Bret Easton Ellis, Imperial Bedrooms

Posted by Liam Dodds on September 27, 2010 in Reviews tagged with , ,

Bret Easton Ellis, Imperial Bedrooms. Picador, 2010. ISBN: 978-0330449762

Reviewed by Liam Dodds, University of Stirling

“They made a movie about us”, the protagonist states in the opening line of Imperial Bedrooms, “based on a book written by someone we knew […] a simple thing about four weeks in the city we grew up in and for the most part was an accurate portrayal”. The novel was Less than Zero, Bret Easton Ellis’ debut novel detailing the depraved behaviour of a group of dispassionate, hedonistic youths. Published in 1985, the novel was subsequently adapted for the screen starring Robert Downey Jr. as the novel’s protagonist, Clay. Commencing Imperial Bedrooms, Clay hopes to restore his image, disassociating his self from his representation as “the damaged party boy who wandered through the wreckage, blood streaming from his nose, asking questions that never required answers”.

A quarter of a century after Less than Zero, in which Clay returns to Los Angeles from his college in New Hampshire on winter break, Clay returns to Los Angeles from New York, a successful screenwriter with a nominal producer’s credit on an upcoming movie, The Listeners. The novel opens as Clay, alongside the returning cast of Less than Zero, Trent, Julian, Rip and Blair, attend an advanced screening of the movie adaptation of their lives. “In the book everything about me happened”, states Clay, “the book was something I couldn’t disavow”; however, the movie was “a beautiful lie”. In the movie, the character Julian Wells, in order to be “punished for his sins”, must be killed in an act which Clay perceives as a sentimental portrayal of the novel. “The real Julian Wells didn’t die in a cherry-red convertible, overdosing on a highway”, states Clay, “the real Julian Wells was murdered over twenty years later”, his body dumped behind an abandoned apartment building having been “tortured to death at another location”.

An epigraph from Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye prefaces the novel: “there is no trap so deadly as the trap you set yourself”. Echoing Chandler, Imperial Bedrooms is written in the style of a sparse, noir thriller, exploring the mystery surrounding the death of Julian Wells. The novel is a series of brief cinematic scenes, which serve to emphasise the protagonist’s paranoia as he tries to acclimatise to the isolation of life in Los Angeles. Immersed into Clay’s debauched Hollywood lifestyle, the reader witnesses Clay’s abuse of the nominal power afforded to him as a screenwriter, as Clay manipulates attractive aspirant actors into fulfilling his sexual desires. The narrator’s obsession with the fulfilment of his desires refuses any resolution to the mystery of Julian Wells’ death. Clay never asks the right question, neither identifying nor pursuing the avenue that would lead to the resolution of the mystery regarding Julian’s murder: Clay only pursues the fulfilment of his own needs.

The novel, therefore, cannot be described as a noir thriller, although it contains noir elements: vehicles prowl rear-view mirrors, cryptic clues are suggested, characters are observed, followed and threatened. Although Clay is not a detective, his self-obsession and his role as a screenwriter imbues the novel with a tension regarding the resolution of the novel’s mystery. Clay strives to place himself in the centre of that mystery, desiring to make connections that cannot exist. “When I scan the darkened room, smiling back at the unfamiliar people, the fear returns and soon it’s everywhere”, Clay states, “in the looming success of the film we just watched”, “in the young actors’ seductive questions about possible roles in The Listeners”. However, the paranoid delusions of the protagonist are consistently refuted, “[l]ook, don’t try and connect it all”, states Julian, “[t]his isn’t a script, […] it’s not going to add up. Not everything’s going to come together in the third act”.

Permeated with self-referencing and cross-references, Imperial Bedrooms continues Ellis’ tradition of intertextuality. Clay exists in an intertextual dialogue. Informed by his depiction in Less than Zero, Clay’s actions and lines appear as echoes of the Less than Zero protagonist. Clay is also representative of Clayton, Ellis’ doppelganger in Lunar Park, who haunts the professor’s creative writing class, penning the manuscript “Minus Numbers” which is found to be identical to the author’s original manuscript of Less than Zero. Furthermore, Clay represents Bret Easton Ellis himself, as a fictional representation of Ellis’ experiences as a producer on the movie adaptation of The Informers. Clay’s existence is determined by these previous textual connotations. As his debauchery intensifies, he is reproached for his behaviour, “[y]ou have a history of this, don’t you?”

The novel explores an image-conscious Hollywood obsessed with surface. In the pursuit of youth, plastic surgery is commonplace, as Clay describes, “[h]is 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”. Characters with their fake tans and wide smiles are interchangeable: “it’s really about the look, the idea of a girl like this, the promise of sex”, Clay states, “the details were so common that [she] could have been anyone”.

The theme of image is consistent with the intricate textual references and the notion of intertextuality. The characters’ obsession with image is an obsession with ensuring their continued existence in “texts”. The characters’ determination to maintain their image, and their willingness to fulfil Clay’s sexual desires in order to secure their place on-screen, represent a desperate pursuit of continued existence, of immortality. Actors exist whilst their image appears on-screen. Depicted on-screen in a snuff movie intended to incriminate Clay, an actor’s death serves only to prolong her existence, as rumours spread concerning in which movie the scenes will appear.

Clay, therefore, cannot salvage his own identity from the remnants of his textual history; rather his self-confessed depravity serves to justify not only his own representation as the “the damaged party boy who wandered through the wreckage”, but the image portrayed of the author Bret Easton Ellis, implied through the content of his novels and perpetuated by media portrayals. The novel closes with the postscript, “1985-2010”, which initiated rumours that Imperial Bedrooms was to be Ellis’ last novel. Rather, the postscript signals the end of a series of novels which depict myriad, intimate, textual representations of the author Bret Easton Ellis. The postscript, therefore, represents an opportunity for Ellis to reinvent himself, closing the chapter on the enfant terribles of the 1980s, and beginning Bret Easton Ellis: Volume Two.

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