9 September 2010

American Psyche!

  • Bret Easton Ellis. Imperial Bedrooms. Knopf. June 2010.

I’ve only been to LA twice. The first time, when I was 4 years old, my parents took my sister and me down I-5 to visit my father’s aunt and uncle in their West Hollywood condo. I don’t remember a lot from this vacation, but what I do, I recall vividly: our Israeli music cassette tapes melting into liquid plastic in the California sun; the deserted cement swimming pool in the back of the apartment complex; the fact that we took our road trip days after the eruption of Mount St. Helens, forcing us to begin it in Eugene instead of Seattle.

The second time, I was 31 and visiting a friend from grad school who’d moved to Los Angeles. This was a more difficult visit than the first –the friend and I have not spoken since—but in terms of LA, at least, I was prepared. I now knew that the Pacific Coast Highway (“PCH”) led to “Malibu Colony.” I recognized the difference between Century City and Culver City, Topanga Canyon and Laurel Canyon. I asked to drive through “Sunset” and have drinks at the “Chateau.” I kept checking interlocutors suspiciously for implants, cosmetic work, and coke-encrusted nostrils.

How does one come to have certain ideas about LA without actually experiencing it? Between 1980 and 2007, I’d watched any number of movies about the city (Pretty Woman, Shampoo, Double Indemnity) and some TV shows, too (Beverly Hills 90210; The Hills). I’d listened to The Doors, Jane’s Addiction, and X. At a certain point, I’d also begun fact-checking at a celebrity weekly (verifying, say, that too much “partying” in West Hollywood hotel rooms proved the culprit in Owen Wilson’s breakdown and subsequent suicide attempt). Most crucially, however, I’d read Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero.


Heat-mangled tapes, a desolate pool, the proximate eruption of a volcano—clearly, even my earliest LA memories have been reshuffled as a result of imbibing Less Than Zero’s signature blend of sun, fun, and doom. This retroactive shift could be read as a personal idiosyncrasy, and on a certain level, I’m sure it is, but I’d argue that it’s not just that: that in fact, part of the force of Ellis’s book is its demonstration of how lived experience gets overwritten by powerful cultural images.

Published in 1985, when Ellis was 21, the novel follows Clay, a wealthy 18-year-old college freshman, during the four weeks he spends at home in LA, on Christmas break from his Eastern college. Clay and his near-identical friends—all thin, all rich, all blond—careen from the Roxy to Spago to the Polo Lounge, getting aimlessly wasted in what amounts to a kind of 1980s recasting of Village of the Damned. These characters are voyeurs rather than participants in the settings they occupy, observing life as a series of mediated scenes rather than immediate, interlinked events.

The dramatic kernel of the proceedings, such as it is, centers on two axes: Clay’s vexed relationship with his ex-girlfriend, Blair, and the desperate straits of his friend Julian, who pimps himself out to a male prostitution ring in order to pay off a heroin debt. I should maybe assure the few of us who have not read Less Than Zero that there are no spoilers here. The novel’s plot is slight, episodic, and clearly beside the point. The goal, rather, seems to be the depiction of upper-class LA as a completely abstract totality from which there is no escape, a hermetic site where the economic is reflected in the psychic—where material abundance results in spiritual dearth. The lack of narrative or character development, and Ellis’s refusal to release any of his figures—protagonist included—from the grasp of this reified society is one of the hallmarks of the book. In this, Ellis is a rightful heir to the late 19th-century naturalists, in whose works, as Georg Lukács has noted, “static situations are described, states or attitudes of mind of human beings or conditions of things—still lives.”

Over the course of Less Than Zero, Clay drifts: he doesn’t tighten his slack relationship with Blair but he doesn’t completely sever ties with her either; rather than help Julian, who continues to turn tricks, Clay prefers to observe him in action (hoping that “seeing the worst” will shock him out of his ennui; unsurprisingly, it doesn’t). This stasis, and Ellis’s insistence on remaining on the surface of his characters’ existence instead of creating any sense of interiority or growth, is what makes Less Than Zero an enormously effective novel. The lack of action and, especially, reaction, and its perfect mirroring in the seemingly foreshortened chapters, not to mention the minimal, unreflective dialect of the novel’s protagonists (“’Hey, Clay,’ Trent says. ‘Trent,’ I say. ‘How are you, babes?’ ‘Great.’”), marry form and content brilliantly. The novel is made up of a sequence of stark, seductive images—both a critique and an example of the slick amorality of late capitalism.


