I really think that—and I’ve said this before—but I think that LA forces you to become the person you really are. I don’t think LA is a place where you’re allowed to reinvent yourself. It absolutely isn’t. There’s an isolating quality to a life lived out here. I don’t care how many friends you have. I don’t care if you have a relationship. Whatever. It’s just an isolating city. You’re alone a lot. And I think it forces you to become the person you really are. It doesn’t allow you to hide. I think New York is a much easier place to kind of reinvent yourself. In LA, over time, the real person you are ultimately comes out, or else people can’t deal with that and they flee before it happens.
--Bret Easton Ellis, Vice Magazine
I avoided reading too much about Bret Easton Ellis's seventh novel, Imperial Bedrooms which came out today, until I'd read it myself. It arrived from Amazon.ca today and I spent the late morning/early afternoon reading it. It's not a long book, only 169 pages. Brisk, easy to plough through while still taking your time to enjoy it. It's a sequel of sorts to his first novel, Less Than Zero. If you want to know the biggest difference between the two books, that quote from Ellis to Vice. Less Than Zero was a novel where the narrator/protagonist Clay is passive. He floats through this world of decadence and drama and awfulness without really doing anything. He's an observer. Here, he returns to LA, seemingly for only a month ala Less Than Zero, but we slowly see what an awful person he is. He's a user, an exploiter, an egocentric douchebag that thinks it's all about him, so the narrative becomes all about him.
The novel begins with Ellis addressing Less Than Zero by having the novel and film adaptation exist in this world. The novel was written by someone that Clay and the group knew -- he told it like it was. The film adaptation was toned down and changed because the people making it didn't want to have their kids shown like that. There's a wonderful moment where Clay describes seeing a screening of the film before it comes out with most of the people from the book and Julian's stunned reaction to seeing 'himself' killed on screen. That segues into the actual death of Julian, which is told to us right then, but doesn't happen until the end of the novel.
The manner in which Ellis begins Imperial Bedrooms isn't essential. There's no need to address the book/film, because this is a sequel to them. Why would they necessarily exist in this world? Partly, an introduction for any new readers, I imagine. It allows Ellis to do a quick 'recap' in a manner that interacts with what a reader new to his work may understand. They may know of Less Than Zero, but never read the book or seen the film. This gives the substance, while also allows Ellis to distance himself from both. He points out differences, even critiques both a little. So, this is a sequel, but not quite. Not really, because neither the book nor the movie was 100% accurate to the world of this novel.
Also, Clay is a screenwriter. The structure of the novel is a series of scenes/shots, so beginning with a framing/pre-credits flashback scene makes sense. It's the sort of bullshit, unnecessary bit that's added into a lot of movies. It serves a function of sorts, but not really. It's there because they think the audience is too dumb to follow along without some hand-holding at the beginning.
The use of short sections does go back to Less Than Zero. This picks up from there, but there's also a sense of these being scenes/shots in a movie. Clay's language is very flat and to the point. Minimalist and direct. Ellis returns to a restained narrative style that's different from his others. While he has certain consistencies, this novel is more minimal in its use of language than everything since Less Than Zero. Even the dialogue scenes are shorter, less drawn out than usual. However, he does play with that by sometimes crafting run-on sentences with numerous clauses that twist too much, becoming confusing somewhat. In a few spots, I had to reread sentences to see how they fit together entirely. Clay is simple and direct, but likes to think of himself as better than that sometimes.
His progression through the novel is subtle and sneaks up on you. He begins by seeming affable and likeable. He's self-depricating and has a sense of humour about himself. He even recognises his place in the world as a writer -- he's not a novelist, he's a screenwriter. But, as the novel progresses, we get hints of who he really is. He's the kind of guy who uses his role in filmmaking to fuck young actors and actresses with the promise of an audition or role -- a promise he may or may be able to deliver on. It's a transaction often done automatically by both parties, so subtle that the lack of explicit statement makes it seem less tawdry. But, there's a part where he discusses a transaction of this sort with an actor in one of the movies he wrote and how it became explicit, making Clay come off as selfish and sad, cruel almost. Granted, the actor chose to let Clay have sex with him, but it's still an abuse of power.
