Excuse me while I remove my Yves Saint Laurent sunglasses and adjust the halogen reading lamp in my butter-yellow leather-upholstered 740Li BMW, where I've been reading Bret Easton Ellis' new novel, "Imperial Bedrooms" (traffic's at a crawl here on the 405). Earlier today, after knocking back four rails of breakfast Coke and downing another split of Perrier-Jouët - prepared for me by my sun-tanned houseboy, wearing a magenta silk sarong - I received an insight: Ellis is to literature what hip-hop is to music.
OK, this whole rap comparison might just be a byproduct of breakfast, but one should remember that Ellis' seminal 1985 novel, "Less Than Zero," ushered in Reagan-era Nihilist Chic about the same time that Run-DMC's "Walk This Way" took hip-hop mainstream. And while Ellis' characters are all rich, white and morally clueless, cluelessness is to an Ellis character what bragging is to a gangsta rapper. What, say, Lil Wayne is to melody, Ellis is to poetry: He doesn't want to sing, he wants to be a caricaturist, satirist and portraitist of grotesquerie, his flatlining prose a taking of America's moral pulse.
What's the diagnosis? Critical. With "Imperial Bedrooms," Ellis picks up "Less Than Zero's" characters 25 years after its chief protagonist, Clay, escaped Los Angeles. Clay (played by Andrew McCarthy in the much-altered 1987 movie co-starring Robert Downey Jr. and James Spader) is now a successful, if twisted, screenwriter. Blair, who was Clay's petulant girlfriend in the first book, is now married to Trent, who famously raped a 12-year-old in "Zero." The problematic junkie / male prostitute Julian is back, too.
"They had made a movie about us," begins "Imperial Bedrooms," which, like "Zero," is titled after an Elvis Costello song. Both books are done in first person - Clay's - although the Clay of "Imperial Bedrooms" claims that "Zero" was actually written by someone he'd gone to college with in New Hampshire (Ellis, we presume, who actually attended Bennington in Vermont). Clay resents that the first book was put in his mouth and implies that it was a misrepresentation - even as "Imperial Bedrooms" reaffirms the ethos of corruption and debauchery depicted in the first novel.
Like Clay, Ellis seems to be using "Imperial Bedrooms" to redress old grievances - Julian, played by a "talented, sad-faced clown" (meaning Downey), was just one of the ways in which the movie sentimentalized the book, which had a plotline as vague as its "authorship." "Imperial Bedrooms" has more of a plot, and movies are part of it, as is self-deprecation: Clay is the screenwriter of something called "The Listeners," which is obviously based on "The Informers," the 2008 bomb based on Ellis' 1994 book. The producer "brought me in to adapt the complicated novel it was based on," he says, though "The Informers" was a short story collection, but either way, it does imply that Ellis has a sense of humor about his own irregular work.
The centerpiece of the story is Clay's fascination with Rain, a sex-bomb actress whose desperation for a role in "The Listeners" is evident to everyone but Clay, who, in his drug- and alcohol-addled state, believes she really loves him (see: Cluelessness, above). Every parable needs its naif, and Clay is the innocent of his own moral fable - around whom swirls a decadent miasma of sex, snuff films, mysterious disappearances, murder, soulless degradations and the chirp of locusts. Oh, yes, and Rip Millar, who has arisen from his marginally malevolent characterization as Clay's dealer in "Less Than Zero" to arrive in "Imperial Bedrooms" as a wholly corrupt plastic-surgery casualty who suggests a hybrid of Charles Manson and Mickey Rourke. And who runs a sex ring. And wants to be in pictures.
Ellis' prose reminds you of the famous quip about the music of composer Richard Wagner: It's better than it sounds. It's best to remember that the author regards himself as a satirist and a moralist, and that the depths to which Clay descends over the course of "Imperial Bedrooms" are meant to exaggerate and embellish, allegorize and symbolize. What the book ultimately signifies, however, is the curse peculiar to American culture: There's no escaping the sequel.