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Which Bret Easton Ellis do you like? The closeted guy who thrilled with Less Than Zero, a Pop culture snapshot so zippy, druggy, and very 1985? Or do you prefer now openly gay master of cruelty who wrote American Psycho?
Or maybe you like parts of each, together and intertwined? After all, popular culture is violent. The 21st Century has delivered wonders such as Wifi and face transplants along with oil spills, Al Queda, and Glenn Beck.
I enjoy both sides of Ellis’s split personality and read his latest, Imperial Bedrooms, eagerly. The book contains both, or all, of Ellis’s personalities, which at first seemed ideal. A few passages are so lyrical and beautifully written I stuck Post-it notes in the book.
Then when Ellis goes dark, damn—he writes dark-as-night horrible. He fills pages with blood and shit and rape.
But the sweet stuff first; savor this prose:
“So many people died last year: the accidental overdose, the car wreck in East Hampton, the surprise illness. People just disappeared. I fall asleep to the music coming from the Abbey, a song from the past, “Hungry Like The Wolf,” rising faintly above the leaping chatter of the club, transporting me for one long moment into someone both young and old. Sadness: it’s everywhere.”
Ellis weaves together a mysterious past, an ubiquitous gay club in West Hollywood, and Duran Duran’s breakout hit. Remember when the Sri-Lanka-shot video played on MTV, repeatedly? That’s when the band’s stardom was assured.
The conclusion begins optimistically with a feeling of “young and old;” then Ellis kicks the reader in the shin with three words:
“Sadness: it’s everywhere.”
Ouch… but what beautiful pain. Writing about melancholy is Ellis at his best.
I used to think he was good at writing about torture. American Psycho contains a wonderful balance between visceral killing and decadent shopping. The book feels like a grand metaphor and a segment of the evening news created by Dracula.
By comparison, Imperial Bedrooms reads like torture porn. Think of the Saw movies, only this time they are playing on a loop; there is no suspense and nothing is at stake. Ellis can still describe a revolting scene and he can tweak his writing style enough to make us think we’re reading something original.
This scene fills a single sentence with hours of torture and sex:
“And then the boy took turns fucking me and then the girl and my fingers kept jamming into him, spurring the boy on, and the human skull in the plastic bag was a prop watching us from the nightstand in the bedroom and sometimes I made the girl kiss the skull and her eyes were in a trance and she gazed at me as if I didn’t exist and then I’d tell the boy to beat the girl and I watched as he threw her to the floor and then I told him to do it again.”
It goes on and then it doesn’t—the book ends.
And nothing lingers.
Imperial Bedrooms is ultimately quite forgettable—notice I haven’t mentioned anything about the plot? That’s because there isn’t one.
Well, there’s a main character, Clay, who is in L.A. to make a movie. But all that happens to him is that he alternates between drinking large quantities of alcohol and stalking an actress. We never find out why. Clay doesn’t like the movies, and he definitely doesn’t like women (or men).
Which brings me back to American Psycho: That book worked because Patrick Bateman, the rich killer, loves and adores stuff. He lavishes obsessive attention on his apartment. I remember exceptional pages describing his stereo and his suits.
Quite simply: Bateman had passion. When he turned violent, the passion didn’t evaporate. Imperial Bedrooms lacks passion.
Ellis has proved before that he has passion. I hope he taps into that passion before writing his next book.
by Bret Easton Ellis
Hardcover, 192 pages, $24.95