Aug 18, 2010, 09:51AM

Bret Easton Ellis' Solipsistic Heart of Darkness

A review of Ellis' latest novel, Imperial Bedrooms.

“In the car, Spin tastes the coke and says that it’s cut with too much novocaine. Rip says that at this point he doesn’t care and just wants to do some. Rip turns the radio up and keeps screaming happily ‘What’s gonna happen to all of us?’”
-from Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis, 1985

What happened, between then and now? The kids who weren’t alright kept growing up.

Their not-quite-there hearts withered up and died; they grew fangs; an unquenchable thirst for narcotics became a glutton’s hunger for more power, more control, more psychic carnage.

While Less Than Zero -- Brat Pack author Bret Easton Ellis’ totemic debut novel, published in 1985 -- spied on L.A.’s over-privileged Me-Generation youth snorting and screwing their way ever deeper into moral free-fall, sequel Imperial Bedrooms finds the cast far beyond the point of no return. Various Zero principals float in and out of the narrative in a perfunctory way that’s disappointing initially, but makes sense logistically for the taut, focused whodunit story Ellis is telling, though the key players appear.

One-time prostitute and junkie Julian is on the wagon and running an escort service -- until he‘s murdered, one victim in a mysterious series. Clay, Zero’s protagonist and supposed moral center, is a schlock screenwriter fond of sexual manipulation. Male model Trent is now an agent, married to Blair, Clay’s on-and-off flame. As for Rip -- formerly a drug peddler, now a sinister underworld figure -- his transformation is more discomfiting: “His face is unnaturally smooth, redone in such a way that the eyes are shocked open with perpetual surprise; it’s a face mimicking a face, and it looks agonized. The lips are too thick. The skin’s orange. The hair is dyed yellow and carefully gelled. He looks like he’s been quickly dipped in acid; things fell off. Skin was removed. It’s almost defiantly grotesque.” Clay and Rip form half of a bizarre love quadrangle that slowly turns lethal.

As we’re eased into the vaporous, opportunistic vortex of Hollywood social-climbing -- as Clay helps cast roles for a movie he’s written and falls for a young actress -- the cool, familiar-feeling details are a comfort: satirical run-on sentences, tactful product placements, expertly staged set-pieces, cutting demonstrations of self-interest. Ellis’ manicured prose is as elegant as ever, navigating an moneyed, alien world that runs on favors, a laissez faire nexus of parties, propositions, and development deals where nothing is ultimately off limits.

The bizarre, rumor-ish murders and tabloid trash stories of Zero -- so redolent of adolescent, comic-book imagination in that particular milleu -- give way to more of the same in Bedrooms, except now we’ve get a fairly definite sense of who’s behind the horrors. Casual violence and sadism is nothing new to Ellis’ readership; it’s as integral to the author’s style as self-cannibalism, bald Joan Didion swipes, and the recurrence of characters from previous Ellis novels. The sense of evil and pall of existential dread that pervaded The Informers and Zero are present here, as is a conspiratorial plot (shades of Glamorama) and a running text-message-as-tension-ratchet plot device (see Lunar Park); that we’ve come to take all of these as a givens is part of the trap laid. Here’s the kicker: Zero is where Ellis’ run began, where nihilistic perversion first battled a compromised set of values and won. In that book, the characters were damaged and conceited, but there was a sense of party-hard camaraderie even as they used and abused one another. Defiantly grotesque, Bedrooms’ harshness lies in the realization that the dead past is nothing in the face of a solipsistic present; it’s a foreign country, as L.P. Hartley famously opined, and they do things differently there. As the novel’s heart-seizing denouement makes brutally clear, all bets are off.


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