The iconic novel LESS THAN ZERO depicted the tawdry life of a handful of rich and disillusioned California teenagers in the mid-1980s. It was made into a feature film in 1987 that starred Andrew McCarthy, Robert Downey Jr., Jami Gertz and James Spader. Though the movie did not remain entirely true to the book, it still exists as a snapshot of that period of time and place in America.
Brett Easton Ellis actually has fun with the big-screen treatment his debut novel received via his narrator, Clay. Clay was 18 years old in the book and trying desperately to find his own path in the world while avoiding being dragged beneath the waves of drugs and other vices like his best friend Julian had succumbed to. IMPERIAL BEDROOMS flashes forward more than 20 years from LESS THAN ZERO and finds Clay as a successful playwright. He had been living in New York but is now back in Los Angeles to cast his new movie. He spends part of the opening chapter discussing the film version, which was made from the novel that was written about him and his friends in the 1980s --- a very surreal reality meets fictional reality moment. Like Ellis, Clay is not pleased with the depiction the author has given of those events and comments that “it was my life and he had hijacked it.”
Even worse for Clay is the movie version of that book, which he feels is very different from his reality in that there is nothing from the book in the movie. Ironically, Clay is now part of the very media he was so quick to criticize, and his return to the West Coast allows him to jump right back into the temptations that nearly destroyed him and his friends decades earlier. The most amazing part of reading IMPERIAL BEDROOMS is the fact that no comment is made of the current economic turmoil nor is there any political commentary about the state of world affairs. You feel as if this part of the West Coast has existed in a cocoon all these years, and, with the exception that they are all a few decades older, the characters and the world they inhabit have hardly changed from the first novel.
Clay finds that his old flame, Blair, has moved on and no longer has any feelings for him. His friend, Julian, is still a lost soul and continues to live on the dark side of drugs and prostitution. The “bad guy” of LESS THAN ZERO, Rip, is a victim of too much plastic surgery but still remains just as sinister a character as Clay remembers. While working with Hollywood producers to cast his movie, Clay wanders back into the phony side of the film industry and deludes himself into thinking the “casting couch” resides in his own apartment. There is a joke alluded to early in the book about the Polish starlet who comes to Hollywood and ends up sleeping with the writer. Art imitates life as Clay finds himself attracted to a young actress named Rain and begins a sordid affair with her. Like the aforementioned joke, Rain is spending time with Clay in an effort to get cast in a key role in his film.
Clay is surrounded by hordes of young actresses who seemingly will do anything to get into the film business. Of course, the majority he runs into at various parties and events are using the numerous mediums available to them to over-expose themselves in meeting their goals of stardom. Clay comments on the idea that exposure can ensure fame, and he seems to exist in a world where this is the normal sentiment. Like a classic noir detective novel, IMPERIAL BEDROOMS delves into the seedier side of life, and with each turning page the characters and situations become more dangerous. Clay is dropped by his therapist because of his association with Rain. Rip is looking for Julian and forms an unholy alliance with Clay to accomplish this. As all of the relationships begin to cross each other, Clay realizes that Rain may actually be using him and is in fact Julian’s girlfriend.
Will this realization make it easier for Clay to turn his back on Julian and give his friend up to the mysterious Rip? Throughout the novel, various characters comment that Clay is a fake who never follows through on anything he says. Clay finds out too late just how powerless he truly is to impact any of the events that envelop him, and the statements used to describe him turn out to be shockingly accurate.
Bret Easton Ellis once again digs into the Elvis Costello song catalogue for the titles of his novels. IMPERIAL BEDROOMS is a take on Costello’s album entitled Imperial Bedroom just as LESS THAN ZERO was named after a song on his debut album, My Aim Is True. Like his protagonist, Ellis seems unable to turn his back on the industries he is so quick to condemn. The novel aptly opens with quotes from both Costello’s song “Beyond Belief” and one from Raymond Chandler’s noir classic, THE LONG GOODBYE. With inspirations like these, it’s easy to see why Ellis has so much fun spending time with these superficial characters who just can’t seem to let go of the past.
Reviewed by Ray Palen on January 22, 2011
- Publication Date: June 15, 2010
- Genres: Fiction
- Hardcover: 192 pages
- Publisher: Knopf
- ISBN-10: 0307266109
- ISBN-13: 9780307266101