- The Washington Times - Friday, August 6, 2010

By Bret Easton Ellis
Knopf, $24.95
192 pages

In the mid-1970s, the Eagles achieved their greatest success with the album “Hotel California,” which explored and lamented the dark side of the West Coast’s music/entertainment culture. The songs scrutinized a land that had at one time been a wondrous place, but that had become for many an out-of-control hell on earth - of rampant cocaine use, loveless sex and wealth beyond the dreams of avarice to pay for it all. It was hinted that there may be something else out there pervading it all, something demonic, controlling and not to be denied. The title track famously warned, “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.”

Fast-forward a few years to the 1980s in Southern California. This is the milieu of Bret Easton Ellis‘ novel “Imperial Bedrooms.” It is the same world described in “Hotel California,” but without the least hint of lament or anger. The culture of Hollywood “is what it is,” in the mindless stock-phrase of Mr. Ellis‘ characters, and they’re just fine with it. As for the possibility of escape, it is telling that one minor character - unsuccessful in a desperate attempt to run away - remarks submissively, “This is where the devil lives.”

Withholding judgment, the author holds a mirror up to that society, and the picture we see isn’t pretty. Behind the Vaseline smiles, the red carpets and the opulent lifestyles there are - with few expectations - lives that are stereotypically decadent. Friends and business partners exist solely as objects to be used and discarded. As Hollywood producer Rob Long once wrote, “The definition of ‘friend’ is so elastic in Hollywood that it includes the definition of ‘enemy.’ This town is so small that everyone eventually brutalizes everyone else. We’re like rats in a coffee can: nowhere to go but at each other.”

For a “town” whose inhabitants routinely take time out from their busy schedules of back-stabbing to lecture Middle America about its yokel ways, Hollywood is a place that is singularly lacking in what it prescribes: love. It is that very virtue that is absent from the lives of the characters in “Imperial Bedrooms.”

Mr. Ellis‘ latest work revisits the lives of the characters from an earlier novel, “Less Than Zero” (1985). These characters, Brat Packers then, middle-aged now, and for the most part well-off, are decidedly unhappy amid all they have. The narrator, Clay, is now a successful Hollywood writer and producer. Describing Clay’s character as it appears in “Less Than Zero,” one critic noted that he “bears a fleeting resemblance to Kafka’s characters, for whom life seems painfully absurd and whose very existence seems to them to be without value.” This holds true in “Imperial Bedrooms,” as well; although near the end of the novel he is revealed to be something far more than a mere puppet buffeted by forces outside his control. He is a lost soul, mildly stoned or drunk from morning till night, who has actively thrown in with those dark forces in the place where the devil lives.

With two exceptions, the rest of the characters in “Imperial Bedrooms” are largely faceless and are described only by references to their respective lines of work or their relationship to Clay. Rip Millar, Clay’s drug dealer in the earlier book, the man with a thing for tweenage girls, is described as being one of those frightening-looking individuals who have undergone so many face-lifts they no longer look quite human. The other is would-be actress Rain Turner (real name Denise Tazzarek): talentless but strikingly beautiful, desperate to hit the Hollywood big time as a film star, who is led along with transparently empty promises by Clay.

Other characters from “Less Than Zero” appear in this work: Clay’s friend Trent, his former girlfriend Blair, drug-addicted Julian (now the proprietor of an escort service to support his habit), and one or two others. All are bit players, for in “Imperial Bedrooms” life is all about Clay. Throughout the novel, Clay is recurrently admonished by his friends that life doesn’t revolve around him alone. But Clay has other ideas.

Moving from one glitzy party, screening or screen test to another, he encounters his old friends and not-so-friends, uttering self-serving inanities at them, taking time only to take one starlet or another back to his apartment for a brief round of perfunctory sex before setting out again on his joyless rounds. At one party he meets Rain, a clueless femme fatale who is desired by at least three other men. She was the star of Julian’s escort service.

Before long it becomes clear that each man who gets involved with Rain comes to a horrific end, tortured to death in satanically inventive ways. And when Clay takes up with her, he begins receiving text messages from one or more blocked numbers saying, “I’m watching you” and other messages.

Whoever is shadowing Clay wants him to stay away from Rain, and whoever the stalker is seems to have a preternatural ability to know where Clay is at all times and exactly what he’s doing at the moment. The purring gargoyle Rip Millar is especially insistent that Clay do what’s best for his own safety and just walk away from her. Comes the day when Clay turns on the bathroom light in his apartment to find the words “Disappear Here” written on his mirror in Rain’s lipstick.

In this spirit of impending doom, the novel hurtles toward its conclusion. There is no hopeful ending and no sense of possible redemption for Clay. “What is the worst thing that ever happened to you?” he is asked several times, to which he finally answers, “unconditional love” - the hope of Christianity. Like the murderous Misfit in Flannery O’Connor’s story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” Clay believes that “Jesus thows everything off balance,” and that he is beyond redemption. Or in the Misfit’s words, “There’s no pleasure but meanness” and “It’s no real pleasure in life.”

Like a fly caught in amber, Clay is entrapped in hell, though there’s a part of him that wants to escape, that remembers a time when life offered something more. As he says at the novel’s end, as a long-ago friend, Blair, takes his hand to comfort him, “there would always be a distance between us because there were too many shadows everywhere. … Could she locate the moment she went dead inside? Does she remember the year it took to become that way? The fades, the dissolves, the rewritten scenes, all the things you wipe away - I now want to explain these things to her, but I now I never will, the most important one being: I never liked anyone, and I’m afraid of people.”

Recurrently referential to his own previous novels and to the fashions and pop culture of the ‘80s, the decade in which Clay’s spirit is stuck, Mr. Ellis has crafted in “Imperial Bedrooms” what may not be a great novel, but is certainly a clear and unnerving snapshot of life among an empty set of individuals. Their decisions and actions bring to mind the ancient curse of Job, who foresaw a land “whose light is darkness, all gloom and disarray.”

James E. Person Jr. is the author of “Earl Hamner: From Walton’s Mountain to Tomorrow” (Cumberland House Books) and a longtime book reviewer.

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