Bret Easton Ellis was just twenty-one when his debut novel Less Than Zero was published in 1985. I picked it up for a buck at a library book sale in 1998 and got my first taste of his particular brand of noir. Just last week I picked up another effort from Mr. Ellis—Imperial Bedrooms—for two bucks at a thrift shop. Imperial Bedrooms was published in 2010 and is the sequel to Less Than Zero. Both book titles are references to the music of Elvis Costello. Ellis was tagged early on as a founding member of the so-called literary “Brat Pack” which included Tama Janowitz and Jay McInerney. It seems we can’t just read books—they have to be properly packaged and marketed or we won’t know what to think about them.
In Less Than Zero the protagonist and narrator Clay is back in LA after a semester of college back east. He wants to be a writer but no one takes him seriously. His classmates and childhood friends, like him, are from very wealthy families. None have to work and they spend their time partying. Most have ambitions to be in the movie business or the music industry. Clay drinks a lot and snorts coke and smokes weed but none of the drugs seem to affect him. He sees a shrink that his family pays for but the doctor is too self-absorbed to help him. His best friend Julian gets in trouble with a drug dealer named Rip and Clay tries to help but is unable to and instead leaves LA and goes back to school. Imperial Bedrooms takes place decades later. Clay, middle-aged, is a successful screenwriter living in New York. He comes back to LA to help cast a movie and reconnects with his old crowd. Julian is now a recovering addict but Rip, more evil than ever, is still around and Clay once again gets caught up in their struggle. This time the consequences are far greater.
Less Than Zero has a peculiar diary-like style. The prose is lean and generally brisk but emotionally flat. Clay, it seems, has a hard time feeling anything. And when he does, it comes in violent waves of self-pity that seem to confuse him even more. The stream-of-consciousness technique is used a lot and has a disturbing toneless quality to it. Clay is not simply detached from things—there’s a deep emptiness at his core. Much was made of the nihilism that pervades the book on its release. Somehow it was assumed that Less Than Zero was autobiographical, and Ellis was painted as a callous, spoiled rich kid who slapped together his journal entries into a gossipy Hollywood tell-all. I found the book to be, instead, carefully constructed and a sensitive and insightful portrayal of a man trapped in his own alienation and amorality. It’s a coming-of-age story for existentialists. Instead of growing and learning from the crises he faces Clay simply retreats further into his angst and loneliness.
Imperial Bedrooms is even darker as Clay discovers that despite his feelings of helplessness he is entirely capable of creating any life he wants. The realization of that power, instead of liberating him, sends him down a darker path of self-loathing and betrayal. In the first book Clay is mostly passive and watches things happen. In the second he is active, but the activity is entirely self-centered and he mostly feeds his appetites for drugs, sex, and violence. The two stories are cleverly connected by the opening of Imperial Bedrooms where an unnamed “author” has written a book about Clay and his friends and they go to see the movie. The characters in the first book get to react to their own story as it is quickly summarized by the author and the film. Invisibly the story-teller, who is at first not-Clay, re-emerges as Clay, and then the new story unfolds. It’s a bit of slick misdirection that both links the two novels and allows the second to stand on its own.
It’s a bleak, insular, and repellent world that Ellis has created, but like a highway wreck we still crane our necks and stare at the carnage. Like Albert Camus in The Stranger and Jim Thompson in The Killer Inside Me, Ellis is interested in what makes us do bad things. And more to the point, why we persist in having a moral code in the face of the universe’s indifference. Ellis has received his share of criticism for seeming to glorify debauchery and violence, but I think that misses the mark. I think he looks at the world and sees the depravity and wonders how we can stand by without reacting to it. By making that the central focus of his art it forces us to see it better and thus respond to it. He strikes me as a writer deeply concerned with human values and, in particular, how we let them slip away so easily as we chase more temporal pleasures.
I can’t say that Less Than Zero and Imperial Bedrooms are fun books. Despite their brevity and the crisp, spare style they are not light reading. But they are both well-crafted and cut like a scalpel. You don’t feel the blade going in but the blood comes gushing out anyway. Ellis has kind of hypnotic power and you find yourself entranced by a bunch of people you hope you never have the misfortune to meet. I know I’m going to try a few more of his books.