Imperial Bedrooms by Bret Easton Ellis

imperialThis novel was heavily advertised here before it came out in Hungarian at the end of 2010, and it was just as extensively reviewed immediately after it was published, so I didn’t wait long before getting down to reading it (at the beginning of 2011), especially since I’m in a circa 12-year-old love-hate relationship with Bret Easton Ellis, and I’m interested in everything he does. As this is a sequel to Less Than Zero, set 25 years later, I re-read Less Than Zero before reading Imperial Bedrooms, even though I usually like to rest at least a couple of months between two Ellis novels.

As I said, 25 years has passed, but the world and the characters Ellis writes about haven’t changed much. Sometimes there are passing references to screwed-up plastic surgeries or messed-up marriages which indicate that the characters are not 18 anymore, but if it hadn’t been made obvious at the beginning of the novel in a rather forced-postmodernist way that the characters are now in their 40s, then I wouldn’t have been able to guess their age based on their behavior. The protagonists of Less Than Zero failed to grow up in the intervening 25 years, they didn’t manage to create meaningful lives, and they continue living obsessed with sex, partying and booze – so based on their habits and their maturity (or lack thereof) I would probably have guessed they are pampered rich 25-year-olds.

I assume Ellis must have known that you cannot expect too much from characters such as the ones he wrote about in Less Than Zero, therefore I find the alleged idea behind this novel – to wit: Ellis wanted to show what became of his characters in 25 years’ time – a bit ludicrous and pointless. Of course it soon transpires that nothing became of his earlier characters – and Ellis must have known this, too. And since his heroes, their morals and Los Angeles all remained the same, Ellis could have published the same novel again, had he been really planning to show what became of his characters – with the only notable exception that he should have replaced his references to Walkman music players with references to iPhones. I guess his avid readers (and please note: I’m one of them) would have been curious to read even such a less-than-original remake, but Ellis hadn’t stopped here, oh no – he had actually come up with a story, and I consider this quite a mistake.

Less Than Zero consists of loose-knit episodes, aimless conversations and empty daydreams – in fact, it has virtually no plot or story at all. But with this lack of real story and with its episodic quality, that book manages to portray the era of the 1980s and the and the era’s „typical” characters in a frightfully clear fashion. Imperial Bedrooms, on the other hand, does have a story, the characters have goals and make plans, and it seems that the events will actually lead up to something. Of course, all this is not really true: the story is deliberately tricky (up to the point that I find it almost impossible to follow), but it’s absolutely uninteresting, often ridiculous and sometimes it even resembles the cheapest day-time soaps. The sentences are often jumbled, banal and baffling – which annoys me big-time. And since Ellis’ characters are anything but self-sufficient adults, and they can be more or less freely interchanged (and confused) with one another, I have no interest whatsoever in who is actually playing his games with the others. I have no reason to like Julian better than Rip because they are basically the same, and therefore I’m not interested in their – supposedly – separate and unique stories.

In Less Than Zero, I don’t mind that the characters have no personality: that novel is about an era and a generation, and not about individuals. But Imperial Bedrooms seems to be a crime story of sorts and I got a feeling that you need individual characters to be able to enjoy a crime novel: it doesn’t matter, it cannot matter to me who dies, who does the detective work, and who chases whom if everybody is the same.

On the whole, Imperial Bedrooms was a huge disappointment for me. The references to Less Than Zero in the first couple of pages are entertaining and exciting, and the last couple of pages show something of the barren world of Less Than Zero, and depict the changes Clay underwent in 25 years quite well. But all the pages in between – they’re just plain boring and labored to me.

Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis

It was some ten years ago, when the movie version of American Psycho was released in Hungary, that I first came across Bret Easton Ellis’s name. I didn’t watch the movie then (and even though ten years passed, I still haven’t seen it yet), but I was intrigued by what I read about it, and I wanted to know what that infamous novel on which the movie was based could be about. As it happened, I was unable to obtain a copy of the novel at that time. Either my local library didn’t carry a copy of American Psycho, or they banished it to some damp storeroom in the cellar in an attempt to save their readers from such a reading experience. Anyway, I was forced to be content with what I could get, so Less Than Zero became the first novel I read by Ellis, and actually it didn’t make an indelible impression on my young mind. I didn’t like Ellis’s style, and all I could grasp in the novel was that it was about a bunch of stupid little rich kids who spend their days doing drugs and whining away for a reason completely unfathomable for me.

