Bret Easton Ellis is not a prolific writer; Imperial Bedrooms is his seventh novel in twenty-five years. But because of the disturbing subject matter he uses--the classic triptych of sex, drugs and violence--a new novel by Ellis is always a bit of an 'event' while continuing to divide opinion among both critics and normal readers.
One is immediately struck by the brevity of Imperial Bedrooms: it weighs in at about a Gatsby (176 pages) --scarcely a novel, but more than a novella. The book follows the lives of the same characters we met in Ellis's first novel Less Than Zero, including Clay, Blair, Trent, Julian, Rip et al, but the characters are now in their forties (mirroring their author), although psychologically they appear to have remained largely inert.
Our narrator is Clay. Clay is a bisexual, a narcissist, a copious user of both drugs and people, who has become a successful screenwriter, and has moved back to Hollywood (his home town) from New York to assist in casting a movie he has written and is now co-producing. It is this movie that brings him into contact with characters he has known since adolescence.
At a party held by Blair (an ex-girlfriend) Clay briefly meets a young actress called Rain Turner, and eventually promises her a part in his movie to get her into bed with him. While initially he appears to be using her as he admits to having done with many other actresses (and actors) over his career, Clay becomes infatuated with Rain and is violently jealous when she goes away for a few days--ostensibly to see her mother. Around this point, Clay starts to receive text messages warning him to stay away from Rain and telling him he's being watched.
All of which he treats lightly until he comes home to his apartment and realises certain possessions have been moved as a further threat. Later, Clay realises that Rain has been involved with a couple of other people he knows: his ex-friend Julian and ex-drug-dealer Rip.
Events continue to spiral downwards, but Clay starts to manipulate the situation both for his sexual gratification and to even-out old scores with his friends, who he finally acknowledges he never liked anyway.
Superficially, Clay is the narrator of both Imperial Bedrooms and Less Than Zero, but the story's point of view has altered slightly in the present book, and on the first page of Imperial Bedrooms Clay distances himself from the author of Less Than Zero, despite the author of that work having written it from his point of view:
'They had made a movie about us. The movie was based on a book written by someone we knew. The book was a simple thing about four weeks in the city we grew up in and for the most part was an accurate portrayal. It was labeled fiction but only a few details had been altered and our names weren't changed and there was nothing in it that hadn't happened.' [p1]
So Imperial Bedrooms is narrated by the actual Clay rather than someone writing as Clay. This conceit allows Ellis to justify the behaviour of the Clay of Imperial Bedrooms, who is now giving us how he 'actually' feels and the 'real' events rather than being the mere creation of a bitter friend.
The Clay of Imperial Bedrooms wants to give us an authentic view of himself, but in doing so he shows himself to be actively far worse than he was passively portrayed in Less Than Zero.
All this probably reads more complicated than it is; it's simple if you've read Less Than Zero before hand, which I think you'd be well advised to do if you intend reading Imperial Bedrooms.
Ellis has said that for him plot is largely irrelevant and I would agree that the plot of Imperial Bedrooms is really there to create mood--which it does brilliantly. The book has an oppressive Noir sensibility--paranoia, sleaze, threat--and Ellis admits a heavy debt to Raymond Chandler in this regard. But it acts as the perfect frame for Clay's shocking moral descent.
The paranoia of being followed motivates Clay to greater and greater heights of self interest and sexual aggression, and completes his transformation from passive quasi-victim in Less Than Zero, to the predator we find in the latter half of Imperial Bedrooms. And in this way Imperial Bedrooms brings together threads that we find in all of Ellis's work, and neatly ties up his earlier and mature work.
Ellis is currently (as of July 2010) on a book tour around the UK and I went to listen to him talk in my home town of Nottingham. He came across much as his books do: interesting and entertaining, but was either unable or unwilling to provide much insight into the choices he made in writing and structuring Imperial Bedrooms--but then isn't that all part of the Ellis brand? The insouciant, hip, Gen-X attitude to creating art? Isn't that what he's saying about culture: that analysis is pointless? Perhaps. I don't know. And, listening to him speak, it seems neither does he.
But one has to remember Ellis's control of tone and not to forget that if you feel bored, frustrated, disgusted with Imperial Bedrooms (or Less Than Zero) it's a case of form enacting content: that's how you're meant to feel. And it's testament to Ellis's skill that you feel what he wants you to feel when he wants you to feel it.
Imperial Bedrooms is a short but immensely well controlled piece of writing from an author who captures the character distortions of Western decadence better than anyone else around today.
But if you want to read Imperial Bedrooms read Less Than Zero first--it's not essential, but you'll get more out of them both that way. It will allow you the guilty pleasure of immersing yourself in the talent of Bret Easton Ellis: a brilliant inquisitor of the shadow of the modern self.