Picador $32.99 178pp
‘I’m freaked out by you kids,’ says Greenberg, in Noah Baumbach’s film of the same name. A paranoid forty-year-old could-have-been rockstar, Greenberg, confronted with a room full of confident Gen Y-ers concludes: ‘I hope I die before I end up meeting one of you in a job interview.’ Life seems to hand all its best opportunities to the young, and getting old is an alienating experience. Bret Easton Ellis’s latest novel contains a strain of the same fear: ‘my eyes wander over to the boys barely old enough to drive swimming in the heated pool, girls in string bikinis and high heels lounging by the Jacuzzi, anime sculptures everywhere, a mosaic of youth, a place you don’t really belong anymore’.
This is Clay, the anti-hero of Ellis’s debut novel Less Than Zero, now returned in Imperial Bedrooms, older (though not necessarily wiser) to relive the past in the present. In the earlier narrative Clay was preoccupied by his own isolation, his resentment at having to enter the meaninglessness of adulthood, and somewhere out there was a billboard beckoning him: ‘DISAPPEAR HERE’. Now, narcissistic alienation has been replaced by paranoia and anxiety and Imperial Bedrooms offers the middle-aged Clay a mysterious text message that reminds him regularly, ‘I’m watching you.’
The now much-quoted opening line of Imperial Bedrooms – ‘They had made a movie about us’ – serves to remind us just how much being watched counts as a form of social value. This time around, despite a promising start, Clay fails to hold an audience. Perhaps the problem is that this Clay is, as he says, ‘the Real Clay,’ rather than the fabricated version documented in Less Than Zero; created by ‘someone we knew’ who had used real life as fodder for a novel. Real Clay is now a screenwriter living in New York, returning to Los Angeles to supervise the casting of a film. It’s a convenient opportunity to catch up with old frenemies (Julian, Blair, Rip) and have the past catch up with him via those mysterious messages (‘Who is this?’).
Much of the pleasure of this new novel comes early in the book, before Clay completely submits to the oblivion his paranoia seems to demand. Imperial Bedrooms has some fun replaying the structure of Less Than Zero, but it’s a habit, like mini cupcakes or popcorn chicken, that though instantly delightful is only momentarily satisfying. Afterwards, you feel a little queasy about both the book and your own prurient interest in it (‘Who is this?’). In a recent interview, even Ellis admitted that the story is only temporarily engaging. Maybe that explains why the best elements of this work are themselves fragments: ‘young girls walk by in a trance holding yoga mats’. Ellis’s ability to capture dead-on the rhythm of banal conversation is also strangely comforting: ‘”I’ve noticed that writers tend to worry about things like that.” “About what?” She gets into the car. “Things like that.”’
Having published Less Than Zero when he was 21, it’s fair to surmise that Ellis knows a thing or two about precocious youth. Imperial Bedrooms might even be read as a riff on Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray: Ellis’s art at first preserving and then exposing the corrupted souls he has created; his characters from the ‘80s held in place by plastic surgery and yet still so badly aged; Clay, now older, thinner, preying on over-confident but insecure Hollywood youth. The problem is that it’s hard to sustain interest the second time around. Revisiting Less than Zero seems like a fun thought experiment but the emptiness that characterised Clay’s original Christmas break in LA is now the centrepiece of so much daily entertainment on television and online (The Hills, Entourage, Chat Roulette, anyone?) that middle-aged brats, menacing as they might be, just can’t keep (it) up. ‘You’re a nice looking guy for your age’, a movie producer friend says to Clay, ‘but you really don’t have the clout’. In the LA of 2010, he advises, there’s no shortage of young, over-entitled kids looking for a Hollywood escape route: ‘On a daily basis there’s a whole new army of the retarded eager to be defiled.’
Caroline Hamilton is a research fellow in Publishing and Communications at the University of Melbourne. She writes and researches on American literature and celebrity culture.