Thursday, June 17, 2010

Imperial Bedrooms

Well the day has finally come. I was able to pick up a copy of Bret Easton Ellis' newest novel, Imperial Bedrooms, and I have finished it, and I have some thoughts on it.

Imperial Bedrooms is the sequel to Less Than Zero, Ellis' first novel published in 1985 (a year after I was born), however "sequel" isn't quite the right word. This novel merely picks up with Clay, Blair, Julien et al. in 2010, when they're all washed-out emotionally empty burnouts. It seems nothing has changed, except Clay works as a screenwriter and has been "seeing" a young actress who is trying to get a part in Clay's new movie via "companionship". Things become more complicated as Clay realizes he's being constantly tailed and watched by mysterious people, and receiving ominous texts.

This novel opens with two quotes, one of them being from Raymond Chandler's masterpiece, The Long Goodbye. This sets the tone of the plot to be a detective story, in which a confusing myriad of connections between seemingly unconnected people is established. It's a Chandler-novel set into the framework of a stereotypical Ellis novel.

This would be fine if I hadn't already read a similar and more effective pastiche in Pynchon's Inherent Vice. Ellis' novel lacks the immediacy and cleverness of his earlier Stephen King pastiche Lunar Park, and it lacks the cleverness and skill of Pynchon's novel.

As well, Ellis' prescient first novels highlighted the excess of our culture, with a serious moral undertone, but now our culture celebrates this excess and outrageousness with every moment in film, television and music. It's like Ellis' worst nightmare has been realized. Unfortunately, this means Ellis is like a crazy man standing on the street corner shouting about Armageddon when it's already happened. What more does Ellis have to add to this anymore?

Imperial Bedrooms has all the hallmarks of an Ellis novel: the emptiness, the name-dropping, the conversations of no substance, the sex, the violence, everything that Ellis rallies against. But we've come to a point in our mass culture of consumerism where Ellis is a brand unto himself. He is delivering on the promise of our expectations of the Ellis-brand with a novel that isn't quite clever enough to comment on that very same phenomena.

As for the novel itself, it is what it is. Taken by itself, this is a fine Ellis novel, full of the aforementioned stylistic tics. But it's supposed to be a metafictional comment on his own novel Less Than Zero, which means I'm having a hard time separating the two. It just doesn't quite reach the moment where Ellis has a Delillo-like instance of pure literary transcendence. It merely wallows on the surface, like all of his characters ever do.

Imperial Bedrooms is an acceptable novel, and one that I will surely read again. However it just does not hold up to the standard set by his previous novels. This effort feels slight, like it didn't take 10 years to write. I tried very hard to manage my expectations and what I wanted from Ellis, but still, with a careful mindset, he managed to disappoint me. Ellis' cultural relevancy has diminished greatly, which definitely hurts the novel's supposedly shocking dark-side-of-Hollywood theme. Luckily, Imperial Bedrooms will never affect my enjoyment of his other novels.

1 comment:

Lee Monks said...

Yes, it feels like a book that elbowed its way out of writers block, but it is, as you say, a very enjoyable read. It was like going to meet a listlessly rich friend, getting hammered with him, getting slightly worried about his behaviour for a man of that age, watching him fall asleep with drool spooling, then flicking through the channels on his 100 inch plasma before skinny-dipping in his blue-lit pool and phoning a cab before the hangover kicked in.