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