Imperial Bedrooms, a sequel to his stunning 1985 debut Less Than Zero, arrived with no small degree of anticipation. Ellis has been a controversial writer ever since Less than Zero, and the mesmerizing mixture of shock and yawn that characterized that book does reappear in Imperial Bedrooms, but with far less effect. Imperial Bedrooms has not to this point been warmly and, rather than just throw another log onto the fire, we thought we’d do another little review-a-long, this time with Janet Maslin. (Bold text is from her review in the New York Times; italicized text is my response).
Let’s do this:
Whatever its genesis, what this vacant new book does best is demonstrate that there are more ways to be bored and boring in Los Angeles in 2010 than there were in 1985.
Maslin’s dead on here. We get extended descriptions of text-message conversations, marathon YouTube viewing sessions, and repeat visits to high-end retailers and restaurants. There’s a whole lot of nothing masquerading as something here. This was executed to scathing effect in Less than Zero because it was a fresh, contemporary critique by a contemporary. Imperial Bedrooms doesn’t say anything new, and, like the characters in it, masks banality, and eventually malice, with a veneer of techno-sophistication.
As “Imperial Bedrooms” begins, [Clay] is whinging that “someone we knew” wrote an unflattering book about Clay and his friends, and that the book was made into a movie[…]“Imperial Bedrooms” barely has time to set up this hall-of-mirrors conceit before abandoning it.
The ill-considered inclusion of a fiction-world version of Less than Zero feels like an idea born out of drunken bull-session. (“Wouldn’t it be cool if the characters in the new book were also characters in a book? That would be cra-zy.”) Perhaps to his credit, Ellis abandons the thread in the first few pages, but this only adds to the slap-dash feel of the novel. One of Less than Zero’s accomplishments was its remarkable pacing; it was a slow build, a transfixing crescendo from innocence to depravity. No such restraint exists in Imperial Bedrooms, as Ellis seems unable to maintain his prior focus.
It’s typical of Mr. Ellis to write a very long descriptive sentence about the soft beiges and recessed lighting and white-tiled balcony of the place while making only passing, casual reference to the party boy’s death. It’s also very like him to make the apartment a backdrop for casual cruelty.
“Casual cruelty” captures a feature of both novels beautifully, though Maslin seems to be dismissing it as some sort of ethical mis-step. Whatever the faults of Imperial Bedrooms, it does continue the moral flattening begun in Less than Zero. In a world where surface and sensation reign, pain and pleasure are equals, as are aesthetics and atrocities. Representing cruelty casually gives the reader the sensation of amorality that seems to both fascinate and repel the reader and Clay himself.
[…]there’s an element of real malaise in “Imperial Bedrooms.” The anomie and plot-derived menace may be contrived, but there’s a dread that feels genuine — and not because the book actually includes the line, “Sadness: it’s everywhere.” It’s the sense that options have narrowed for Mr. Ellis, whose most polarizing (“American Psycho”) or wild-eyed books (“Lunar Park”) have turned out to be his most vital ones.
By the end of the novel, I was thinking along these lines as well. Less than Zero’s ethical nullity pre-empted the need for any further exposition of it; once you’ve showed us the void, what else is there to do? This has been a literary puzzle, from Hamlet’s “there’s nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so” to Joyce’s empty chalice, for some time. While Hamlet and Joyce turned to art to create meaning, to fill the abyss, Ellis seems stuck on gazing into the blackness--as Maslin suggests—a terrifyingly bleak beige.