Picador, £16.99, 167pp. £15.29 from the Independent Bookshop : 08430 600 030

Imperial Bedrooms, By Bret Easton Ellis

The most revelatory moment in Bret Easton Ellis's debut novel, Less Than Zero, published 25 years ago, comes pages before the end. It offers the reader a rare glimpse into the narrator's otherwise hermetically sealed inner life. Clay, a jaded 20-something living on the fringes of Hollywood, alongside like-minded children of privilege already bloated on LA's excesses, is confronted by his girlfriend about whether he has ever really cared. "I don't want to care. If I care about things, it'll just be worse, it'll just be another thing to think about. It's less painful if I don't care."

Up to this point, Clay has travelled among the book's cast of dead-eyed rich kids snorting too much cocaine, popping valium, watching snuff movies, having passionless sex, remaining monosyllabic and inscrutable until the end. In this confessional moment that defies logic and all it means to be human, the young Clay concludes it is better not to feel, or even to think, in order to exist in his toxic universe of consumerist overload.

Ellis, himself a 20-year-old son of privilege at the time he wrote Less Than Zero, now returns to these characters' lives with his seventh novel. Imperial Bedrooms is written in the same two-dimensional style and syntax, as deliberately flat as one of Andy Warhol's "Marilyn" silkscreens, but this time structured as a postmodern noir. Clay, who, like Ellis, is now in his forties, is a Hollywood screenwriter returning to the LA of his youth and the characters who inhabited it including Blair, his ex-girlfriend who is now married, and Julian, his friend whose body is found mutilated at the beginning of this novel.

Clay has, true to his word, assiduously stuck to thinking and feeling as little as possible. He indulges in transactional sex with actresses by promising them auditions and fends off the enemy of emotion with regular doses of alcohol and sedatives such as ambien, living with a kind of psychic "locked-in" syndrome. The central mystery - Julian's death and a spate of other torture-murders – unleashes the usual tropes of noir fiction; mysterious SUVs creeping along Clay's driveway, a sense of being watched, a love triangle, a femme fatale (Rain, an actress sleeping with Clay in exchange for a "call-back").

Some of these tropes appear as ironic as the self-parodying humour in the genre of Hollywood's "knowing" scary movies – Clay is sent recurring text messages that read "I'm watching you" – yet they do create a genuine sense of dread and paranoia. The dread, in Clay's case, might be more metaphysical than real, a fear of his own subjectivity or the dread of being called up and stalked by his guilty conscience.

Noir elements that might seem trite in themselves are inverted cleverly; aspects of the novel offer a play on Billy Wilder's noir classic, Sunset Boulevard, also set in Hollywood. Ellis reverses the film's central relationship between the older, silent movie actress and the struggling young screenwriter - her kept man. Ellis turns this on its head with Clay and Rain's relationship and throws in a passing reference to an imagined body found floating in a swimming pool, invoking the opening scene of Wilder's film.

In the end, Ellis makes clear his noir is employed as a circular strategy, as meaningless as the plot and characters themselves. "This isn't a script," Julian tells Clay. "It's not going to add up. Not everything's going to come together in the third act."

Nothing adds up, and deliberately so. Just as in the case of Patrick Bateman's unreliable narration in American Psycho, Ellis's third novel, which conflates reality (as New York banker) and fantasy (as serial killer), the noir element here creates a questionable reality. Is Clay really being followed or is he being dogged by a guilty conscience for crimes committed, even when they are crimes of inaction?

In Less Than Zero, Clay watches as a tormented Julian has sex with an older man for money; he runs into an alleyway with his friends to stare into the eyes of a young man, only recently murdered with freshly shed blood not yet congealed on his face; he watches the rape of a drugged 12-year-old girl, handcuffed to the bedpost, tortured for kicks. He observes these heinous acts without any intervention or moral protest, yet justifies it in his mind by insisting he is not as thrilled by the voyeurism as his more "active" friends. Now, 25 years on, his passivity has hardened into something far more culpable, and nefarious.

There is a final scene in Imperial Bedrooms of unremitting torture that is either enacted by Clay on two beautiful teenagers who are bought and systematically abused, or imagined by him as a fantasy. In showing Clay's graduation from a passively colluding observer to active perpetrator now, a man who either indulges in torture or fantasises about it, Ellis suggests that evil begins with torpor - induced by ambien and valium – or by emotional disengagement. One character expresses this descent into evil: "Who knows why people do the things they do... You discover things about yourself you never thought possible."

Often, descriptions of Clay's LA verge on a Brave New World-style fantasy, where the "command economy" now manifests as rampant, late-capitalist consumerism, where ambien is the new soma and humans are zombies: one character's face is "unnaturally smooth, redone in such a way that the eyes are shocked open with perpetual surprise; it's a face mimicking a face, and it looks agonized."

Ellis, a self-confessed moralist, has suggested that far from offering a celebration of evil and of nihilism, he is presenting an examination of it. The nascent narcissist of Less Than Zero has lost all ability to empathise, switched off his humanity, and is now left in a "dead end". In that, it is a deeply pessimistic presentation of human nature as assailable, and in Clay's case, incapable of transformation; but also, perhaps, an unflinching study of evil.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’


Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'


Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from


Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Arts and Entertainment


These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
Arts and Entertainment
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

    'You need me, I don’t need you'

    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
    How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

    How to Get Away with Murder

    Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
    A cup of tea is every worker's right

    Hard to swallow

    Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
    12 best children's shoes

    Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

    Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
    Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

    Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

    Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
    Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

    Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

    Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

    UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London