, how he feels about things. Itâ€™s not that he is being deliberately deceptive, so much as that he himself doesnâ€™t know. Heâ€™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 â€œunconsciousâ€ 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 doesnâ€™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 â€œyou have a history of this, donâ€™t you?â€ (87), or â€œwhat you really want to be doesnâ€™t existâ€ (121), or â€œyouâ€™ve done this so many times beforeâ€ (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. Thereâ€™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 isnâ€™t even disguised as something nicer. It happens something like half a dozen times in the course of Imperial Bedroomâ€™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 doesnâ€™t want to have sex, or prepares to leave Clayâ€™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, â€œthis is the way I always wanted the scene to play out and then it does and it has to because it doesnâ€™t really work for me unless it happens like thisâ€ (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 womanâ€™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 isnâ€™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 novelâ€™s epigraphs: â€œthere is no trap so deadly as the trap you set for yourself.â€ Another one of the novelâ€™s accomplishments is that it both honors the genreâ€™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 Â 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 doesnâ€™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.
Thereâ€™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, thereâ€™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). Itâ€™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 Ellroyâ€™s take on Hollywoodâ€™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 narratorâ€™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 storyâ€™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 Ellisâ€™ 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. Itâ€™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 â€œnarcissismâ€ any longer?) of a society in which capitalist realism survives, and continues to dominate, despite its utter loss of all credibility.