Thursday, 8 July 2010

Bret Easton Ellis, Imperial Bedrooms (2010)


A sequel to Less Than Zero, this: some of the same characters, much of the earlier novel's chilly, glossy sheen. There's a horrible smattering of American Psycho, too. I've seen only bad reviews of this novel, but I must say: I was impressed, pretty much all the way through.

We're 25 years on from Zero; Clay is now a screenwriter, and as narrator of this book (peeved that a shitty writer ransacked his life to write Less Than Zero and then turn it into a shittier film) he drifts around LA, meeting up with some of his old friends, responding to certain things (a car that appears to be following him, for instance) with a kind of lazy disaffected paranoia. He auditions an actress called 'Rain' for his new film, then has a fling with her. Another old friend has been horribly murdered. The menace of murderous violence grows as the novel goes on, but this isn't really a function of plot. Everything in ths book is postmodernishly self-reflexive, not just the obvious stuff.
"Rain," I say. "That's not your real name."

"Does it matter?"

"Well it makes me wonder what else isn't real."

"That's because you're a writer," she says. "That's because you make things up for a living."

"And?"

"And" -- she shrugs -- "I've noticed that writers tend to worry about things like that."

"About what?"

She gets into the car. "Things like that." [43]
Sex, likewise:
This is someone trying to stay young because she knows that what matters most to you is the youthful surface. This is supposed to be part of the appeal: keep everything soft and young, keep everything on the surface, even with the knowledge that the surface fades and can't be held together forever ... The surface Rain presents is really all she's about, and since so many girls look like Rain another partof the appeal is watching her trying to figure out why I've become so interested in her and not someone else. [54]
It could be argued that Easton Ellis is a better writer than DeLillo (an obvious comparator, I suppose) in one crucial regard. DeLillo has better technical chops, I'd say: better range and variety, better descriptive and synthetic powers and scope; plus he's just as fascinated by the tonal and (indeed) human possibilities of writing the affectless, shiny, polished plastic and distressed metal of the postmodern continuum. But DeLillo has a secret addiction; profundity. The first sentence of this novel, for instance. Ellis has a secret, too (not so secret, really); which is that he's an intensely moral writer. But being a moral writer is much more compatible with the sliding, affectless, POMO style than being a 'deep' writer.

Indeed, I'd say Imperial Bedrooms is the wrong title for this novel. Better would have been When I Was Cruel; not just because it's the Costello album actually released a quarter-century after the publication of Ellis's first novel, but because cruelty is the real theme of this novel, as of so much of Ellis's fiction. He is a self-reflexive writer not just because he loves the clever-clever gamery of it, but because self-reflexivity captures the zero-sum, self-circuiting involution of cruelty better than straight representation. Plus, the When I Was Cruel album is a rather better fit for this book tonally, in terms of mood, than the rather baroque Imperial Bedroom (the novel's epigraph is the line from 'Beyond Belief' about history repeating; but Ellis is almost wholly uninterested in history). In particular Ellis's novel put me in mind of the album's title track, with its cocktail lounge sleazy-beat shuffle and empty melodic gestures piqued, just the right amount, by touches of Satie. But this is also a novel (as is the album's opening track, '45') about being middle-aged in a world that's still revolving at the speed of pop; or a novel stuck in the same groove of Californian sourness of 'Episode of Blonde'. And of course there's the Elvis song about ripping off the dolls' heads.

What's beneath the glossy surfaces of modern life? Ellis thinks that there is something down there, and the thing is: cruelty. Of course, it's not very far below the surface, because nothing goes very deep. And life is mostly the surfaces.
She immediately moves into me and says she's sorry and then she's guiding me toward the bedroom and this is the way I always wanted the scene to play out and then it does, and it has to because it doesn't really work for me unless it happens like this.

"You should be more compassionate," she says later, in the darkness of the bedroom.

"Why?" I ask. "Why should I be more compassionate?"

"You're a Pisces." [125]
Clay grows increasingly jealous as the novel goes on, but his jealousy is all selfishness and nastiness-to-others and has nothing pitiable in it at all. The violence, when it comes, is suitably vindictive and cruel.

12 comments:

Larry said...

I was on the fence as to whether or not I would buy it this year, but this is making me lean more toward getting it, since the qualities you note about Ellis' works are those which have appealed to me when I read three of his works, including Less Than Zero.

Adam Roberts said...

I do feel out of step with everybody else, here, though. All the reviews I've read have been very negative.

Larry said...

It wouldn't be an Ellis novel if there weren't several scathing reviews. I seem to recall some dismay over Lunar Park being a finalist for the WFA a few years ago.

11吳dennismattie俊易 said...

人有兩眼一舌,是為了觀察倍於說話的緣故。............................................................

Wally said...

Adam, what do you think of Ellis's earlier books? I'm alone among my friends and probably most acquaintances in digging American Psycho and Glamorama (for different reasons)...

Adam Roberts said...

Wally: I found Glamorama didn't ignite the spark for me, not sure why: but I was quite impressed with American Psycho. The torture sequences unbalance it; he tries but fails to describe the torture with the same flattened affect as he does the corporate chitchat and the reviews of Huey Lewis and the News (and so on), but the material is too pungent for this to come off. Lunar Park is a pretty good novel, though.

Adam Roberts said...

I might add: reading Less Than Zero and Imperial Bedrooms was muddied, for me, by the fact that I'm almost as much of a deeply embedded fanboy when it comes to Elvis Costello as you are with respect to Phish. What I'm really interested in, here, is whether Imperial Bedroom is the right-or-wrong Elvis album to go with.

Larry said...

My copy arrived today, so later tonight or tomorrow, I'm going to re-read Less Than Zero and then Imperial Bedrooms, with hopefully a combined review around the middle of the week, if I have the time. It certainly isn't a thick book, thankfully.

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琇白 said...

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