But I grew older, gradually worked myself through all of Ellis’s books, and then even started to reread his novels. It was during my second reading of Less Than Zero that I realized that it is in fact a very good novel. And now I reread the novel for the third time and again, I came to the conclusion that it is indeed a good book, and what is more, it raises some highly interesting questions.  Of these in a minute.

But before that, let me say a couple of words about the story. It won’t take long: the novel doesn’t have a story as such. Less Than Zero deals with young Clay, a rich and bored university student and his friends. At the beginning of the novel Clay arrives home from a New Hampshire elite university to spend the Christmas holiday in Los Angeles. His four weeks at home are spent with uninterrupted partying, drug-taking and sex with various girls. While engaged in these activities, Clay sometimes experiences waves of nostalgia and starts pondering about the past – which was no more meaningful than the present, but still, looking back now, he feels that the summers he used to spend with his family in the desert were indeed good times.

It’s rather difficult to say anything about Ellis that hadn’t been said before. Many have praised his unique, minimalist style and the way he depicted the emptiness and meaninglessness that characterized the America of the 1980s and 1990s. And I agree with those who praise him: I also believe that he achieves all this in a clever and appalling way, and in the past couple of years I’ve learned to appreciate his style which I found boring ten years ago. But I don’t go any further into this topic, as I want to write about the violence of Ellis’s fictional world and the ways in which his characters struggle to find their way out from the hell they live in.

First of all, I was surprised to find how exceedingly violent Less Than Zero is, because I simply didn’t remember that this novel features so many brutal, shocking and inhumanly cruel scenes: we read about murders, about rapes, and about people forced into prostitution, and somehow I associated such things with Ellis’s later novels. Well, I was wrong, but this mistake made me think about the relations among Ellis’s first three novels (Less Than Zero, The Rules of Attraction and American Psycho). For me, American Psycho is the novel of absolute hopelessness, whereas in the other two novels I feel that there is still a slight chance of living a life which doesn’t so closely resemble hell. For instance, it’s worth noting in Less Than Zero that Clay attempts to keep out the violence from his life: he doesn’t participate in the violent acts of his buddies, or simply leaves the room when his companions start to watch a snuff porn movie. Of course all these actions speak of passivity, and Clay doesn’t actually do anything to prevent the others from engaging in these kinds of activities, but still, in the fictional world of the novel, it seems an almost revolutionary act and the proof of his free will that Clay sometimes ventures as far as to think and occasionally even refuses to do what everyone else does.

Naturally, I don’t want to praise Clay too highly, as he lives the same empty, aimless, meaningless life as his companions (I wouldn’t go as far as to call them ’friends’) who like to entertain themselves with violence. But I find it interesting that Ellis makes him, the least aggressive character the protagonist of Less Than Zero, because even though Clay doesn’t have a clue as to how to change his life, at least he doesn’t try to redeem himself by torturing others, and this raises some hopes in me.

In The Rules of Attraction we can also read about the often less than innocent games of a couple of rich university students. The events in that novel are also totally random, and the characters are just as interchangeable as the characters in Less Than Zero. But neither Less Than Zero, nor The Rules of Attraction can prepare the reader for the insane violence, the emotional desolation and the immeasurably bleak and hopeless world view which appears in American Psycho.

I have no idea when the passive, helpless, aimless, but more or less harmless Clay and his likes gave way to the murderously insane Patrick Bateman in Ellis’s fictional world. And here I don’t want to go into the possible satirical interpretation of American Psycho, and don’t want to deal with the idea that perhaps Pat Bateman only imagined what he did, as this doesn’t alter the fact that there must have been a point where the dark world of the first two novels suddenly turned even darker, and violence took hold over the sanity of the characters. I’d like to pinpoint when this change occurred, but I’m not sure if it’s possible at all.

