Imperial Bedrooms, By Bret Easton Ellis

The shocking disinterest is the same 25 years on
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

What becomes of an ageing enfant terrible? It is a quarter-century now since Bret Easton Ellis burst into print with Less Than Zero, a tale of disaffected LA twentysomethings. Immediately it became the ne plus ultra of 1980s excess and required reading for a certain strain of jaded youth. Here was a novel that carried waves of shock, not so much for the litany of coke-clouded parties and questionable dealings through which its characters insouciantly traipsed, but more for the flat, eroded narration, which packed a lifetime's experience into the dispassionate voice of Clay, a protagonist barely out of his teens.

A subsequent film adaptation starring James Spader and Robert Downey Jr felt it necessary to garble the ending and tack on a dose of good old-fashioned Hollywood moralising. Since then, Easton Ellis has trodden an even path, seldom diverting from his trademark dissections of the idle American rich.

His follow-up, Rules of Attraction, floundered on similar ground, but it was with American Psycho that he achieved his greatest notoriety. The novel, portraying the inner thoughts of one Patrick Bateman, a murderous, narcissistic yuppie, was rejected by its initial publishers and, on finally reaching print, was labelled obscene and misogynist. Returning to it now, what lingers most is not the abiding shock, but more the abundance of digressions; Bateman devotes equal time to discussing the fine detailing of business cards as to the best means of dispatching and dismembering lovers and business rivals. This is the Tristram Shandy of torture and, if nothing else, a winningly accurate depiction of the sheer self-absorption of the psychopathic mind. A film adaptation – unexpectedly helmed by Mary Harron, director of the underground feminist classic I Shot Andy Warhol – was a cult success and made it past the censors only by trimming the gore and amping up the satire.

Easton Ellis has published several other books in the interim, and began a flirtation with postmodernism; he cast a version of himself in Lunar Park, which, though it provided some of the most sympathetic writing of his career, was generally felt to be an exercise in self-indulgence and the sort of wrong-footing move only allowable of a bankable mid-career talent. Now he returns with Imperial Bedrooms, a sequel to Less Than Zero, which picks up some 25 years down the line.

His characters have migrated to Hollywood, feeding the movie machine a steady supply of scripts, actors and narcotics. Moving back to LA after a time away, Clay is quickly immersed in a murky series of events; rumours of bodies buried over the Mexican border, and torture videos surfacing online in which former associates play leading roles.

Easton Ellis has always excelled at emetics and the novel is front-ended with a shocking murder that leaves its victim, his white suit streaked with blood and his face bloated and blue, looking like an American flag. He goes some way to explaining its motives and the protagonist's involvement, but, in truth, plot is only a secondary concern.

The novel is a kind of modern noir and, as in Chandler, the form's accepted master, atmosphere is king. Paranoia prevails. Clay is plagued with mysterious, threatening messages and dreams about dead boys bearing cryptic tattoos. LA at night is powerfully evoked. Not that the author is over-fond of poetics – at this stage in his career, he has very much found his rhythm and his prose can be broken into two distinct categories: there are the short, functional exchanges that barely puncture the surface of his characters' emotions; and the rambling, run-on sentences that list brands and sensations with equal disinterest and usually end with someone fucking someone else. A violent sequence in a desert villa towards the novel's end is notable more for its lack of punctuation than the supposedly shocking degradations lifted from, and surpassed by, De Sade.

The narrative unfolds coolly but when everything is wrapped up, much remains unexplained. Much, that is, except motives – here, every character is out for themselves. Only the quiet, rather elegant coda suggests any hope; not that Clay necessarily deserves it. While fans will no doubt be thrilled to revisit old faces, sand-blasted and sculpted though they may now have been by the surgeon's scalpel, there is little to tempt those who have previously been repelled by the author's cocktail of bloodshed and blank-faced minimalism.