rett Easton Ellis’s “Imperial Bedrooms” is a rare and remarkable book. Twenty-five years ago his debut novel about lost, coked-out Hollywood kids — “Less Than Zero” — shot to cult status. Summer 2010 finds the 1985 work in fresh-ink release with “Imperial” billed to BEE fans as a “Less” sequel.
Both are striking examples of BEE’s narrative talent. Read them. But not because they inter-depend. Each is striking standalone.
So why all the PR labeling “Imperial” as both “sequel” and “prequel”? Probably because they share so much “surface”: docu-realism; a narrator called “Clay”; a Hollywood Hills set; and same-name characters, but with surnames that were absent from “Less” (reminder: they’re now adults.) Both titles also source Elvis Costello of the 1980s, and his misogynistic hit songs.
That summed, it’s fair to say BEE’s new work leaps light years ahead of “Less.” “Imperial” jumps into Nightmare U.S.A. The teens have morphed into ruthless, power-player parents. No longer the vulnerable, emotionally distraught victims, they’ve become the damagers.
Deliberately, BEE coolly replicates the surface, while cleaving apart the raw meat. Opening “Imperial,” 40-plus narrator Clay explains that, back then: “They had made a movie about us.” It was “a lot of beautiful lies.”
The BEE trick: In 2010 we learn Clay wasn’t really “Less” narrator, as innocent readers have believed for 25 years. Now Clay claims he told his gang’s life stories to a writer who “left out the feelings.” “That’s how I became … the damaged party boy.” Seems there was a real, and quite different Clay, whom we are about to meet. Caveat emptor.
Rapidly, Ellis moves the older Clay & Co. into this hall of mirrors. Nothing is as it appears. If dread underlined “Less,” the joker in “Imperial” is terror. Returning to L.A. to cast a film he scripted and co-produces, Clay is mysteriously followed by a blue jeep. Meanwhile, he receives menacing blocked number text messages from someone who able to watch his every move.
Ugly rumors circulate. Then a Hispanic actress is found dead in a mass grave. Kelly Montrose dies: “Kelly’s face was peeled off, and his hands were missing.
In early chapters, Clay is the frightened observer of these mysterious and dangerous scenarios. He yearns to feel secure. He believes he can find that feeling in a woman who is real.” Soon we learn that “real” for Clay means someone who belongs just to him. Belongs?
But if Clay is just a mildly successful screenwriter and part-share producer, he has Hollywood influence. His power card is recommending the endlessly arriving, eager, aspiring actors and actresses for film rolls. Ellis gives a few knee-jerk kicks to Tinsel Town. But his focus is on Clay — gradually evoking a portrait of brutal amorality that outdoes his earlier “American Psycho.”
Ellis starts in low gear. Clay gets a glimpse of gorgeous Rain Turner – who says she’s 23. His reaction is pure sexual attraction. Or that’s what he says. With an offer of the film part she wants, and plenty of coke, he keeps her with him in his penthouse imperial bedroom for eight days. That is a long time. He doesn’t want her to leave, at all. When she manages to flee town for a few days, Clay moves into total blockage. He weeps to his psychotherapist. Because he’s lost control over Rain.
Rain is one more girl in Clay’s relationship-control life pattern. Friend Rip mentions: “You make a habit of this, don’t you?”
Rain returns, of course… and to a rougher sex scene than anticipated. But she’s been in the hard-porn circle before — as part of a $ pussy posse, and as ex-girlfriend to (guess who?) Kelly Montrose. She knows you risk for your reward. Clay notices a long bruise on her side. “You did that,” she says flatly.
Clay is dead to normal desire. He’s old teenager with good face work. For him, sex equals max physical control over another human — not necessarily, but preferably female. He blackmails, sodomizes, or brutalizes with equal need and pleasure.
The good news? This novel is quite perfectly plotted to its shock (and stomach-turning) close. The prose is digital graphic. BEE’s word portraits of his characters remain in the attic of your mind.
The problem? People who get their friends killed, or punch fists into a female womb are disgusting characters.
Still… the writer has fireworks talent. This reviewer recommendation is: A must-read. Consume with small doses of your preferred digestive beverage.