For those unfamiliar with “Less Than Zero,” think 1980s disaffected, drug-addled Los Angeles rich kids on winter break. Now age them twenty-five years and give them all smartphones, but don’t actually fix any of the problems from their adolescence. In fact, just give them more money and more problems. That’s “Imperial Bedrooms,” sequel to “Less Than Zero,” in its basic elevator pitch form.
Clay, one of those disaffected, drug-addled L.A. rich kids and the main protagonist of both novels, is now a successful screenwriter and, amazingly, just as bisexual as he was in college.
Back in L.A. ostensibly for a movie project, Clay returns to old habits: drinking in excess, being seen in all the right places, casually hooking up with people he meets in the course of his day. But Ellis’s penchant for horror, subdued but still present in “Less Than Zero,” flares brightly in its sequel. Clay finds himself being followed by black SUVs, receiving threatening text messages from blocked numbers and receiving snuff films via e-mail — all while getting mixed up in a murder mystery involving a film producer. Clay’s old friends Blair, Trent, Rip and Julian are still around, and just like in “Less Than Zero,” their lives are still completely disaffected and drug-addled.
Full disclosure: I’m a longtime Bret Easton Ellis fan. His novels (and his 1985 Rolling Stone essay, “Down and Out at Bennington College”) have influenced my own creative work. I’ve moderated a discussion list for his work since 1998. Having said all that, one would think that I would come away from reading “Imperial Bedrooms” quite satisfied with spending time following characters from one of my favorite novels as they navigate life in the present day.
Nothing could be further from the truth. In this case, I do not think the existence of "Imperial Bedrooms" is warranted. The fact that Clay and Blair’s relationship continues to be dysfunctional is depressing at best and bordering on cliché at worst. Disappointingly, the characters interact on a deeper emotional level through text messages than in person. And Julian — well, let’s not say what happens to Julian, though as I read the book I could picture Robert Downey, Jr., whose work as Julian in the 1987 adaptation of "Less Than Zero" stands as one of his best pre-sobriety acting performances, completely owning this role in the novel’s screen adaptation.
From a technical standpoint, Ellis’s writing is still in top form. He is the master of the meandering sentence that doesn’t say anything and says everything all at once. But from my standpoint as a careful reader of Ellis’s work, I felt Clay and his L.A. rich kid pals would have been better served by staying in the 1980s.
A bottom line: Sometimes a novel doesn’t need to be revisited. This is one of those times.
You might also like: The work of Joan Didion, as she is a strong influence on Ellis’s work. Fiction by fellow Brat Pack author Jay McInerney. DVDs of The Hills. Top shelf vodka.