It's an interesting conundrum: No matter how you feel about Bret Easton Ellis, you're a cliché. You think he's America's best author? Congratulations: So does most of France, alongwith a ton of pasty lit-hipsters on both sides of the Atlantic. You think he's a manipulative hack who employs every trick in the book—including a Grand Canyon–sized ironic distance from his characters, plotless shock value, and relentless drug use—to keep book snobs buzzing about him? Way to rage against the machine; I have a nice pair of tortoiseshell eyeglasses that should go great with your earnest beard.
Part of the problem is that Ellis is a product of the 1980s, which fall second only to the you-had-to-be-there 1960s in the Divisive Decade race. Disaffected narrators, crass materialism, and a weary, seen-it-all attitude have gone so far around that it's practically in vogue again (without Ellis there could be no Tao Lin). The culture has gotten so sick of the 1980s that you can't even talk about 1980s nostalgia without an angry swarm of scare quotes to shield the concept from withering criticism. How you feel about the 1980s probably defines how you feel about Bret Easton Ellis: Nobody kinda likes the 1980s.
Worse yet, Ellis's new novel, Imperial Bedrooms, is a sequel to his 1985 breakout debut novel, Less Than Zero. You can't even get a full sentence into Imperial's dust-jacket copy before you automatically develop an opinion about the book: A sequel to the most sensational novel of the 1980s? It's enough to give you a flashback.
Flashback: When I first read Less Than Zero, in my teens, I was enraged by it. It's the only book I have ever literally thrown against a wall in disgust, and I held on to that copy for half a decade just so I could inflict damage upon it—kicking it, punching it, throwing it at the floor. Whenever I was sitting idly around my apartment and I felt the sudden need to just hate something, I would pick up my copy of Zero and torture it for a little while. I hated its smugness, its intentional apathy, its blatant upper-class sheen. Later on, I reread Zero and discovered that it was not the book I thought it was. Instead, it was a competent, reasonably well-written satire of apathy and the smugness of the upper class. Perhaps I needed to shake, the way most angry young men need to shake, the idea that you need to Really Mean Everything You Put Down on Paper, Man.
I followed Ellis after that with some curiosity. American Psycho is not a great book, but it's perhaps the closest thing to punk rock ever put out by a mainstream American publisher. I yearned for Ellis to try something new, besides the drug-obsessed nihilism of Zero and Glamorama; when he acquiesced and published his last novel, Lunar Park, I found his idea of something new—a flip pomo horror novel starring himself and fellow 1980s lit icon Jay McInerney—to be tiresome and bland. The book descended into something resembling a Stephen King novel that desperately wants to be a David Lynch movie. The ambition was there, but the expedition was a failure, wandering somewhere between the Wilderness of Self-Involvement and the Ocean of Failed Satire.
So, finally, how is Imperial Bedrooms? It's okay. Ellis, again, is fiddling with postmodernism—the book opens with Clay from Less Than Zero explaining how they made a movie out of the novel Less Than Zero, which Clay asserts was based on real life—but the plodding, overwrought postmodernism of Lunar Park has gone on a strict (coke-fueled?) diet. Clay actually seems sort of happy to be talking to the reader about his experiences. He lives in Los Angeles and he's still a huge, amoral dick. He sometimes sees old friends from Zero, but mostly he bums around Los Angeles using his screenwriting credentials to convince actresses to fuck him. (Yes, Ellis deploys that old Hollywood joke—"the actress was so dumb, she fucked the screenwriter"—about halfway through the book.)
Imperial has the structure of a noir thriller (the book leads with an epigraph by Raymond Chandler, just below the obligatory Elvis Costello quote), with disappearances and dead bodies and conspiracies and shadowy people in cars speeding away when Clay notices them watching him. This structure works. It rushes Clay along on his road to nowhere, giving him reasons to talk to people about stuff—purpose is often Ellis's fatal flaw as a writer—and then, of course, because it is an Ellis novel, he doesn't follow through with the genre lead-in, instead making it more... you know... existential. Clay is getting old; he doesn't want to get old. It happens anyway.
And Imperial Bedrooms happens to you—it's a short book, with generous spacing—and then you're done and you forget about it immediately, like some sort of futuristic drug. But along the way, you've read stuff like this:
The digital billboards glowing in the gray haze all seem to say no and the poinsettias lining the median at Sunset Plaza are dying and the fog keeps enveloping the towers in Century City and the world becomes a science-fiction movie—because none of it really has anything to do with me.
And the thing about Bret Easton Ellis is that he makes words like that, arranged in a particular order, work really well.
Bret Easton Ellis reads Wed June 30, Elliott Bay Book Company, 8 pm, free.