Imperial Bedrooms is a severely over written book. Every sentence is the most effected version of all possibilities. Descriptions are over dramatic (CNN: “images of a mosque in flames, ravens flying against the scarlet sky”) and characters don’t speak so much as declare with lines like, “Guys my age are idiots.” “I have news for you… So are guys my age.” And “We can’t talk over the phone.” “Why Not, Blair?” “Because none of these lines are secure.” – which occurs at the end of a chapter, to double underscore the sense of tension. If those lines make the book sound unreadable, it isn’t. In fact, it’s one of Bret Easton Ellis’ finest.
Most artists, professional or amateur, begin by aping their influences. Jules Verne borrowed both idea and style from Edgar Allan Poe. Arshile Gorky’s early works are an amalgamation of Cézanne and Picasso. Through some mysterious process of repetition and deviation, a personal style is formed and carried through the twilight of the artist’s career. With Ellis, it seems the opposite holds true. Less Than Zero was uniquely stylized when it was released in 1985, its closest match coming in Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City (1984), published too recently to allow for serious imitation. The Rules of Attraction (1987) and American Psycho (1991) worked well, understandable given the similar content. And then Glamorama (1998) was released. Its quality is debatable, but if you enjoy Tom Clancy novels, odds are long you’d enjoy Glamorama.
His return to form in Lunar Park (2005) was not to a form his own. Instead, Ellis’ last book channeled Stephen King with such uncanny ability, it came off as the sequel to Black House King never wrote. With Imperial Bedrooms, the inspiration is Raymond Chandler, its setting a seedy Los Angeles ruled by a flawed and wealthy elite. The protagonist, Clay from Less Than Zero, is not a gum shoe but a 45-year-old writer.
Much like Paul Auster did with his New York Trilogy, Ellis strips away noir’s excess baggage. There’s no hooker with a heart of gold, nor is there an obvious villain. There is a murder, but neither revenge nor justice matter. There are two femme fatales, but the question of whether Clay will seduce them (he does) or be seduced by them (he is) seems peripheral at best. Violence, traditionally perpetrated upon the protagonist by faceless goons as a method of engendering audience sympathy, takes place off screen – the only violent acts seen are perpetrated by Clay, and they’re too gruesome to elicit sympathy.
What, then, remains of noir? The pulpy writing, of course, plus moral depravity (reminiscent of filmic works by Jules Dassin) and, most importantly, noir’s defining characteristic, an unrelenting feeling of unease.
Ellis builds upon this feeling, fleshing it out with his own motifs. From the book’s much publicized first sentence (“They had made a movie about us.”) readers are introduced to an off-key version of a familiar world. The Clay of Imperial Bedrooms is no longer the Clay of Less Than Zero, but he still embodies the isolated, inhuman personality type seen in American Psycho. The egg shell business cards have been replaced by the green-glow of cell phone screens. In Ellis’ universe, though, both are used to distance characters from each other instead of bringing them together. Zegna suits from Italy have been replaced with LA’s own Band of Outsiders, but brands are still used to distract, not define.
Imperial Bedrooms is pulpy noir; it’s a Bret Easton Ellis book. It excels at both, but by this point those two genres, in and of themselves, will attract or repel most readers. If you’re still unable to decide, consider that the book’s short enough to read within an idle weekend even as the ideas and feelings are presented with such skill, they’ll leave you feeling uneasy for much longer than that.Visit: Bret Easton Ellis | Knopf
Purchase: Powell’s Books | Amazon