The novels by Bret Easton Ellis can provoke many different thoughts and emotions. In me, they provoke sadness above everything else. Ellis is not a moralizer, but I am, so I write down shamelessly that my heart breaks every time I read about his inhuman, emotionless, unhappy characters who despite all their culture and money don’t know how to make their hellish lives better – the hellish lives, let me add, which they created for themselves.

(And I keep rereading his novels, despite all this.)

The Rules of Attraction by Bret Easton Ellis

In the last ten or so years I read all of Bret Easton Ellis’s work, actually, I think I read all of them more than once. But I don’t think I read them first in the proper order – if there is such a thing as a proper order. I recall that I first read The Rules of Attraction after American Psycho, and I guess it would have been better to read them in the other way around. Anyway, as I didn’t really remember the novel anymore, I thought I’d re-read it.

The thing I like the best about this novel is its title. I think it’s exceedingly suggestive, beautiful, mysterious and it conveys sensuality and intimacy. As regards the story, however, it’s not worth going into details, as the novel doesn’t feature any kind of linear storyline whatsoever. As it is, the events of the novel center around three main characters (Paul Denton, Sean Bateman and Lauren Hynde) and several minor characters who get into various emotional and sexual relations with one another while living the boring life of rich elite university students and working hard to drug and drink themselves to death.

What makes the novel interesting despite all this is the narration. (Of course this is one of my several hobby-horses: I love virtually any novel that employs a tricky narrative technique.) Every episode in the novel is told in the first person by one of several characters (mostly by Paul, Sean or Lauren), and most episodes are told by more than one narrator. This way we get highly personal accounts of the events and the way they affect the narrator, and we also run into a lot of intriguing ambiguities concerning the „true” meaning of a specific party or date: an evening a character considers life-changing may only be a dull couple of hours for another one, or may feel for him or her as if it didn’t happen at all.

This kind of storytelling suits Bret Easton Ellis’s cold and detached world admirably. Ellis lets each of his characters tell their own version without superimposing a definitive meaning above their different interpretations. He doesn’t attempt to convince the reader of the truthfulness of any version, and I can really appreciate it if a writer lets his readers fend for themselves and doesn’t feel the need to explain and interpret everything.

The narration is excellent end greatly enjoyable, but the characters themselves are quite easy to forget. What lends them charm is that some of them reappear in other Bret Easton Ellis novels. Sean Bateman is, of course, the brother of the infamous Patrick Bateman, and as I recall, Lauren Hynde also appears in some other novel of Ellis, though I don’t remember in which one. I tend to think that the characters are uninteresting because in fact, they don’t have any personality or any distinguishing character traits worth mentioning. In The Rules of Attraction everyone is a tanned, sexy, muscular, beautiful demi-god, and though everyone is quite heartbroken when they find that their current romantic interest prefers someone else’s company, usually they easily manage to find a substitute with whom they can forget, as they are mainly interested in the body of the other person, and one body can easily be substituted for the other, since each is perfect.

Only one character seems to be an exception to this rule. There’s a girl in the novel who keeps sending love letters to Sean, and finally commits suicide as she realizes that she will never get the boy of his dreams. But even in her case, it’s not at all obvious whether she kills herself because she sees something in Sean other than his body, falls in love with his soul, and therefore cannot be satisfied with someone else, or because she is a misfit in her surroundings and simply cannot adopt the concept that it is only the exchangeable body that matters and it’s naive and ridiculous even to think about such things as a soul.

By the way, because of the weightlessness of the characters and the lack of story, The Rules of Attraction is not the kind of novel to get lost in. While reading the book, I sometimes simply drifted over the pages, just like the characters drift in their lives, and I feel that this was a fine way to read this novel. And even though I don’t think that The Rules of Attraction measures up to American Psycho, which was the subsequent novel in Ellis’s œuvre, in the proper state of mind it can be quite a shocking read: it is appalling to face the emptiness that can exist within the human heart.