November 10, 2010

Book reviews: "Less Than Zero" and "Imperial Bedrooms," by Bret Easton Ellis

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Less Than Zero, by Bret Easton Ellis

Less Than Zero
By Bret Easton Ellis

Imperial Bedrooms, by Bret Easton Ellis

Imperial Bedrooms
By Bret Easton Ellis
Alfred A. Knopf

I came of age in the first half of the 1980s, which means that I was heavily influenced in my youth by things like punk music and performance art, right there at the time in everyone's life when their brain is still relatively empty but especially hungry for input, making the arts more influential to us at that point than at maybe any other time in life. And definitely one of the authors back then I was enamored with was Bret Easton Ellis, whose first two novels (1985's Less Than Zero and 1987's The Rules of Attraction) were veritable anthems to me and my art-school undergraduate friends; and so when it was announced earlier this year that Ellis' newest novel, Imperial Bedrooms, would be a direct sequel to Less Than Zero on the occasion of its 25th anniversary, you better believe that I excitedly put it on reserve at my local library so that I wouldn't have to wait long for it, and added Less Than Zero to that reserve as well, since it had been literally decades since I had read it last. And that turned out to be a very good idea, something I encourage you to do as well if you're going to read the newer title; because it not only provided a refresher course on the events of the first book, which you will absolutely need in order to fully enjoy the sequel, but reminded me all over again of why my friends and I found it so culturally disruptive in the first place, and why the work of people like him and his contemporaries Jay McInerney and Eric Bogosian spoke so passionately to us to begin with.

Both are set in Los Angeles, respective to their times, and are both told through the eyes of our passive everyman hero Clay, who is widely assumed in the first book to be a stand-in for Ellis himself, but with the Clay in the second book mentioning Ellis by name and claiming that he was simply another hanger-on in their scene, and who distorted a whole series of truths in the original to make for a better story; and indeed, this is an early sign of exactly how Ellis has changed as a writer in the last quarter-century, in that with each new title he has grown more and more metafictional, and more and more interested in blurring the line between fiction and real life, an idea that existed in only a rough, unpolished form in his early work. Because to be sure, whether you love it or hate it, the '85 Less Than Zero is clearly a case of style over substance, with a storyline so insubstantial that it barely exists -- teenage children of Hollywood film executives party their way to oblivion, basically, completely unmoved emotionally by any of the monstrous ways they treat each other, their lives utterly defined by fashion labels, mountains of cocaine and unspoken bisexuality -- with it not being until later novels that Ellis grew out of this fog of flashy, empty Postmodernism, and started applying better and better metaphorical points to his work. (And in fact, in what's easily a career highlight, this new novel opens with a brilliant chapter in which the Less Than Zero characters discuss their reaction to seeing the very real 1987 Less Than Zero movie, a notorious flop starring such "Brat Packers" as Andrew McCarthy, James Spader and Robert Downey Jr., with an infamously mauled screenplay that turns the entire thing into a hysteria-filled Reagan-Era anti-drug screed, one that literally kills off one of the major characters as punishment for him having too much fun.)

So why did my friends and I react so intensely to this back then, given that it was essentially the literary equivalent of MTV? Well, that might be your answer right there; that when I look back on it with unbiased eyes, I realize that the youth of the early '80s were clamoring for an alternative to the funky, earthy, always deep and always morally convoluted counterculturalism that had defined the arts since the early '70s, the same compulsion back then that brought about the moral absolutes of Reaganism and the crisp style of preppie fashion that occurred in the same years. It's easy now to see all this as signs of the disaster the last 30 years of American history has been, but back then this yearning for style over substance was seen as a relatively original and benign idea, in many ways simply a response to the "culture of malaise" that Jimmy Carter and his supporters had created in this country by the late '70s, in which there were no more good guys or bad guys but rather this murky gray muddle in the middle, and where every aspect of our lives was expected to be endlessly discussed to death in the shag-carpeted offices of therapists and family counselors. No wonder my friends and I were screaming so loudly those days for empty, pretty things, despite not really understanding why until decades later, and no wonder that we were simultaneously attracted in those years to such seemingly clashing concepts as, say, DIY hardcore music and capitalist consumerism as lifestyle.

This is possibly the most interesting thing about Imperial Bedrooms, then; that after a first half of exploring the long-term fallout of these '80s characters, now middle-aged and most of them involved in Hollywood just like their parents were, the story quickly turns into a straightforward contemporary noir with light supernatural touches (or at least a heavily creepy vibe that pervades the entire thing), with a plot that much more tries to make an actual point than the '85 original did. And like I said, this is simply a reflection of where Ellis' entire career has gone in the last 25 years; because for those who don't know, the second half of Ellis' oeuvre is marked by book after book featuring creepy vibes, violent details and supernatural subtones. (1994's The Informers, for example, is about contemporary vampires; 1991's infamous American Psycho is about a serial killer; and then there's my favorite Ellis novel of them all, 1998's Glamorama, which is perhaps about a New York club promoter who stumbles across a nefarious ring of supermodels who moonlight as bomb-planting terrorists, or might possibly be about a man having a mental breakdown without realizing it right in front of our eyes, with us not entirely sure which is the case until the very last chapter.)

And indeed, Imperial Bedrooms features all of these types of elements too, an increasingly gruesome story that eventually enfolds an underground call-girl ring, mysterious torture-filled deaths in the Mexican desert, and a main character who ends up being not nearly what he seems at first. And that can be a little frustrating, to tell you the truth, which is why it's not getting a higher score today, because by its end the book can often feel not like a sequel at all, but rather a completely unrelated tale that just happens to steal the names of the Less Than Zero characters. But on the other hand, maybe this is the perfect way for a sequel by Bret Easton Ellis to feel, since it so exactly mirrors Ellis' own role in literary history -- one of the last big writers of the Postmodernist Era, expressly by taking the hallmarks of Postmodernism and pushing them to cartoonish extremes, but who has reinvented himself in our post-9/11 "Age of Sincerity" into a writer with a lot more to say, and who in good 2000s style uses the trappings of genre fiction in an inventive new way in order to bring his message to the masses. It has its problems for sure, and I suspect won't appeal nearly as much to those who aren't already long-term fans of Ellis like I am; but for those like me whose adult lives have mostly been defined so far by the snotty irony and empty pop-culture of Postmodernism, and now find themselves wondering just how to feel about the world in our new Obamian Age of emo and authenticity, a lively and instructive reading experience awaits you with these two books. It's for all of you that Imperial Bedrooms is specifically recommended today.

Out of 10: 8.6

Read even more about Less Than Zero: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Read even more about Imperial Bedrooms: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 4:28 PM, November 10, 2010. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |