“What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?”
“What’s the worst thing that ever happened to you?”
The questions echo through Bret Easton Ellis’s “Imperial Bedrooms,” variations on a theme: How low can you go?
Ellis emerged 25 years ago as a baby nihilist who had written a pint-size best-seller, “Less Than Zero,” about a bunch of rich Los Angeles teenagers who were suffering a crisis of the soul much like the one that well-dressed Italians had suffered a couple of decades earlier in the movies of Antonioni and Fellini.
The main difference was that the Italians had some culture. The only cultural references available to the adolescent zombies in “Less Than Zero” were the song titles and lyrics that now date the book rather badly.
Its narrator, Clay -- the counterpart of the stunned neurotics Monica Vitti used to play -- has a flash of revelation near the end when he perceives that all he really wants is “to see the worst.” The worst thing Ellis can think of is prostitution, so in the climax Clay accompanies a friend to a date with a john and, in a prearranged deal, sits there and watches.
Though “Imperial Bedrooms” claims to be a sequel, after a few pages it’s obvious that the viciously competitive Hollywood hotdoggers who slither through its pages couldn’t possibly be grown-up versions of the zoned-out basket cases they share their names with. Nobody in “Less Than Zero” had any drive, and their only energy came from drugs.
In “Imperial Bedrooms” they’ve morphed into the cutthroat maniacs of the standard Hollywood novel -- whose theme is prostitution almost by definition. Cotton Mather couldn’t be more indignant about a town where people sell their bodies to get ahead.
Clay is now a scummy screenwriter who promises pretty young actors and actresses he’ll help them get parts so he can toy with them in bed. (“Toy” is putting it delicately.) But his creepiness doesn’t rise to the level of Ellis’s ambition, which is to write about evil.
Eeeeeee-vil. He fills the novel with the prose equivalent of horror-movie music: ominous vehicles stalking Clay and staking out his apartment, unknown persons going through his things, disquieting text messages (“I’m watching you ... U r standing in your office”) from a blocked number.
People keep warning him to stay away from the talentless actress he’s (who knows why) obsessed with, but no one will give him a good reason: “You’re not going to get any answers.” (He does, of course.) “It’s just ... bigger than you think.”
Actually, it’s smaller, boiling down to what most of us went through in high school -- somebody’s boyfriend wanting somebody else’s girlfriend (which was also the stuff of “Less Than Zero”). Ellis makes a wild stab at what he thinks is seriousness by including graphic scenes of torture-murder (his specialty) and sexual degradation, which I did my best to skim.
“Imperial Bedrooms” is as innocent of culture as “Less Than Zero” was. Again, the allusions are mainly pop lyrics, though movies enter in, too. When somebody says, “You discover things about yourself that you never thought were possible,” the author is probably referencing John Huston’s famous line in “Chinatown,” but it’s possible he thinks he thought it up himself; the writing is so maladroit there’s no way to tell.
What’s the worst book you’ve ever read? Definitely not this one. Occasionally you run into a novel that goes so dementedly off the tracks that the only explanation is runamuck talent. But “Imperial Bedrooms” is pale and, despite the surface outrageousness, cautious. There’s not much at stake here. It reads like a novel about evil written by one of those affectless brats in “Less Than Zero” -- ugly, mean and dumb.
Or, rather, kind of ugly, kind of mean, kind of dumb.
“Imperial Bedrooms” is published by Knopf (169 pages, $24.95). To buy this book in North America, click here.
(Craig Seligman is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the writer on the story: Craig Seligman at firstname.lastname@example.org.