Early in Bret Easton Ellis’s bleak new novel, the narrator, Clay, a well-known writer, is negotiating a sexual transaction with a starlet who hopes he’ll put her in a movie. He’s suspicious that ‘Rain’ isn’t her real name. “Does it matter?” she asks. Well,” Clay answers. “It makes me wonder what else isn’t real. “ Clay wrote The Listeners, the movie in question, and is relatively powerless in the matter of casting. Though he has a producer credit, it’s partly a nod to his celebrity. He wants to sleep with Rain. She wants a job. They’re flirting, but only out of politeness. It’s clear to both of them how things will work.
At least that’s what Clay thinks. At the centre of this chilling, formally-controlled book, there’s an unknown, a threatening void . Rain is, among other things, a beautiful girl in an LA noir; Clay, among other things, has been written by an inheritor of Raymond Chandler: she is the unknown personified, the measure of the moral and metaphysical darkness that surrounds him. So “what else isn’t real?” Clays’ vague, inarticulate double-entendre is the sound of his burnt-out antennae registering terror. As they go back to his apartment, Rain tries to soothe him. “I’ve noticed that writers tend to worry about things like that” she says.
By this point in Imperial Bedrooms, the reader will have noticed the similarity between Clay’s biography and Ellis’s own. But Ellis isn’t Clay, Nor is he the ‘Bret Easton Ellis’ of Lunar Park, let alone Patrick Bateman, the titular American Psycho. Or is he? For six novels, Ellis has created traffic between his fiction and a public fiction of the novelist as celebrity, a persona who appears to occupy the same moral wasteland as his characters. This book is a sequel – twenty five years on - to Less Than Zero, the author’s acclaimed first novel. Clay and the other principal characters, now in their forties, are still engaged in a tranquilised danse macabre around a nightmarish Los Angeles. They’re now damaged forty-somethings, instead of damaged teenagers, with more resources and appalling emotional baggage than before.
In 1985, a lot of people disliked Ellis, the twenty year-old enfant terrible with his anomie, inherited privilege and air of scandal. Less Than Zero was dismissed, unfairly, as a straightforward roman à clef, its extremity just a provocation. So, despite his notoriety, Ellis has never been given his critical due. In six novels, the author has emerged as one of the most gifted and serious novelists working in America today. Ellis is a moralist, engaged in a confrontation with “things like that”, the things writers worry about, the question of “what else isn’t real” in the social world they inhabit. In his ostensibly archly-amoral books he worries about the consequences of affectlessness, the instrumentalisation of human relations, the tyranny of the sleek surfaces that are his main cultural inheritance.
Above all, he wants to know why – or rather when - people become monsters. At what point, at what threshold of pain or numbness does the human disappear? His answer is played out in the form and style of his writing as much as in its content. Formally he has something in common with David Lynch, another great LA auteur. In films such as Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire, Lynch constructs a moebius strip, where passages succeed each other, each somehow ontologically undermining the next, until the scenes take on the quality of dream, the characters uncanny, simulacral, invaded by death. Ellis’s unknowable LA is experienced in similar passages, punctuated by drop-outs, fades, locations succeeding each other like projections, listlessly glamorous places (penthouses, hotels) which become non-places by virtue of their deathly thinness. It’s a city of boredom and terror, memory and forgetting, where stalking and voyeurism substitute for love. It’s obsessed by youth, haunted by death. DISAPPEAR HERE, reads the billboard that unsettles the Clay of Less Than Zero. Now (another) Clay sees it (again?) in a screening room, watching a preview of a movie based on “a book by someone we knew”. Do we see the things Ellis forces us to watch – torture-murders, rape, suicide? Do we choose to remember them once we’ve seen them? Do we call them ‘real’? What about the things he doesn’t choose to see – the other Los Angeles, of shopping-cart pushers, migrants, takers of public transport, the unreal gardeners and maids? In its title, this taut and ultimately terrifying novel offers an abject polarity, the sanctuary of the little prince’s bedroom versus the Inland Empire, the vast hinterland of LA that shades into the Mojave and the Sonoran desert, the place of no protection, the ‘Desert of the Real’, where bodies are dumped and awful secrets are hatched. Numbed safety or unknowable horror? Are these our options?
This review appeared in the Financial Times