Towards the end of the novel, one scene finds Clay and his dealer Rip in the latter’s Porsche, mere pages after the hardly-remarked-upon gang rape of a drugged 12-year-old girl, in which both were involved (Rip as assailant, Clay as onlooker):

’Where are we going?’ I asked.
‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘Just driving.’
‘But this road doesn’t go anywhere,’ I told him.
‘That doesn’t matter.’
‘What does?’ I asked, after a little while.
‘Just that we’re on it, dude,’ he said.

This valley boy exchange is clearly a metaphor for the book’s lack of narrative teleology, but it also poses the problem Ellis faced as an author with Less Than Zero’s publication. Once he’d penned his debut — a work that was almost Dadaist in the stupid simplicity of its prose — that painted itself as a closed circuit after which nothing can be said because there is, literally, nothing else to say (except, possibly, more of the same) — where was Ellis to go? The fact that the book became a national bestseller, and that its author was almost immediately considered a wunderkind celebrity, made its status as a singular “event” even more pronounced.

For a postmodern novelist, Ellis had to deal early on in his career with a very modernist conundrum—of the Beckettian “I can’t go on, I’ll go on” sort—and after the seeming endgame of Less Than Zero, continue writing anyway. In the novels that followed, he went on by combining his interest in the surface of contemporary culture with an increasingly baroque and particularized literary style. If Less Than Zero approached the ethical and intellectual impoverishment of late 20th-century Los Angeles through pared-down nuggets of prose—the meager stream of an extremely limited consciousness—Ellis’s subsequent books became much more verbose and obsessive in describing the minutiae of their protagonists’ lives, and the intricate connections forged between these characters not just within the scope of a single novel, but, á la Balzac, over the course of several.

This increased interest in thickening, high-realist gestures did not, however, bring on a commensurate belief in thickened selves. In American Psycho (1991)—which famously drew the ire of some for its graphic depictions of violence against (mostly) women, and the admiration of others who saw it as a biting satire of 1980s greed run amok—the wounded bodies of Wall Streeter Patrick Bateman’s victims were as carefully described as the cut, color, and brand of each of his many suits. This concentration on the dual foci of flayed skin and pinstriped silk, however, ultimately obviated an engagement with psychology. And Ellis’s tendency to introduce central characters from one novel as minor characters in another—Bateman, for instance, is the innocuously preppy brother of one of the protagonists in The Rules of Attraction (1987), and Clay also makes a brief, parodic cameo in that book as a typical LA party boy—only served to heighten the tension in Ellis’s writing. While consistently nudging his fictional world towards a more expansive realism, he was simultaneously undercutting whatever modest claims his protagonists had to characterological fullness.

This inclination seemed to reach its apex in Lunar Park (2005), Ellis’s noirish faux-autobiography, in which the writer’s own life story took a wide detour to include a wife, children, and the figure of Patrick Bateman come to life, keeping the reader guessing where the real stopped and the fictional began. These opposing impulses in Ellis’s oeuvre were also increasingly patterned on the contrasting poles of earnestness and humor. Reading Ellis, I often asked myself: is he for real? Or is he just fucking with us?


The news that Ellis was working on Imperial Bedrooms, a sequel to Less Than Zero, seemed at first to belong squarely to the “just fucking with us” category. While penning a sequel could be taken as the culmination of the author’s interest in creating a world in which his characters roamed beyond the confines of a single work, the notion of reapproaching such a seemingly finite novel as his debut appeared, at first, absurd. What’s more, Less Than Zero, save for a few brief moments of humor, was at its core as serious as a heart attack—as somber as only a teenage, voice-of-a-generation novel could be; now, twenty-five years later, Ellis would be reconsidering the same setting and characters armed with a much more developed ironist’s eye, not to mention a literary celebrity’s reputation. One wondered, in short, how he would pull the trick off.


