Imperial Bedrooms, Bret Easton Ellis’s seventh novel and a sequel to his debut Less Than Zero, is pure L.A. noir. It has the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles lurking just beneath the glitter and glamor; it has the requisite femme fatale, appropriately blonde and mysterious. It has the doomed and corrupt narrator who is taken for a ride and is constantly one step behind everyone else. It has the fast clip dialogue in which no one says what they really mean and are always full of vague warnings of danger.
Ellis offers an early clue as to his literary intentions with an epigraph from Raymond Chandler’s novel The Long Goodnight: “There is no trap so deadly as the trap you set for yourself.” You can’t get any more noirish than that. The title Imperial Bedrooms is also taken from an Elvis Costello album (Less Than Zero is title of a Costello song), and that offers yet another clue that Ellis is still writing about pop culture, its influence on modern life, and the superficial way it defines the L.A. denizens of his novels.
The characters in Imperial Bedrooms, namely Clay, Blair, Julian Wells, Rip Millar, and the others are all back, only now 25 years older and still emotionally dead. The story revolves around a mystery when L.A. screenwriter, Clay, gets involved with a young actress named Rain Turner, who turns out to be a prostitute who is in love with Clay’s old drug buddy, Julian, and is and was involved with Rip and a now very dead Kelly Montrose. How Kelly wound up dead is the mystery, but the real mystery is how these people ever managed to survive this long with all the drugs, booze, and cheap sex they engage in. Actually, several other murders and tortures take place before the novel ends, so that addresses the issue of survival. Still you have to wonder how they managed to make it out of their twenties alive. These are characters who live on the precipice of time and any one move should have sent them over the edge a long time ago.
They're zombies basically, living one day at a time with no sense of the world outside their rarefied enclave of Hollywood release parties and audition calls. Spoiled, pathological, and sociopathic, they use people for their own purposes or pleasures without any fear of reaping the consequences. In this way, Ellis is able to paint a world that turns the conservative mythology of wealth going to the deserving straight on its head. It certainly explains why Less Than Zero was considered so mind-blowing in the Reagan era. Still, Imperial Bedrooms would be just as shocking, except that much of pop culture from films to television to pop music, approaches the same material. What TV series or movie doesn’t have at its foundation flawed characters who are just this side of pathological? And isn’t Lyndsay Lohan simply an Ellis character writ large?
I imagine even Ellis understood the world he was sending this book out into, which might explain why he felt the need to ratchet up the shock factor. Granted, from what I have read (admittedly I’ve never read any of Ellis’s work before), and what Ellis alludes to himself in Imperial Bedrooms, this is merely a continuation of the things his characters did in the novel’s prequel, but still it has a gratuitous smell to it, like Ellis is being shocking for the sake of it.
There isn’t a likable character in the bunch, but they do make for a compelling read if only to find out what happens to them once the mystery (something to do with an unpaid debt, prostitution, and snuff films) is solved. Ellis’s writing style, hailing from the minimalist movement (Ellis was a protegee of Raymond Carver’s editor Gordon Lish), perfectly captures the ennui of his characters. He does a good job of creating the seediness of L.A. glamor, its superficiality masking a far uglier reality below. Ellis makes no bones about how pathological his characters are, so Imperial Bedrooms is truly a novel about morality. Unfortunately, it tracks well-worn territory. After all, this is the story of Amy Winehouse, Paris Hilton, Charlie Sheen, Mel Gibson, the Kardashian sisters, the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, and all the other wanna-bes and has-beens who are eking out their sad existences in Hollywood. You can read all about that and more on Popeater.