Published by Knopf, 169 pages, $28.95, hardcover
There’s been an odd spate of book sequels over the past couple of months, follow-ups to novels that were damn near perfect. Is there really a need for these?
Probably not. That being said, though, Scott Turow’s Innocent and Oscar Hijuelos’s Beautiful Maria of My Soul are stunning novels in their own right (and able to stand on their own), their power only amplified by their relationship to Presumed Innocent and The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, respectively.
Imperial Bedrooms, the searing, disturbing new novel from Bret Easton Ellis, continues this trend, following up Ellis’s best-selling debut novel, Less Than Zero, 25 years on. (It also carries on the Elvis Costello motif: Less Than Zero was titled after a Costello song, and a Trust poster featured significantly in the book, while this novel is titled after a Costello album.)
Imperial Bedrooms follows the real-world time frame: Clay is 25 years older, a screenwriter in his early 40s returning not only from New York to Los Angeles, but also—as quickly becomes clear—to his own past. The privileged teens of Less Than Zero are now compromised adults, and the novel quickly degenerates into coke-fuelled paranoia, violence, and harsh sexuality. Clay is in town to participate in casting a new film, and he finds himself drawn to a young actress, Rain, who sends him nude photos in the hours after her audition.
But who is pursuing whom? And how is Rain connected to his old friends, including Rip, Clay’s former dealer, and Julian, the addict driven to sell himself in the first novel? And what of the mysterious phone calls and texts Clay receives? Are they connected to the blue Jeep that seems to be following him everywhere? And does this have anything to do with a series of disappearances and murders of young members of the film industry?
Unlike Less Than Zero, which lacked a significant central narrative and developed instead through a series of vignettes, Imperial Bedrooms is tightly plotted, with tension rising to an almost unbearable point. It is after that tension breaks, however, in the final pages of the novel, that the full significance of Ellis’s approach becomes clear, convincingly but not conventionally. At one point, earlier in the novel, Julian tells Clay, “This isn’t a script.”¦Not everything’s going to come together in the third act.” Perhaps not, but those closing pages are a revelation, casting a new light on characters and events of both novels, and are quite literally breathtaking.