About a week ago, I was visiting the Cortelyou branch of the Brooklyn Public Library and amazingly had no hold books to pick up. I was in a lull. I browsed the shelves for titles that looked interesting and found Bret Easton Ellis’s Imperial Bedrooms, which featured the characters of Less Than Zero twenty-five years later. The last thing I read by Ellis was Lunar Park, a hybrid horror novel that I really enjoyed, and Less Than Zero was an important book for me when I was in college, so I added this sequel to my pile.
With Imperial Bedrooms, Ellis seems to be mad at the precedence that film takes compared to the source material he’s provided, and he goes about trying to rectify this. Significant changes were made to his story in the film version Less Than Zero with Robert Downey Jr.’s star-making turn as the character Julian, and sometimes I confuse the stories and the movie version is what I remember, though I’ve read Ellis’s original novel more than once.
Right at the beginning of Imperial Bedrooms, he addresses this problem in the voice of Clay, who’s portrayed as the do-gooder in the film version of Less Than Zero but was really the much more apathetic narrator of the original story:
“But the thing I remember most about that screening in October twenty years ago was the moment Julian grasped my hand that had gone numb on the armrest separating our seats. He did this because in the book Julian Wells lived but in the movie’s new scenario he had to die. He had to be punished for all of his sins. That’s what the movie demanded. (Later, as a screenwriter, I learned it’s what all movies demanded.) When this scene occurred, in the last ten minutes, Julian looked at me in the darkness, stunned. ‘I died,’ he whispered. ‘They killed me off.’ I waited a beat before sighing, ‘But you’re still here.’ Julian turned back to the screen and soon the movie ended, the credits rolling over the palm trees as I (improbably) take Blair back to my college while Roy Orbison wails a song about how life fades away.”
Now Clay is in his midforties and makes a living as a successful screenwriter. He gets his women from a pool of ladies who are desperate to be actresses and think that he has enough power to get them into the business. Clay has been living in New York but goes back to revisit LA and his old crew when casting for his new film is happening there. He reunites with Julian, who is clean and sober now and makes Clay feel uncomfortable with his drinking and addictions. Blair has married Trevor, but they both pursue affairs outside of their marriage. Trevor is an agent who represents a young actress that Clay becomes quite infatuated with. The only problem is she can’t act and she’s dying to be in his next movie. Rip, the drug dealer from Less Than Zero, has had so much work done on his face that it looks like he’s melting. They all wear clothes that are too young for them but still listen to the same songs and bands that they did in the ’80s.
The structure of Imperial Bedrooms is built around a series of murders that are happening in the LA area, and the book ends with a whimper. I have heard the mystery writer’s trick for writing good suspense is to make the murderer the least likely suspect. That’s what Ellis does in this book, but I have a really hard time buying it in the end. In this very slim—let me emphasize slim at 169 pages—novel, he wraps everything up with a funeral scene that happened so hopefully in the movie and writes what he believes should have happened to these kids in Less Than Zero, though it takes them twenty-five years to get there. And I find I really don’t care. I’m sick of them, which is funny because I can remember a time when I really did care.
I remember rereading Less Than Zero and Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City, and the stories seemed to be brimful of exciting characters that did things, big, glittery things. When I was reading and rereading these novels, I was stuck in the frozen Midwest landscape where nothing exciting really happened, except once a turkey factory exploded. (I thought that was pretty funny and exciting, but the local news didn’t play it that way.) I would read these books and think that once I moved to LA or New York, exciting things would happen. I did eventually make that move and what I realized is that an office is still an office; it’s what your mind makes of it. If you keep going there day after day, whether it’s in Iowa City or New York, eventually it will get old and not nearly so mystical or magical.
And I guess that’s the point of Ellis’s books Less Than Zero and Imperial Bedrooms. He shows us characters who have everything, and as a result, they have become emotional zombies. By having everything, I mean material things—it seems like the real human qualities of love, compassion, and caring were never showered on these characters. And after reading Imperial Bedrooms, I don’t think I ever want to spend time with these characters again.
Now Ellis is living the life of Clay, having written the screenplay of the upcoming film The Canyons and using what weight he had to make sure that porn star James Deen was hired for the leading male role. The making of the movie sounds like a real disaster, according to a New York Times article that focused on Lindsay Lohan’s bad behavior. It will be interesting to see what material Ellis can get out of this for his next novel. I crave something like Lunar Park—no more Less Than Zero stuff. I hope he’s outgrown that.