The plot centres on Clay having a 'relationship' of this sort with Rain, an actress that sucks. The transaction is clear, but it's not as apparent at first. We know what's happening, our faces aren't rubbed in it. But, as she grows impatient and he grows more demanding, it becomes horribly explicit. She won't get a part in the movie that's being cast (The Listeners, a stand-in for The Informers) and everyone knows that, but he still pushes her, threatens her, tries to buy her (without ever actually buying her). We learn that this is really the only way that he can get off. This is what he likes best. He likes being in this position of power, of forcing people to do as he wishes. He's a selfish prick.
When other characters say that he's too self-involved, it rings slightly false, because they're all self-involved. It's like when you and your buddy both want the last slice of pizza and one of you tells the other to stop being so selfish -- it's bullshit, because you're both being selfish. These are people who tell Clay to break it off with Rain for their own purposes, never telling him why he should, just that there's more going on than he knows... of course he doesn't break it off.
Then again, why doesn't he?
He seems to care for her, but it's hard to say why. He wonders at one point how she's such a bad actress on screen/in auditions, but so good in real life. Is it just that he knows how much she wants to be famous that he knows he gets off on prolonging their 'relationship?'
Like the last two Ellis novels, there's a general sense of paranoia and that we (and the narrator) are not privy to a lot of necessary information. Clay receives text messages that say he's being watched and that give him advice -- all from blocked, unknown numbers. He's being followed by a blue jeep and a black Rolls Royce. People are telling him what to do without explaining themselves, speaking cryptically. His sense of fear and paranoia is justified to a degree. Then again, how much of it is him just not paying attention? Not hearing what other people have to say? How much information are we denied because he is too self-involved and stupid to see what's going on? We are limited to his perspective. Obviously there are things he just can't know, but we can't know how much of that is fact and how much is because he's too self-involved.
Like the last two, there is a plot driving this forward. It's influenced somewhat by Raymond Chandler with a mystery at the centre, but more in the Haruki Murakami way where you don't really get a solution. Not everything ties together nicely. We learn how Julian dies, but not entirely why. Not everything is wrapped up neatly. Lunar Park played with horror conventions and this plays with mystery stories.
The path that Clay takes through the novel culminates in one section that shows his true self. It's not shocking in and of itself, but in a book relatively free of the explicit sex and violence of previous Ellis works, it stands out. In it, Clay is totally revealed and it is a natural progression of his relationship with Rain and other actors/actresses. He uses two prostitutes (male and female) in some horribly degrading and awful ways. He stayed in LA too long. There was a chance for him to escape back to New York or to Las Vegas to 'reinvent' himself, to put up a mask... but, no, as Ellis told Vice, he was alone too long, isolated even when with others and his true self comes out. It's not terribly revealing since many others have shown the 'true self' to be a debaucherous, violent, selfish prick, but it still stands out nonetheless.
I'm not entirely sure how others fans of Ellis will react to this book. It stands alone from Less Than Zero well enough, though it mirrors it in many ways. The same premise (return to LA from the east coast around the holidays), the same narrator, the same strained relationships with the same people... but what changes is who Clay is. He isn't as passive, he isn't someone who fades into the background as much... he was obviously shaped by things that happened to him in Less Than Zero, but maybe it was all there already.
The ending of the novel knocked me on my ass. It ends with a line that is so revealing that it manages to sum everything up perfectly. Actually, the entire final section, a single paragraph that reveals Clay as far less passive than you thought. Far more sadistic, cruel, fearful, and loathsome. It's the sort of ending that makes you want to read the book again. If that isn't a recommendation, I don't know what is.