June 20, 2011

Less Than Zero Revisited

Imperial Bedrooms by Bret Easton Ellis
reviewed by Courtney

Bret Easton Ellis' first novel Less Than Zero has become synonymous with a specific view of the 1980s. His youth, as well as its detached, disturbingly emotionless portrayal of sex, drugs, and violence made it immediately controversial and significant, and led to the film starring Robert Downey Jr. Imperial Bedrooms is a sequel to Less Than Zero, resuming the story of those characters, now middle aged.

Since Less Than Zero, Ellis has been no stranger to controversial fiction, venturing further into extreme stylized violence and sex (most famously with the often challenged American Psycho) as well as metafiction, and Imperial Bedrooms is a continuation of this trend. The novel is not an exact sequel, taking place in a similar but not identical world to Less Than Zero. The main character and narrator, Clay, is aware of the previous novel and the film adaptation, attributing them to a former friend. This metafictional device allows Ellis to distance this older Clay from his younger counterpart, and to comment on the earlier novel.

The structural and stylistic accomplishment of the novel is significant, and Ellis is unquestionably a talented writer, but Imperial Bedrooms comes across as more self-indulgent than monumental. It is disturbing that despite the excessive and gratuitous violence and Clay's pathological narration, the overall impression of the text is not only not shocking, but borderline tedious. Ellis has made a career out of his ability to upset and appall, but the impact of even horrific violence is lessened with repetition.

The structure of the novel is far more interesting than its content, and even the novelty appeal of returning to Clay and his friends in middle age is not adequate to maintain interest. This is intriguing, because Imperial Bedrooms, unlike most of Ellis' fiction, is built around a clear and fast-moving plot. Part of the problem is that much of the success of Less Than Zero was grounded in its complete lack of emotion. The characters were emotional zombies, and though that worked to great effect in the context of the narrative, they were simply not sufficiently deep to sustain a sequel. Ellis' metafictional acrobatics are a tacit acknowledgement of this lack, as well as an attempt to address it, but because Clay's newfound depth is concentrated in the same disturbing areas, he comes across as ultimately even more constructed and incapable of growth than he had originally. This inability to change or mature is itself a far more terrifying concept than the plot of the novel; the fact that these characters are raising families and succeeding in the modern world despite a pathological lack of empathy is itself a disturbing idea.

In attempting to present Less Than Zero as a false or inadequate representation of the characters, Imperial Bedrooms actually does the opposite. The sequel comes across almost as a parody of Ellis' style and characters, and as a continuation it is disappointing. However, as an indication of Ellis' own authorial trajectory it is more interesting, with its convoluted structure and traditional plot. His dependence on established tropes of extreme sex and violence and emotional detachment, however, has become a cliché, and Imperial Bedrooms is, at best, a reminder of his previous successes.

Posted by at June 20, 2011 04:17 PM
Recent Entries
The Donovan Effect
Dirty Water
The Lifeboat
Escaping the Hollowgasts
Teleporting with George
Return to Pemberley
In den Alpen
Jeeves and Bertie
In the Calais Coach
Other Web Logs
Children's Room
Teen Book Buzz
August 2015
April 2015
March 2015
February 2015
December 2014
November 2014
October 2014
August 2014
July 2014
June 2014
April 2014
February 2014
January 2014
November 2013
October 2013
September 2013
August 2013
May 2013
March 2013
January 2013
November 2012
October 2012
August 2012
June 2012
May 2012
April 2012
February 2012
January 2012
November 2011
October 2011
September 2011
August 2011
July 2011
June 2011
May 2011
April 2011
February 2011
January 2011
November 2010
October 2010
September 2010
July 2010
June 2010
May 2010
April 2010
March 2010
February 2010
January 2010
December 2009
November 2009
October 2009
September 2009
August 2009
April 2009
March 2009
December 2008
October 2008
August 2008
July 2008
June 2008
May 2008
April 2008
March 2008
February 2008
January 2008
December 2007
November 2007
October 2007
September 2007
August 2007
July 2007
June 2007
May 2007
April 2007
March 2007
February 2007
January 2007
December 2006
November 2006
October 2006
September 2006
August 2006
June 2006
May 2006
April 2006
March 2006
February 2006
January 2006
December 2005
November 2005
October 2005
September 2005
August 2005
July 2005
June 2005
May 2005
April 2005
March 2005
December 2004
November 2004
October 2004
July 2004
June 2004
April 2004
Call the desk at 301-891-7259
Contact the director by e-mail