A couple of weeks ago, I bought some fresh sardines from then local market for lunch. I’m not a culinary natural when it comes to seafood, so the whole fish preparation experience, descaling, gutting and removing the heads, left me just a little traumatised. There’s something about handing and tearing the
entrails out of an animal that is pretty far removed from our day-to-day pre-packaged supermarket lives. I’m more squeamish than a 32-year old Cardiff City fan should probably be, but after wiping the knife clean of splattered fish blood, and clearing the fish intestines up from the kitchen floor was more than a little shaken. There was also, though, a strange sense of pride, achievement, even elation. I get a similar feeling from reading Bret Easton Ellis’ fiction.
Using the metaphor of gutting a sardine to describe reading the latest novel by one of the USA’s highest-profile authors is naturally, pretty trite. I make no apologies for it, however, as there are similarities between Ellis’ approach and mine, cowering in the kitchen, squirming as I plunged the point of the knife into the fish bellies, living out my own Patrick Bateman fantasies. In his best novels (American Psycho, Glamorama), Ellis satirizes a world of glitzy appearance; the fashion scene, nightclubs, restaurants of the 80s and 90s are shown up for their shallowness, their blandness and the fact that everyone strives to be the same. Ellis’ triumph, and he manages this again in Imperial
Bedrooms, is the way in which he unflinchingly plunges the knife into this world’s soft underbelly, into this homogenous world to reveal the horror that lies just below the surface, revealing what the world of appearances, of spectacle feeds off behind closed doors yet shamefully ignores.
Imperial Bedrooms is ostensibly a follow-up to 1985’s Less Than Zero. The characters are the same, they’ve moved on, grown older, yet still very much stay the same, the quote from Elvis Costello’s ‘Beyond Belief‘ (from the album, Imperial Bedroom, no less)that opens the novel is telling, ‘History repeats the old conceits, the glib replies, the same defeats’, Imperial Bedrooms is an examination of the passage of time, a cynical tale of how we are predestined to make the same mistakes over and over again, how time doesn’t really change us.
That said, the novel doesn’t require a prior understanding of Ellis’ early work to be understood, and, whilst is can be read in terms of what it tells us about the futility of the human condition, Imperial Bedrooms is above all a majestic
(sorry) piece of storytelling. It tells the story of Clay, who again is clearly designed to mirror Ellis himself, a screenwriter, arriving back in Los Angeles after years spent in New York. He is involved in the casting of one of his films, becomes sexually involved with a limited, but enthusiastic young starlet, and then realises he is involved in something deeper, and darker. Fans of Glamorama will recognise the territory, but whereas that novel’s Victor, whilst he was unpleasant, become caught unwillingly caught up in something bigger, something more sinister, it becomes apparent throughout
Bedrooms that Clay is just as depraved as the social scene he represents. Whereas 2005’s Lunar Park was a little turgid, self-referential and possibly too intensely personal for Ellis fans, this novel is concise, focused, intelligent but also eminently readable.
Whilst American Psycho and Glamorama were marked by their dark humour, the former being one of the great US comic novels of the twentieth century, there is a marked absence of smiles, wry or otherwise in Imperial Bedrooms. It is a cold, calculating book; just as disturbing as it’s predecessors. After the disappointment of Lunar Park, this novel shows Ellis back on form, as twisted as ever, possibly more so. I bet he cooks (and guts) a mean sardine.