So as big of a Bret Easton Ellis fan as I consider myself I had never read Less Than Zero. I know, I know, words like ‘classic’, ‘seminal’ and, well, a lot of other words tend to hover around Ellis’ 1985 debut but I’ve been saving it. I think I tend to find things when it’s best-suited that I do, and when I fall into an author I often splurge and then space out, so I’m not left with nothing to look forward to. So last week when I settled in and began reading about Clay, Julian and Blair I was open to it. It’d been a while since I’d done any Ellis – I really only became a fan about two years ago. I’d grown up with some friends that loved Ellis’ work, particularly Zero and American Psycho, however in the late nineties when the latter was passed my way I didn’t quite ‘get’ it. The repetitive materialism – acted out ad nauseum – of that book eventually became hypnotic but it was the violence, when it began well over one hundred pages into the novel, that so unnerved me I distinctly remember giving my friend back his copy and making the statement that I never wanted to read anything by Ellis ever again. Obviously that didn’t last and Ellis is now up there with Irvine Welsh and China Mieville as one of my favorite authors. That is, until Less Than Zero. After finally reading that Ellis became, at least for the time being, my favorite author.
I can’t explain how similar the effects of Ellis’ novels are to drugs on me. He is always able to install such a definitive atmosphere in my head, one usually rife with unease, paranoia and decadence. This makes for such strong mood and theme that I literally tend to get pulled into the mindset, the setting, and every scenario, every dialogue exchange, ever single word haunts me for days after I put one of his books down. Less Than Zero was no different; in fact the disaffected, emotionless drift that is Clay’s first person narration is possibly the most affecting stylistic technique I’ve ever encountered. It’s clinging to me still, colouring my social outings and making me skim those around me for… accomplices?
But of course, the deviation between the worlds of Ellis’ characters and our own, no matter how much they overlap, is money and morality.
Clay’s journey through four weeks of christmas vacation and the pointless indulgences and brutal truths he experiences are similar to Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, but less self-defined. Bateman makes things happen; Clay watches and hardly ever intervenes other than to tell us about it. Part of this is each respective narrator has his own level of detachment from reality. Patrick Bateman’s emotionless cataloging of his every acquaintance’s wardrobe is often flanked and flourished with his unspeakable appetites. But when it all comes to pass his bored, emotionless recountings of the dissections, tortures and random acts of violence that take up his nights are make them seem… mundane. This is of course what makes American Psycho so unbelievably haunting*. Less Than Zero‘s technique is possibly only marginally more disturbing simply because at least in Bateman there are those flourishes to give you get a sense of excitement and fervor. Clay on the other hand drifts through an almost ethereal social fog and responds to nothing.
My timing with Zero was of course premeditated; the week after I read it Ellis’ first book since 2005’s brilliant Lunar Park was released, and the book, Imperial Bedrooms, is a sequel to Zero.
Imperial Bedrooms is another brilliant Meta-fiction by Ellis, choosing to begin with the line (again, first person narration by Clay) ‘They made a movie about us. It was based on a book written by someone we knew.’ This set-up of course moves not only the world of Less Than Zero into our own reality, but also the deliciously mysterious and Chandler-esque intrigue of Bedrooms, in which Ellis takes his imagination a step further into our reality by having Clay now a screenwriter living in New York but back in Los Angeles to oversee the casting of his script ‘The Listeners‘ which is a clear riff on Ellis’ own screenplay for his novel The Informers.
In an interview recently in New York magazine Ellis seemed a bit confused and perturbed by people’s constant assumption/conclusion that his characters are him, but to me this reaction is disingenuous: Ellis draws this conclusion, mistaken or not, to himself on purpose. In Lunar Park he riffs off of his own life, spending the first forty or so pages bringing us up to speed with the events that followed his selling Less Than Zero and beginning a career as an important and influential novelist. In that book it is those facts from our world that bridge us so effortlessly into his fiction. So to does he bring himself into Clay (or is it Clay into himself?) by using his real life as a template. But why the hell not? This makes Ellis’ writing darker, edgier and in some regards more traumatic for the reader, because the numb is a numb we can see, we can feel just as we can agree with the canned pop culture critique that these techniques afford him. And when Ellis rears his pen up in those moments of disaffected violence and gore they too affect us more profoundly because that world is at that point literally right outside the window.
Imperial Bedrooms is a phenomenal new novel from one of the greatest living American authors. It is also, in an age of pre-branded material and endless sequels, re-imaginings and the like, the first sequel I have seen that transcends the continuation trap by not only elevating itself outside of the realms of repetitive story circling but also goes so far as to elevate the original work to a place it previously, as good as it is, could not have achieved without the extra chapter.
Good show Bret Easton Ellis, good show.
* I keep using this word but it’s the only one I know of that so perfectly fits Ellis’ work.