Thursday, September 1, 2011
Bret Easton Ellis is an acquired taste. He's a unique author with a unique perspective and manages to be one of those particularly unique people who has greatly influenced popular culture in without being a household name. Amongst my generation, his books are something of a novelty; an artifact from a decade or era that we either weren't quite old enough to fully "get," or weren't born into in the first place. It all started, of course, with his breakout novel Less Than Zero. More than two decades - and several books - later, Ellis released Imperial Bedrooms, the sequel to that wildly popular debut.
Imperial Bedrooms follows Clay from Less Than Zero; now in his mid-forties and returning to Hollywood to continue a career as a screenwriter. The book opens with a brief mention of the Less Than Zero movie, setting Imperial Bedrooms in the "real world," albeit a very meta-real world. The novel continues Bret's tradition of narrating in the first person; that minimalist, detached voice he's so famous for. Unlike Less Than Zero, Imperial is not simply an observation on the vapid lives of rich people in California - though it is that, as well. Imperial is most decidedly a mystery-thriller - with the Bret Easton Ellis brand of delivery - and as such plays out like a neo-noir of sorts. Without spoiling any details, I'll just say that the cover to this book very accurately summarizes what the book is about: the story of how the man unleashed the inner monster.
If you're already a fan of Bret's material, then you'll definitely "get" Imperial Bedrooms. Bret proved long ago that even when confined to limited vocabulary and simple diction, he can effectively paint vivid word-pictures and Imperial is no exception. Also in keeping with Bret's commitment to coherence, familiar motifs and devices - like a certain measure of surrealism and ambiguity - color this book with masterful craftsmanship. Dreams, deception, and drugs lay the foundation for what turns out to be something of a cat-and-mouse story. Bret does a fantastic job of sustaining an atmosphere of growing paranoia and unease as the book slowly follows its protagonist down yet another dark path of self-destruction. It's hard to go into more detail about the pros on Imperial, because one of its greatest strengths is how "Bret Easton Ellis" it is. So if you're a fan of Bret's books, this one will likely satisfy your need for another fix - like it did for me. As it's the latest book he's released so far, it also currently acts as a bookend to his entire bibliography. I'm certainly not saying that I hope he stops writing novels. But there is a certain symmetry to the way in which Less Than Zero and its sequel Imperial Bedrooms are his first and last books, respectively.
Being a huge Bret fan, I had to admit I was a little disappointed in the potential this book failed to live up to. By that, I mean that Bret's work is testament to how well he can see through the surface of popular culture to what lies beneath; be it benevolent or malevolent. His early books can generally be described as reshaping the appearance of modern life to reveal how vapid and empty it is underneath. Having made a tradition of "calling out" the 80s and 90s, I expected to see him really tear into social networking websites and the whole framework of trolling and narcissism in our post-Y2K world. Imperial definitely makes use of modern-day technology to accurately place it in time - and Bret does a great job of exposing the extent to which cell phones have reformed our lives. But only a handful of times is the internet mentioned, and the only social networking stabs occur in a single reference to MySpace. Now, being in his mid-forties and not "in the trenches" when it comes to Facebook and Twitter and all that, it's understandable that it didn't really occur to him to put that in his book because that's not really where he is personally. So, had Imperial come out maybe 8-10 years ago, it would have been a much more quickening social commentary. But Bret missed the boat by just enough to take a good deal of the sting out of his message.
Imperial is also a look at the "dark side" of Hollywood, and for all its honesty - it also comes a bit too late. Shows like the E! True Hollywood Story and a slew of entertainment news outlets have largely desensitized America to the depravity at the heart of Hollywood and the film industry at large. So to read about characters caught up in the "seedy underbelly" of the area wasn't nearly as shocking as Bret probably intended it to be. Again, had this book come out a few years earlier, it likely wouldn't have made so small a splash in terms of shock value.
Imperial Bedrooms is classic Bret Easton Ellis. But classic Bret already made his mark on previous decades and here, he feels a bit rehashed. The mechanics of the book work to perfection. Bret is an expert at fine tuning the gradual rise in panic that characterizes much of the narration. And he's still masterfully skilled at giving his characters unique voices. But without really "updating" his arsenal, he loses a good deal of his relevance.
It's hard for me to admit this, being as big a fan of Bret and his works as I am. But if Imperial Bedrooms is an indication of what's to come - it may be that Bret is largely passed his prime. I sincerely hope I'm wrong, and this certainly doesn't mean I won't buy his next book the day it comes out - whenever that may eventually be. But if Bret doesn't dig deep into the muck of popular culture and find something new in himself and/or the world around him, it looks like we've seen the best Bret has left to offer.
That may sound harsh. But given the breadth and depth of Bret's career over the past two decades, that's still allowing for the fact that his books are - and will likely remain - in a league entirely of their own.