The self-aware celeb stance certainly comes through in Imperial Bedrooms’ author photograph, in which a smirking Ellis poses dashingly in sunglasses and a crisp jacket against a sun-kissed LA vista, as he casually brandishes a glass of red wine. This hyper-conscious reenactment of “the good life” is both tongue-in-cheek and envy-inducing: I am, the picture seems to be saying, so not a Brooklyn novelist. The first few pages of the novel itself, however, suggest a different approach, as Ellis returns to Less Than Zero’s protagonists with what appears an attempt to delve beyond that first book’s surface-happy Hollywood flatness.

“They had made a movie about us,” Clay begins, and proceeds to narrate the unfolding of events in the years immediately after Less Than Zero’s publication. While the book, written by “someone we knew,” was completely accurate in its description of the protagonists’ supposed actions (“A Christmas Eve dinner at Chasen’s with my family that I had casually complained about to the author was faithfully rendered. And a twelve-year-old girl really had been gang-raped”), the callous author apparently failed to represent the depth of Clay’s feelings about these events, “[not seeming] to care how flatly he perceived everyone.” Clay’s girlfriend Blair had “halfway fallen in love” with the author, but he

“Would never fully return her love because he was too lost in his own  passivity to make the connection she needed from him, and so she had turned to me, but by then it was too late, and because the writer resented that she had turned to me I became the handsome and dazed narrator, incapable of love or kindness. That’s how I became the damaged party boy who wandered through the wreckage, blood streaming from his nose… that’s how I became the boy who wouldn’t save a friend. That’s how I became the boy who couldn’t love the girl.”

Here, the roles between Clay and Ellis are flipped, as the character reclaims the individuation that was denied him by the author. In this new scheme of things, passivity and detachment are the province of Ellis, not Clay, and Less Than Zero’s disinterest in presenting an explainable psychological model is motivated not by the desire for aesthetic effect or political critique, but simply by a slighted lover’s need for revenge. “I wasn’t tan. I wasn’t blond,” Clay says, shattering one of Zero’s crucial conceits, while still using that novel’s affectless narrator’s drawl. “It was my life and he had hijacked it.”

Clay does admit that “the book that had been written about us” rendered his story more faithfully than its subsequent movie adaptation. Quoting from the actual 1987 Less Than Zero film, (in which Andrew McCarthy, as Clay, “suddenly became the movie’s moral compass, spouting AA jargon, castigating everyone’s drug use and trying to save Julian”) Clay claims that it, too, was “just a beautiful lie.” In the case of both book and film, representation has turned out to be insufficient—the former’s because of its exceeding abstraction, the latter’s because of its false particularity. Clay in Imperial Bedrooms is a forty-something coming home to LA from four months in the east, just like his younger self did in Zero. This time, though, he’s ready to give us the true Hollywood story of what it’s like to live among the beautiful people. 

Or not. Even though the book’s introductory pages seem to lay out an agenda for the emergence of a new type of Ellisian realism, one that would concentrate on a fuller, more traditional protagonist, what transpires is something far looser and baggier, in which genre and mood shift widely, from an occasionally affecting study of a personality in crisis, to a gross-out, gory thriller, to a behind-the-scenes movie industry spoof. The lead joke in Imperial Bedrooms is that Less Than Zero’s barely literate protagonist is now a successful Hollywood screenwriter. Another is Ellis’s teasing use of the sequel device. At times, the book seems like an episode of Saved by The Bell: The College Years, in which all the original characters miraculously attend the same university. A generation has passed in the hills, but the Less Than Zero gang is still all here: Blair, Julian, Rip, Trent, even Kim and Alana and Griffin—the inclusion of these exceedingly minor characters for no discernable reason suggesting that Ellis is in on the inherent implausibility of the sequel as form. The true focus, however, is on Clay himself, and his relationship with a talentless, attractive young starlet named Rain. And this is pretty much where the humor stops and the horror begins.

