Ellis's endgame

Less than Less Than Zero
By CARRIE BATTAN  |  July 27, 2010

PERMANENT MIDNIGHT: Ellis’s spoiled children have grown into spoiled adults.

Imperial Bedrooms | By Bret Easton Ellis | 192 pages | Knopf | $24.95
Reading Less Than Zero, the novel that tattoo'd Bret Easton Ellis on the literary map in 1985, when he was still a college student, you could believe that the horrors experienced by its cartoonishly hollow and self-indulgent LA trust-fund babies had grown out of some sort of karmic retribution. Their dark stumble into prostitution rings and drug trades might even have led to repentance and moral reincarnation had we stuck around for a new semester.

As it happens, however, the seedy underpinnings of their young adulthood screwed them up for good — and their taste for kinky thrills is not nearly as much fun in middle age as it was in youth. A quarter-century later, in what amounts to a self-referential epilogue to Less Than Zero, Ellis's spoiled children have grown into spoiled adults, and the magnets in their moral compasses rest askew.

Clay, Ellis's flagship protagonist, is a semi-successful screenwriter who's just trudged home to Los Angeles to work on a film after seeking refuge in New York. His former girlfriend Blair has married Trent, the male model (and rapist) from the first book, but she still clings to her unreciprocated feelings for Clay. Drug dealer Rip Millar returns looking "freakish" and as if he'd been "quickly dipped in acid." And Clay's long-time friend Julian, who once traded sex with both men and women for heroin funds, is still hopping around town with a sackful of ulterior motives tossed over his shoulder.

In true Ellis fashion, these characters are part of a human pawn shop: sex and, now, affection are traded for auditions, revenge is traded for money, and inhibitions are traded for clout. Clay spends his days checking his iPhone for messages from Rain Turner, a young (but not young enough for a successful career) and inexplicably alluring actress who thrusts what seems like half of Los Angeles into a murderous tailspin by sleeping with the lot of them for a shot at a few lines in a movie. Spy cars parked on dark corners could belong to a handful of friend-foes; ominous texts from a blocked number ("I'm watching you") are sent to Clay around the clock. Slim and sparsely narrated, with references to signifiers of hipness and affluence — blogging, the Apple Store, a Bat for Lashes song — tossed in, Imperial Bedrooms is at first glance loyal to its antecedent.

But though the novel drips with Ellis-isms, it lacks much of the meat that used to substantiate his stylistic tics. Previous novels supported all the precisely rendered gloom and tension with comprehensible plot lines and turns of character, the occasional revelatory scene or cathartic moment of self-revulsion. Bedrooms is all atmosphere, framing a checklist of very familiar bad behavior. Perhaps it's because we quickly learn that they possess the same morbid agendas they did 25 years ago, but Clay and his cohort are no longer compelling — washed up and stripped of confidence, they've become dead-end balls of desperation and paranoia. Couple them with a plot that's all unconfirmed suspicions and tangled loose ends and you have a moody but unfulfilling novel.

After two and a half decades, during which Less Than Zero has become a cultural landmark, Imperial Bedrooms is, as described in its advertising, "a genuine literary event." The new book's Web site takes off from its predecessor —"25TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE CULT CLASSIC." But there's a difference between a literary event and a literary accomplishment.

  Topics: Books , Books, Bat For Lashes, literature,  More more >
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