“They had made a movie about us.”
I can’t quite remember at what age I first became aware of Bret Easton Ellis. What I can remember is reading American Psycho on a train late at night, then standing in a near-empty station and squinting suspiciously at every around me. I was completely on edge, paranoid, jittery, and somewhat terrified. Something about that book, and Bateman’s character, manages to leach into your soul. Reading it in public made me feel like it was me having those psychotic thoughts, that I myself was dangerous, and dark. It was a peculiar feeling. And even though there are passages of American Psycho that I can barely make it through, it’s one of my favourite books.
I’d always meant to read more of Ellis, but put it out of my mind until I started seeing the most remarkably well read boyfriend I’ve probably ever had. He’d read (and enjoyed) infinitely more books than I had, despite my English degree, and he lent me a copy of Glamorama. I have to say, I found it harder to plough through, but his sheer enthusiasm for Ellis and the surreal, spinning worlds he creates made me keep trying. Glamorama was long and winding (like some sort of road that the Beatles would have sung about), and I eventually admitted defeat.
I’d just been reading that they’re doing a remake of American Psycho, and I suppose that lodged in my brain when I took myself down to the bookshop, where I swiftly nabbed the neon bright Imperial Bedrooms, Ellis’s comeback novel. I had purposefully not read any reviews, and therefore I managed to overlook the fact that this is a sequel to Less Than Zero. I muddled on all the same. It was typical Ellis – no chapters, just ‘passages’. Marathon sentences that made the reader feel slightly manic, due to the sheer volume of words. His writing is a fascinating study on the effect structure alone has on the reader. Simply by writing these endless sentences, one becomes drawn in to the narrator’s fragile state of mind, just as paranoid and sweating as the protagonist themselves.
The novel starts with the line ‘They had made a movie about us.’ And in one fell swoop, Ellis manages to dislodge the sticky remnants of the Hollywood film of Less Than Zero, an adaptation which notoriously strayed from the original novel and plonked some heavy duty moral lessons onto Ellis’s emotional wasteland. Thusly, Ellis can explain away the death of Julian neatly in a masterstroke of meta-narrative.
I knew what to expect from reading his previous works, and the style in Bedrooms was not, largely, different. Unflinching, unemotional descriptions of the most brutal violence punctuated with song titles, liquor brands, ‘hot’ restaurants. Obviously the constant references to ‘culture’ and ‘things’ are one of the keystones to Ellis’s work, and help not only to contextualize the work, but to construct the lens through which his characters view the world.
This was done to much better effect in American Psycho, where the infamous lengthy description of Patrick Bateman’s business cards sat alongside passages about the murder of prostitutes. American Psycho worked for me, and many others, due to the sheer volume of description relating to speakers, or exercise regimes, or Bateman’s grooming habits. As the book rattled to a close, these descriptions became increasingly interspersed with the violent passages. This set Bateman as an extraordinarily unhinged character, but also provided comedy. It was ludicrous and obscene how Bateman would involve us in an episode involving some prostitutes, a chainsaw and a rat, before discussing a new restaurant. (That’s a generalisation, forgive me if I’ve remembered incorrectly.)
But back to Bedrooms. The novel is alarmingly slim, which means you ratchet straight into protagonist Clay’s return to LA, and his rapid descent into hell. Ellis draws LA as the Gomorrah of the modern world, full of people disfigured by surgery, drug addicts, prostitutes, and those lacking even the word ‘moral’ from their vocabularies. LA is almost the main character, and while the novel implies Clay had been leading a relatively sane life in New York, his return to the place captures him like a cancer. It isn’t long before he’s embroiled with a young beautiful actress – although this being LA, she’s already over the hill at 22/23, her beauty is a currency that isn’t enough, and ‘actress’ is a byword for prostitute. How refreshingly 17th Century.
Rain, as the “young” “beautiful” “actress” has named herself, is an utterly appalling character with no redeeming features whatsoever. I sometimes wonder if Ellis writes his female characters as either saints or whores, in the old tradition. Rain is most definitely the latter, and you can make your mind up about Blair when you read the little coda on the final page. Much of the novel centres on Clay’s “relationship” with Rain, full of power plays, hate, and Patron Tequila. The voracity and desperation with which Rain pursues the part in a movie Clay has written is somewhat nauseating, purely because it’s most likely rather true to life of a certain breed of young women.
Hollywood is a cruel, vile place in Ellis’s eyes. If you’re too old (i.e. 22!), too ugly and unable to afford the plastic surgery you require, you’re sunk. I managed to comfort myself slightly by thinking he was exaggerating the soulless, skewed aspects of the place, but then I happened to thumb through Glamour magazine to an exposé on how many young actresses in Hollywood are leading double lives, as prostitutes. As per usual in a Bret Easton Ellis novel, I finished with a sour distaste for both modern life and people in general. The most marginal bit of comic relief comes in the form of Rain’s instantaneous turnarounds of emotion as Clay dangles the movie role in front of her. Rain is an empty vessel, we never know what she thinks. But we never know what anyone feels, because of Ellis’s adherence to the minimalist style he is famous for.
Characterwise, he tends to go on describe faces not personalities, leaving the reader unsure of how to gauge certain characters. He has come under immense scrutiny from feminist critics for both the portrayal of women in his body of work, but also for the way they are treated. I personally disagree – Ellis has argued that his writing in fact incriminates men, that his novels are all about the terrible actions of men, which I would agree this. He creates characters in a long line of villains you ultimately want to ‘get away with it. I’d read Lolita at a very early age, and had fallen irrevocably in love with Humbert Humbert. As most readers do, I wanted him to get away with it. I wanted him to achieve his ghoulish desires, and there was no question that I was utterly on his side. See also Iago in Othello.
The novel is plot-driven, unlike some of his other works. I didn’t find it as fresh as his other novels – a strange term to use when describing such a jaded style of writing, but it just lacked the power that, say, American Pyscho had. Perhaps I simply knew what to expect? Those long paranoid descriptions of the protagonist being followed, feeling that everyone was looking at him…ultimately, it didn’t bring anything new to his cannon of work. That said, I think any diehard Bret Easton Ellis fan has been longing to see him tackle the modern celebrity culture, and to explore the endless bounds forward in technology. And true enough, in Bedrooms, iPhones, YouTube, the creeping feeling of social media and technology taking over our lives – these things are all present, and ultimately used to control certain elements within the story.
If you’ve read Less Than Zero, then you could read this as a ‘where they are now’ exercise. Clue: there are no happy endings in Bret Easton Ellis. Or you could read it as a comment on the throbbing, nauseating, ever-churning Hollywood star machine. If you like your chick lit or easy reading, you’ll probably want to drive a million miles in the opposite direction.