This relationship generates readerly discomfort not only because of the extremely violent scenes it involves (in classic Ellis fashion, these are described minutely), but also due to its introduction of a jarring slippage between the individuated and the generic, the world of feeling and the world of contract. The emergence of the companionate marriage ideal in the 18th century was based on drawing a clear distinction between the mercenary and the true in romantic unions—a distinction that is still a cultural mainstay. Imperial Bedrooms goes against this grain: Clay falls for Rain and immediately becomes obsessed with her. The nude pictures she sends him “offer a tension, an otherness that’s lacking” from his Vodka-sodden life, even though “it doesn’t matter if any intelligence actually exists because it’s really all about the look,” even though he knows and accepts she’s returning his affections only because she wants a part in The Listeners, a movie he wrote and is co-producing. Clay doesn’t exactly love Rain, but he does want, specifically, her. Imperial Bedrooms’ lengthy exploration of the coexistence of real passion with surface concerns is what makes the book a complex, bewildering read. Rain is exactly like other starlets Clay has been involved with in the past, and she wants exactly the same things from him as past starlets have wanted. Knowing and basely using this information to his advantage, however, doesn’t negate the intensity or singularity of his desire for her, the lengths he’s willing to go to acquire her, or the dimensions of his suffering. As the menacing Rip tells Clay, surprised, “You’re not stupid enough to fall for these cunts, and yet your pain is real.”

This pain is projected outwards, manifesting itself, literally, as blood-and-guts, and the narrative that begins by promising realism ends up delivering its evil twin—splatter-noir. Less Than Zero was replete with eerie signs—dead coyotes, enigmatic billboards, silent phone calls—but these contributed to the novel’s ambiance rather than affecting its plot. The sequel ups the ante by cobbling together such signs into something of a suspense novel. Clay is being followed; he keeps receiving frightening text messages from someone seemingly stalking his every move; and online snuff films in which horrific things take place are revealed towards the end of the novel as directly connected to his own life, his own story – exposing the collusion between seemingly benign spectatorship and malevolent participation.

Imperial Bedrooms is no elegant, airtight whodunit, however. Though mystery structures the plot, it structures it as a mess, and, it does so, I would argue, purposefully. Clay discovers at a certain point that Rain is amorously linked not only to Rip, but also to Trent and Julian. Somehow, there’s a bag of money involved, revenges to take and old hurts to settle, a brutally tortured roommate, a mysterious black Mercedes—these components are revealed in herky-jerky fits and starts, sometimes specific and explicable, sometimes stretching the limits of sense-making. As Trent warns Clay opaquely, “You don’t understand . . . This… thing . . . it has . . . a scope, Clay. . . . It has a scope.” The fact that the supposed enormity or exact nature of this scope is never completely calculated nor explained is part of its point as a device. Contrary to the novel’s opening, which assigns motivation as well as responsibility to individual actors, its denouement suggests that messy plotting and ethical ambiguity are sometimes two sides of the same coin.

Less Than Zero, unlike Imperial Bedrooms, was never muddled. The organizing logic of the novel didn’t waver because Clay never broke character as an observer, and this determined the novel’s consistent temperature as well as the course of its plot. As he tells Blair in that book, “I don’t want to care. If I care about things, it’ll just be worse, it’ll just be another thing to worry about. It’s less painful if I don’t care.” In the much less uniform Imperial Bedrooms, conversely, Clay’s obdurate unwillingness to settle for anyone but Rain is what finally makes him take on the role of participant. The type of participation he indulges in, however, creates something that looks worryingly like the Manson-family version of community. “Don’t hit me again… I’ll just hit you right back,” Clay tells Rain. Mediation has finally been overcome here, eradicated by brutal body-on-body contact. This, however, is hardly good news. To our horror, Clay’s choice of action over spectatorship hasn’t freed him, but has, rather, turned him into a monster, an updated reflection of his—and our—increasingly toxic environment.

It’s hard to imagine a more pessimistic second act, or a timelier one. Less Than Zero might have seemed like the end, but really it wasn’t. In the characters’ youth, and in Ellis’s, was an implicit—if tenaciously unarticulated—measure of anticipation. Now the sequel has arrived, and with it the realization that there really is no hope. The constant flicker of MTV images that accompanied Zero’s scenes suggested a scary dystopia, yes, but also, still, a hint of utopia. Even if the characters weren’t creating, America still was. Postmodernity felt new, and celebrating its version of apocalypse felt even newer. In Imperial Bedrooms, by contrast, American creation has become yet more grotesque and violent, the newspeak equivalent of destruction. The plastic surgery-deformed Rip, his “lips… too thick, (his) skin orange… his mouth filled with teeth that are too white,” tells Clay he’s “lying in bed, watching CNN on his laptop, images of a mosque in flames, ravens flying against the scarlet sky.” This time around, you better believe the end is nigh.

Image: Carter Mull, Little Joy, 2008.

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