Book Review: Bret Easton Ellis' Imperial Bedrooms
Bret Easton Ellis at the Rabenhof Theater in Vienna, highlighting Hollywood’s dark side through fame, pain and plastic surgery
Every Novel is an Exorcism
A sellout crowd of Austrian hipsters welcomed controversial American writer Bret Easton Ellis to Vienna’s Rabenhof Theater on October 5. Ellis was in town to promote his new novel, Imperial Bedrooms, a dark tale of betrayal and violence in youth-obsessed Hollywood.
Bret Easton Ellis has been a fixture on the U.S. literary scene since his brash debut at the age of 21 with Less Than Zero, his 1985 novel about a group of wealthy, emotionally numb teenagers who seek escape from boredom through sex and drugs. Along with Jay McInerney (Bright Lights, Big City) and Tama Janowitz (Slaves of New York), Ellis formed New York’s "literary brat pack," as well known for their hard partying as their collective portrayal of a generation of depraved and soulless youth. Ellis’s fiction is known for affectless characters unable to experience normal human emotions, name-dropping of fashionable brands and depictions of graphic violence. It has been interpreted as a critique of the superficiality, materialism and emptiness of American culture. His most notorious work, American Psycho (1991), featuring a young Wall Street trader who is a serial killer, has achieved cult status; some critics consider it Ellis’s masterpiece.
At 46, Ellis is no longer an enfant terrible. His boyish face is getting jowly and his hair is grey. Dressed in the understated uniform of literary celebrity—dark blazer over black T-shirt, grey jeans and black-rimmed glasses—Ellis looked exhausted. And no wonder: he was in the midst of a grueling five-month international book tour. One could forgive him for dozing off during the readings from his book in German, a language he does not understand. But he was fully engaged during the Q&A moderated by Klaus Nüchtern, deputy editor in chief of Falter.
Imperial Bedrooms, Ellis’s seventh novel, revisits Less Than Zero’s characters 25 years on. After rereading all his earlier work, while writing the novel Lunar Park (2005), Ellis found himself wondering what kind of man Clay, the semi-autobiographical 18-year-old narrator of Less Than Zero, would have grown up to be. He decided to write a bittersweet romance about middle-aged love and regrets featuring Clay and his former girlfriend, Blair. "It was supposed to be a sweet novel," he said.
But moving to Los Angeles changed all that. There to cast a film based on his story collection, The Informers, Ellis betrayed his best friend, who was pushing him to drop the film project. Ellis had his friend removed from the project, he confided, resulting in a three-year rupture in their friendship. (The film, he added ruefully, turned out to be a flop.) In writing Imperial Bedrooms, Ellis drew on this personal betrayal, and "the love story became a book about the devil."
In Imperial Bedrooms, Clay is now a screenwriter in his forties who has also left New York for Los Angeles, where he encounters the rest of the grown-up cast from Less Than Zero. He mentions that a book about him and his friends had been turned into a movie, complicating the link between the two novels. The restaurants, technologies and drugs of the moment have changed since 1985. But have the characters? The violence is there too, presumably for shock value. Yet the book’s message is a hoary one: Hollywood is hell. Not a new point; Nathanael West made the same one back in 1939 in his brutal novel, The Day of the Locust.
Imperial Bedrooms has received mixed reviews, though some are quite scathing: "a work of limited imagination that all too deftly simulates the effects of having no imagination at all" (New York Times); "a dull, stricken, under-medicated nonstory that goes nowhere" (Wall Street Journal); "so empty and venal and misogynistic that it’s downright insulting" (Boston Globe). In her New York Times review, Erica Wagner notes: "We, the modern audience for novels like this, have gotten over being shocked." She criticizes Ellis for repeating himself: "…a skilled novelist, one who wants to examine the way we live and why, needs to move the conversation forward. The obligation is even greater if he’s returning to a world he’s depicted before."
One of the novel’s most arresting passages describes Clay’s drug dealer, who has undergone a ghoulish transformation: "His face is unnaturally smooth, redone in such a way that the eyes are shocked open with perpetual surprise; it’s a face mimicking a face, and it looks agonized. The lips are too thick. The skin’s orange. The hair is dyed yellow and carefully gelled. He looks like he’s been quickly dipped in acid; things fell off, skin was removed. It’s almost defiantly grotesque." This excerpt prompted a lively debate over what Klaus Nüchtern called a "grotesque obsession with youth." Ellis agreed with a woman in the audience that it is grotesque when plastic surgery makes women over 40 look like plastic dolls, but he rebutted Nüchtern’s assertion.
"Why is obsession with youth grotesque?" he countered. "Is it really a problem? It’s a reality everywhere, why not stop moralizing about it?" Plastic surgery is commonplace in LA, he said; even teens and twenty-somethings are having work done. "It’s just the new normal."
As a Californian, Ellis said, "I never felt that I fit into the New York literary scene. I wasn’t intelligent enough." However, "it was still fun, going to parties, doing drugs." (Though he was quick to note that he stopped doing drugs years ago: "I got older, and I wasn’t that interested in it anymore.") He liked living on the West Coast "because I felt very smart in L.A."
Asked about how he has dealt with fame, Ellis said: "It was more disturbing at 21 with Less Than Zero. The first year was fun, but it never really has been since." He continued: "Being successful is cool, but being famous alienates you from a lot of things." With fame, your identity is taken over by something else. "Bret Ellis was taken over by Bret Easton Ellis, becoming a brand." And that brand is associated with his characters and his fiction, not with him. "This is hard to accept," Ellis added; "it’s kind of like the death of your self."
Nüchtern asked about the necessity of violence in his books.
"When do you decide, ‘let’s have a torture scene?’"
"After lunch, usually," Ellis deadpanned. "Everyone has dark thoughts," he continued. "I can deal with dark thoughts within a fictional realm. I’m not interested in exploring them in real life. Sometimes they help release the pain." He said he’s led emotionally to these violent scenes, and that violence is part of his aesthetic plan. "I want to transform the boringness of my own pain."
Every novel is an exorcism," Ellis told the audience. He worked through difficult periods of his life by writing. He cited American Psycho, which has been interpreted as a critique of consumer culture and Wall Street greed, "but what it’s really about is loneliness." Its protagonist is a young man who wants to fit in, but he’s disgusted by the adult world he’s entering, and that enrages him. Ellis said he shared that rage; "I exorcised a lot of the anger I felt" by writing that book. A "strange synergy" develops between his characters and what’s going on emotionally in his own life while he’s writing.
In writing, "you follow the pain," Ellis said. "The book is created in pain; writing the book relieves you of the pain. I understand something painful about myself with each book. And it’s often lifted away."
by Bret Easton Ellis
Knopf Publishers, 2010
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