Twenty-five years after Bret Easton Ellis left us with "images so violent and malicious that they seemed to be my only point of reference for a long time afterwards," in his debut novel, Less than Zero, he's revisiting Los Angeles with a sequel of sorts in Imperial Bedrooms. Zero's narrator, Clay, has returned to LA, but this time he has a score to settle: "They had made a movie about us," he says in the first line, "based on a book written by someone we knew." Clay, it turns out, wasn't the narrator of Zero. Instead, an acquaintance turned Clay's first trip home from college in New England into a first-person novel and then a movie that featured Clay as a "handsome and dazed narrator, incapable of love or kindness." It's not the attention that he hates, but the fact that he wasn't able to pen his own narrative: "It was my life and he had hijacked it."
Now a screenwriter and an alcoholic, Clay has written a script adapted from a "complicated novel" called The Listeners, and he's in town to help the casting process. The ancillary characters have returned from the first book, but now with more money and more problems: Trent is an agent married to Blair, Clay's former love interest; Julian is sober but still as doomed as ever, running an escort service; and the former drug dealer Rip has had so much plastic surgery that he is unrecognizable.
It's also the 1980s again; enough time has passed that now young actors dress in vintage '80s clothes. And the pop-culture references have been duly updated: Pinkberry, cell phones, Band of Outsiders suits, Josh Hartnett, and donuts as a dessert course. But little else has changed, both in the characters' lives and in the storytelling. All the hallmarks of an Ellis novel are present: afterparties, superviolence, detached sex, and ennui galore. But just because it's become a bit of a formula doesn't mean Ellis can't still turn out the kind of stark, haunted sentences that redeem his narrative tropes. A party in Bel Air filled with "boys barely old enough to drive swimming in the heated pool, girls in string bikinis and high heels lounging by the Jacuzzi," is "a mosaic of youth, a place you don't really belong anymore." The vapid chatter about work and personal trainers at a cocktail party at the Chateau Marmont "might as well have been made up of distant avian sounds."
This is Ellis's most noirish book— his dark version of LA is a perfect fit—and begins to seem like a detective story after Clay meets Rain Turner, a wannabe actress. But like most of Ellis's novels—the later ones in particular—a metanarrative takes over the plot: paranoia about being followed, the feeling of being haunted, mistaken identities, and copious references to Ellis's earlier works. The phrase "Disappear Here," which plagued Clay in Less than Zero, turns up in Imperial Bedrooms written on the bathroom mirror in his condo. The late-night phone calls he got that were three minutes of silence, a sigh, and a hang-up have been updated to surveillance-style text messages from an anonymous number. The snuff film of the first book has been replaced by frequent descriptions of torture and death (in the first few pages, a dead body resembles a flag, with a white suit soaked in blood and a "crumpled face [that] was a blue so dark it was almost black").
No hard-won wisdom has been gained in the past two and a half decades, and there's an absolute lack of—to use a term Clay and Ellis would detest—personal growth. Of course, that kind of bottomless narcissism is the point; Ellis wants us to know that we are all probably going to be just as self-involved in middle age as we were as teenagers. If Clay was merely dazed in Less than Zero, he's become even further removed from his emotional self now: "I have no choice except to pretend I'm only a phantom, neutral and uncaring."
But Clay's problem is more than just apathy. He has devolved from his eighteen-year-old self into something more nefarious. "There are many things Blair doesn't get about me," he says, going on to recite his own pathology. "Had she ever made promises to a faithless reflection in the mirror? . . . Could she locate the moment she went dead inside?" The book and the film that loom over Clay and his set are one possible culprit. It's not a surprising conclusion—after all, this is the author of American Psycho; Ellis's work has never had a sunny outlook on the human condition. But instead of being an empty exercise in depravity, the novel seems to be trying to raise a moral red flag, cautioning us against our own anomie. It's a valiant effort, but Ellis doesn't take it far enough; he makes numbness look far too comfortable.
Marisa Meltzer's Girl Power: The Nineties Revolution in Music was published in February by Faber & Faber.