Bret Easton Ellis
Knopf ($24.95)

by Josepha Gutelius

Bret Easton Ellis has a dazzling arsenal of skills, no question about it. In his latest novel, Imperial Bedrooms, his dialogue has all the pitch-perfect suggestiveness of Don DeLillo, and the plot is, on one level, a whodunit, chockablock with sinister characters and mysterious disappearances. His choice of Hollywood as a setting couldn’t be more satisfyingly nightmarish: every description is a toss of venom toward a place of fakery that is easy to hate. Even the lovely LA sunshine takes a turn for the worse: here the weather is mostly stormy noir or blisteringly sun-shocked. The ghost of Phillip Marlowe would be happy here.

Well, sort of. The difference, of course, is this is Bret Easton Ellis’s take on Hollywood, and fakeness is the least of his characters’ problems. The nice folks who people his Hollywood will not just bed down, pander, and manipulate their way into an audition for a movie role—they will rape, torture, and murder. Stardom, in this relentlessly evil biz, will always elude the wannabes; a horrific death-by-torture is more likely their reward. (There are more than a dozen graphic depictions of torture-murders in this slim book, which clocks in at less than 200 pages.)

Clay, a middle-aged screenwriter, is being stalked by anonymous, creepy text messages and an ominous vehicle. Clay dresses and behaves as we might imagine the stereotype: he is never not high on something, drives a BMW, and has a loft in New York, a condo in LA, and a slew of ex-relationships that are as postmodern as they are depraved. An astute observer, Clay is brilliant as a protagonist—he is both among evil, of evil, and spooked by his own shadow. He has his vulnerable moments: he lives in “pale fear,” experiences anguish, and is losing weight like crazy. The girl he uses (and who uses him) calls him Crazy, and she is a typical Hollywood train wreck: a beautiful waitress/hooker/talentless actress whom Clay strings along with promises of an audition for his next movie. This passage is close to being the essence of the novel:

She didn’t want to come over but I tell her I would cancel [the audition] if she didn’t . . . and when I first touch her she says let’s wait and then I make another threat and the panic is cooled only by breaking the seal off a bottle of Patron and I just keep fucking her on the floor in the office, in the bedroom . . . the Fray blaring from the stereo, and even though I thought she was numb from the tequila she keeps crying and that makes me harder. . . . “I’m just helping you,” I tell her soothingly.

Here we see Ellis at his most chilling and pithy, including the reference to the specific music playing (pop songs are everywhere in the book) and the girl’s panicked attempts to numb herself. Unfortunately, however, Ellis’s characters feel panic and anger and paranoia, but nothing much else. They are self-described fakes, but astonishingly stupefied by their own fakeness. And they are surreally evil. There is not a suggestion of average humanness in any of them, which leads us, as readers, to keep our distance.

By the end of the novel, Ellis has locked himself into such a claustrophobic nightmare that he has to keep upping the ante: more scary text messages, more scumbags stalking and threatening his protagonist, more sick sex, more grisly murders. As for one of the last, repugnant rape scenes, in Palm Springs no less, Ellis is careful to point out “the girl was impossibly beautiful—the Bible belt, Memphis” and the boy from “Australia . . . modeled for Abercrombie & Fitch.” The phrasing is typical of the narrator’s penchant for detail and label-dropping—and, significantly, of his relish in degrading the beautiful and the young. One hardly has to wonder, upon finishing the book, why such a mesmerizing journey leads nowhere.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011