Imperial Bedrooms (Vintage Contemporaries)
Author: Bret Easton Ellis
Publisher: Borzoi (a division of Knopf)
Genre: Fiction, Meta-fiction
Where I got it: Bought it new at Powells
Challenges: I Want More Challenge
I have read almost all of Bret Easton Ellis's work. The only one I haven't read is The Informers. I spent a lot of time with American Psycho in graduate school. I would say that I know what to expect from an Ellis novel. Here is a list of Ellis's books in the order that I would rank them (from best to worst):
1. Lunar Park
2. American Psycho
3. Imperial Bedrooms
4. Rules of Attraction
5. Less Than Zero
I really thought that I was done with Ellis. I appreciate his writing very much on an intellectual level, but anyone who has read him knows that it can be hard to stomach. However, when I read Lunar Park I realized that my old friend had moved into new territory as a writer. Ellis's fiction is about shiny surfaces, with filth hiding just underneath. His novels are often intentionally tedious, leaving the raw violence scattered throughout as a respite from the trite monotony of his characters' lives. Like Nabokov and Humbert Humbert, Ellis and his grotesque protagonists seduce the reader to adopt their mindset, to experience the banal and the horrifyingly violent as equally routine.
In Lunar Park, Ellis took a sharp turn into metafictional territory, telling what turned out to be a ghost story starring the author himself, haunted by the ghosts of his past works. I thought it was brilliant, and Imperial Bedrooms begins on similar terrain. The narrator, Clay (one of the stars of Ellis's first novel Less Than Zero) begins the novel ruminating on the experience of having a film based on a book based on his life. As a reader I realized that this is just the Ellis I wanted; I wanted these reflections from a distance of the reified world that reigns as reality in his earlier fiction. Reflections like those that Clay experiences as the characters watch the movie based on their lives, that allow to recognize that the the film has a moral center that their lives lack, because, "That's what the movie demanded."
The metafictional element of the novel doesn't last long until the novel slips into something else that Ellis specializes in: postmodern paranoia. The novel becomes a mystery:
It is not clear for quite some time whether the source of Clay's paranoia is rational or imagined. As the novel progresses, so does the urgency, and yet the blase tone and passive construction of the narrative remains. Like all of Ellis's protagonists, the world happens to Clay. His role as agent is only revealed late in the book, when it becomes something else entirely, and Ellis masterfully cycles through the themes and styles of his previous works.It happens again. While waiting for the girl to come over I'm reaching into the refrigerator for a bottle of white wine when I notice that a Diet Coke's missing and that cartons and jars have been rearranged and I'm telling myself this isn't possible, and after looking around the condo for other clues maybe it isn't.
I would say that the biggest flaw in this particular work is that Ellis returns to an old style that he mostly avoids in Lunar Park. Although he may be reaffirming that he is not a different and more mature writer, that he is capable of revisiting the themes that made novels like American Psycho such poignant, distorted mirrors of our society, maybe he should just accept his maturity and venture further into the quite brilliant territory of which he stands on the edge. I'm not sure that Ellis has the vocabulary for "now," the way that he had the vocabulary for the coke-fueled New York scene in AP, or for the exclusive private school world in Rules of Attraction or Less Than Zero. His Los Angeles in this book is clearly surface, but the surface doesn't feel as authentically artificial as it could. The world is too small, and there aren't enough adjectives.
Clay is a screenwriter, and in the end, the book is about authorship, and the god-like role that the author plays in writing a reality. Ellis' has been playing with ideas about what constitutes "the real" through all of his fiction, and this current meta-fictional angle is one I would like to see more of. Next time, I hope that Ellis leaves more of the old behind, and moves forward in what is sure to be another intriguing exploration of his own style.