I felt like the book pulsed in my bag, a bright-covered blip that kept demanding I come back and progress a few pages.
What drove me to Bret Easton Ellis’ latest novel, Imperial Bedrooms, was the concept: Less Than Zero’s characters twenty-five years later. Thing is, I read his debut novel five years ago, and can’t remember a thing about it, other than I liked it, it was short and “Disappear Here.” I’m pretty sure I saw the film fifteen years ago, but can’t remember a lick.
Which is to say, I didn’t see this coming.
Now, I am so freaked out by Los Angeles, almost panic attack-y at the thought of landing at LAX and having to leave the airport. Or just being at the airport. Or even being over the smog-sullied airspace.
There is warped violence in this Los Angeles-set book that, from very early on, shocked me. And I feel like I’m a person in the know when it comes to brutality delivered across any and all media. I cruise through the world, like most of us, unaffected by a lopped-off arm, an axe-split head, or a blood-gushing, headless body. A brief gasp, maybe, then it fizzles into synaptical ether.
But with Imperial Bedrooms, I was disturbed. The book kicks off with the sentence, “They made a movie about us” — a genius stroke in which Ellis uses Clay, the book’s narrator (and narrator from Less than Zero), to unabashedly explain his disgust for the film adaptation of Less Than Zero (after all, Clay was one of the people misrepresented), criticizing why it missed the point of the penned narrative entirely. Then, soon after his opening complaints about Hollywood fucking up the subtleties of the story, Ellis hurries into a the description of a body that has been brutally murdered that is so gruesome, I could actually feel, while reading, my face pinch and my breath quicken. It was ghastly and unrelenting. After I read that page-and-a-half description, there was no escaping the book.
My airplane travel, for the last eighteen months, has been shamefully gorged with iPhone-viewed television show catch-ups (I forgive myself for getting current with Breaking Bad, angered that I bothered with Parks & Recreation) and films I’d likely otherwise dismiss (fuck you Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull). In the process, my 30,000-foot reading has taken a significant hit.
But Imperial Bedrooms hammered me back on track. I felt like the book pulsed in my bag, a bright-covered blip that kept demanding I come back and progress a few pages. It was so engaging, I wanted it more than I wanted to refresh my email inbox, or quick-check baseball scores. It was so suspenseful, it even drew me in during a hellacious 27-hour trip that took its exhausting time getting me from the center of Ireland to San Francisco.
And that’s one thing I’d never suspected: suspense. The story follows Clay, newly returned from a stint in New York City, and back in LA. Once home, he receives a series of “I’m watching you” text messages, and there’s a strange car parked out front of his Doheny Plaza apartment complex. I don’t want to risk speaking directly about anything that happens beyond that, as I really hate spoilers, but what happens after those opening pages is haunting, rattling, upsetting, fucked, ruthless and frightening.
There are people in this book whose souls are so dimly lit, and there is brutality that is more sadistic and shocking than the stomach-curdling slaughter scene in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. But where I felt let off the hook with Blood Meridian — I could distance myself from the grisly barbarism of the wild west, with Imperial Bedrooms I felt like this was happening right now, and I’d been given a password to SnuffTube.com, and couldn’t resist a peek.
Ellis makes beauty seem like the worst curse, and has painted a startling picture of what naive LA-goers are willing to do for their shot at fame — namely, an all-out willingness to risk dignity, self-respect, physical well-being and sometimes mortality, when confronted with the off-chance of landing a speaking role.
Fascinatingly, Ellis made the merciless rise-to-fame game feel like it had been played by everyone, which has me looking at every Hollywood someone differently, from Julia Roberts to the young, bright-faced soon-to-be somebodies that look vaguely like the last crop of young, bright-faced, soon-to-be somebodies, some of which never quite panned out.
The dark undergrounds of real-deal metropolitan cities (NYC, SF, LA, London, etc.) can be grim, horrifying places. We’ve all heard stories (or at least seen Requiem for a Dream). I don’t have the constitution to live in this world, though I wish, maybe, I had the strength to write about it (I don’t; I’ve tried). But I can’t stop admiring Ellis’ bold handling of a city’s dark identity, especially one that’s going on right under our noses inside the safe-seeming boundaries of our first-world American Dreamscape. So upsetting, haunting, fucked, ruthless, rattling and frightening.
And I wish I could read more.