Imperial Bedrooms by Bret Easton Ellis | Book review

Mark Lawson enjoys a midlife sequel to Bret Easton Ellis's debut

Graham Greene liked to claim that he had once entered a magazine competition inviting Greenian parodies and finished second. And you suspect that, if the Guardian's John Crace happened to be incapacitated while writing a spoof of Bret Easton Ellis's Imperial Bedrooms, the novelist himself could easily step in, although the result might be considered a little self-conscious.

Certainly, few writers can have combined such distinctive literary mannerisms with such a strong awareness of their own effects. And, in his latest work of fiction, the sense of signature is increased by the fact that the book is a return to an earlier world: Imperial Bedrooms, his seventh novel, is a sequel, quarter of a century on, to his bravura 1985 debut, Less than Zero.

The tone of Less Than Zero was a zombified monologue, in which the narrator, a young, rich brat called Clay, described encounters with sex, drugs and violence in an affectless present-tense: "I'm sitting in my pyschiatrist's office the next day, coming off from coke, sneezing blood." This was a voice so strange and strong – depravities recited in the manner of a shopping list – that it immediately invited pastiche, some of it by Easton Ellis himself, who took casual amorality perhaps as far as it could go in American Psycho, an apologia by a serial killer which the original publisher declined to print.

In Imperial Bedrooms, Clay has doubled in age but voice-recognition software would have little trouble picking up his tense present: "We sit in my office naked, buzzed on champagne, while she shows me pics from a Calvin Klein show." He occasionally seems, though, to have developed the syntactical ability to look back: "They had made a movie about us," the book begins.

That opening mention of a cinematic version of the characters reminds us that Less Than Zero has been a movie and is an example of the energetic self-reference that has become increasingly a feature of this writer's fiction. Lunar Park, his previous book, was an extraordinary mock-memoir in the form of a novel, in which a drug-addled, bisexual American author called Bret Easton Ellis found himself being stalked by Patrick Bateman, the killer from American Psycho. That was not the only realistic/impossible detail, Easton Ellis's work being a form of striptease that sometimes involves garments being put on.

The invitation to read the author into the protagonist of Less Than Zero and now its sequel is strong because, in addition to the first-person narration, Clay is deliberately a blank, a receptor for impressions of those around him. The narrative of Imperial Bedrooms more or less exactly mirrors that of the original – Clay goes to Los Angeles from New York for a passively hedonistic Christmas, although he now possesses not only money but a sort of influence, having become an outwardly successful screenwriter. But, as Easton Ellis's readership will immediately know, writers in Hollywood have no real power, being the playthings of producers. Clay is having frequent sex, fuelled by booze and junk, with an aspiring actress who calls herself Rain, whom he met at the first audition for a movie he's written and who seems to be hoping, by acquiescing to his pleasures, for a call-back to a second reading.

Clay, though, does not seem to be in control of his own storyline: a stalker, whom we suspect has read Lunar Park, keeps sending him menacing texts in italics, mainly variations on "I'm watching you". The major additions to Less Than Zero are technological: the novel is dotted with texts and a character who goes missing appears to have been killed in an "execution video" on the web, although the link proves impossible to activate, leaving only "people on various blogs debating the video's 'authenticity'." The novelist is a laureate of paranoia ("ominous" is a favourite adjective), which usually proves to be justified, as it does here, in a climactic scene of sex and violence which suggests that self-censorship has not been a consequence of the American Psycho scandal.

In terms of American literary inheritance, Easton Ellis adds the playful self-advertisements of Philip Roth to the ambiguously complicit social reportage of F Scott Fitzgerald. Imperial Bedrooms ranks with his best exercises in the latter register, teeming with sharp details of a narcissistic generation: the "spray-on tans and the teeth stained white", "the AA meetings on Robertson and Melrose, the twenty-dollar margharitas from room service", "young girls walk by in a trance holding yoga mats".

Most tellingly, Rip, the young kids' drug dealer in the first book, is still offering the service now, although they fail to recognise him, not because of ageing but his cosmetic attempts to avoid it: "It's a face mimicking a face . . . he looks like he's been quickly dipped in acid; things fell off, skin was removed."

Thankfully, Easton Ellis's literary face-lift to his youthful first appearance has been conducted more subtly, retaining what was initially attractive with a few tight injections of modernity. May the 2035 publication lists include a report on Clay in the third age, when he might need someone to do the sex, drugs and paranoia for him.

Mark Lawson's Enough Is Enough is published by Picador.


Mark Lawson

The GuardianTramp

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