By Ned Martel
Saturday, July 3, 2010; C04
By Bret Easton Ellis
Knopf. 169 pp. $24.95
In the past quarter-century, Bret Easton Ellis has produced less an oeuvre than a franchise, a series of storyboard-simple tales that riff on its origin myth, "Less Than Zero." His plots revel in the narcotized demimonde of celebrity and its wicked forms of sycophancy. His initial effort, written when Ellis was just 20, reads now like a literary growth spurt, a writer's sudden awareness that there's a book in the whole swirl of adult problems as experienced by kids. There was, of course, more than a book -- a Robert Downey Jr. movie and several similar fever-dreamy books and now, inevitably, a sequel.
To a reader anywhere near Ellis's age when "Less Than Zero" appeared in 1985, that first book presented itself as a generational testimony of a sexy subset of Angelenos but served more widely as a voyeuristic report for those less practiced in bingeing and bisexuality. It was not America's first soft-core young adult novel -- Judy Blume's "Forever" comes to mind, indelibly -- but "Less" was a decidedly ambitious attempt to redo "Fear of Flying" as "Fear of Merging."
In "Imperial Bedrooms," Ellis returns to his crime scenes and finds that his characters have aged but not matured. Clay is again the narrator, and his affinity for Los Angeles's seamy side is as keen as when he was a jaded student returning home from college, cavorting with the melodramatic Blair and the tragic Julian. Now a novelist-turned-screenwriter, Clay continues his higher learning through the new generation of prescription drugs and ingénues. An incoming class of pretty women wants to be discovered, and the big reveal in Clay's own personal reality show pivots on his discovery that young talent is secretly reliant on the oldest profession.
C'mon, the casting couch is old enough to have lost its springiness, and yet Clay, after all these years, is somehow putty in one comely gamine's hands. But when the plot slows toward the third act, Ellis molds him into an antagonist a la "American Psycho," another of the author's novels that sketched out what became another brightly gloomy B-movie. Clay is at the height of his powers, and he manipulates a no-name starlet into something resembling sex slavery. Actually, Rain Turner, with her marquee-ready name, is complicit but not complex. Forced sex reads like just idle rutting, and even as the characters get caught in an escalating volley of pain and vengeance, all the on-demand coupling gets monotonous and, eventually, gross.
I'm not complaining about the libertinism; I don't doubt it's real and worth documenting. Write a clever, circuitous road map to the sexual frontier, and I'll follow. But by now Ellis and his characters should be sufficiently acquainted with the movies -- porn included -- to understand that the best scenes are when the actors make out like they mean it. Late in the game, Ellis warns that there will be payback but no payoff. "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."
Just as Clay wastes his talent so, too, has Ellis. After all this time, his characters have squandered and regained and squandered privilege and status, yet they still seem captives of their glamorous trappings: blasé at Golden Globe parties, stalked by ominous SUVs, hung over in glass-walled condos. It's all told in truly, madly, deadly prose: "At the casting sessions it was all boys and though I wasn't exactly bored I didn't need to be there, and songs constantly floating in the car keep commenting on everything neutral encased within the windshield's frame . . . and the fear builds into a muted fury and then has no choice but to melt away into a simple and addictive sadness."
In places, Ellis's writing veers into a minimalist neo-noir, as if Raymond Carver could be mashed up with Raymond Chandler, but sometimes less is simply less. Describing numbness is as futile as describing boredom -- or worse, describing dreams, and for ridiculous purposes, Ellis relies on a recurring one to haunt Clay's remnant conscience.
To his credit, Ellis proved he was on to something a quarter century ago, and I fear that his new premonitions about technology and torture may come true. He did popularize present-tense narration and song-title book titles, and he's still pledging allegiance to Elvis Costello and Warren Zevon, all the while seeking some allegiance from cool-kid cognoscenti, or anyone slouching in Band of Outsiders suits, slurping Belvedere on the rocks. Ellis's curation of surface is as kitschy and catchy as Andy Warhol's silk-screens and Jeff Koons's sculptures. He bought in early on the mania for L.A.'s modernism and similarly understood, through Julian, the iconic value of Richard Gere's heavy-lidded languor in "American Gigolo." Novelist Bruce Wagner, through his cellphone trilogy, appears to be both an Ellis heir and rival, as do the cinematic yet vacuous TV spectacles like "Gossip Girl" on the CW or MTV's "The Hills."
Midway through "Imperial Bedrooms," the narrator finds out that his transactional relationship with Rain, propelled by breathless texts and lurid jpegs, is actually a bizarre love triangle. Then it's a rectangle. Then it's a metastasizing polygon that accumulates more and more sides but never any new dimensions.
Martel is an editor of the Style section.