The two Los Angeles novels of Bret Easton Ellis, Less Than Zero and Imperial Bedrooms, deal with an antimyth. The theme of these books is that the world turns our identities into an adversary of the human spirit—and also that living in Los Angeles in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries causes this change to happen in certain ways. The novels contribute to the anitmyth like this: they portray fate as a role reversal, they depict maturity as a bad example, and they suggest that becoming is the occurrence of the worst imaginable outcome. We can see these qualities most clearly in the novels’ treatment of sex.
The discovery of oil in Los Angeles, and the subsequent real estate boom—in which Ellis’ father took part—set the stage for the appearance of an invisible city, a “cruel mirage,” as Mike Davis writes in City of Quartz, rising up from “the official dream machinery” of Hollywood, turning the real city into “the image of Los Angeles as a deracinated hell.” A new cultural narrative came to be at stake, “the parasitic nature of Southern California,” a place that descended from the Great Depression into a “lustrous and superficial” expression of “the pathology of the middle class” visible across “the ersatz landscapes” of “the terrain and subject of fierce ideological struggle.” Who gets to tell its story, to who, and how?
Less Than Zero did not possess genre characteristics until its college freshman author revised the manuscript on the recommendation of his twenty-something editors at Simon and Schuster, so that it took on what David Shields calls a “dragoon plot.” Julian Wells gets into trouble with Rip Millar and endangers his friends Clay and Blair, who are in a love triangle with him. The book’s combination of reportage and mythography comes out of the revision process, a collaboration. This experience taught Ellis to use genre to capture the spirit of the culture at certain moments.
The prose of Less Than Zero has a monosyllabic diction, so when the word “malevolent” appears, for example, you really notice. But the most prominent stylistic feature is its compound sentences—short independent clauses strung along: “The bathroom door opens and a man and a woman come out together, laughing, and they pass me and I go in and shut the door and open a small vial and notice that I don’t have too much coke left, but I do what’s left of it and I take a drink from the faucet and look at myself in the mirror, run my hand over my hair, and then across my cheek, decide I need to shave.” This is known to high school teachers and students as a “run-on sentence,” a habit to be broken by making the problem disappear, because it supposedly belongs to the spoken language, oral communication, rather than formal writing, the territory of educated people. But of course it’s a kind of writing too, called parataxis. This rhetorical device has the effect of blurring all distinctions except for the ones that are imposed by a position in a sequence in time. In a paratactic sentence things are only different from each other because of their place in a row of other things. Literature asserts the eternal virtue of the human spirit against the ravages of time. Certain kinds of writing are said to do this more than others. Hypotaxis, for example, the complex or “periodic” sentence, tends to find favor with academia. By contrast, the author of Imperial Bedrooms declines that prejudice in favor of a social reality and a theater of dreams. Imperial Bedrooms is written in what the Egyptian novelist Sonallah Ibrahim calls a “telegraphic style,” doing away with the well-wrought sentence and the mot juste. The syntax of this book might be called bad in a good way, as in the following sentence: “Forced to watch people pretend to yell and cry for two and a half hours can push you to a dark place that takes a day to come back from”—where the subject should be being forced rather than forced. The subtle grammatical incorrectness destabilizes the statement, shifts the reader’s attention away from the prose sense and directs it toward an emotional significance. Again in Imperial Bedrooms we see the paratactic syntax and monosyllabic diction of Less Than Zero. But instead of an accumulation of detail in portraying a milieu, every sentence now advances a plot. Meanwhile the intertextual plot, the linguistic change from the first book to the second, tells a different story, relating a transition. The two books go from liberation in abandonment to imprisonment in freedom. The fascinating desultory frivolity amid excess of the first book vanishes, with the second book, into calculated moves in a truth game that no one can win.
The commercial context in which the novels appeared is worth noting. The jacket copy on both tells a story, about two books, a career, and the changing conditions of literary production and consumption in the United States. While the 1985 Less Than Zero is “a publishing sensation,” notable for its saleability in an industry that until then hadn’t offered young people much literary fiction that actually appealed to them, the 2010 Imperial Bedrooms is “a genuine literary event” amidst growing independent and academic markets for world literature (the “global novel”), and a domestic market for commercial fiction, read on devices and purchased online rather than in chain stores or independent neighborhood stores. The earlier ad copy suppresses the value that the later one accentuates. It’s a curious measure of Ellis’ status as an author that the team at Knopf agreed to insist on the literariness of his work late in his career. He is still not thought of as a writer of serious, smart, literary fiction, but instead as a purveyor of high pulp with cult appeal, semi-popular, made into B movies and art films, someone who does not contribute to The New Yorker and Granta but instead hosts a podcast interviewing filmmakers, comedians and rock musicians. The ad copy for Imperial Bedrooms is the counterclaim of an aging fiction writer against and within the establishment. This in-between status is inextricable from Ellis’ identity as an out gay man of his generation—coming of age amidst the onset of the AIDS plague—and it also can’t be separated from the queerness of his texts, in a faux-puritanical and deeply hypocritical society. His mainstream-ness, along with his whiteness, and whiteness at large, as it were, is discussed in the podcast and thematized in the texts. Meanwhile the tendency of Americans to affiliate with each other along race and class lines is indicated in details, fragmentary suggestive specifics. This is all to say that the mutation of personal identity into an adversary of the human spirit, plays itself out most poignantly in the novels’ portrayal of the power dynamics of sexual intimacy.
In Less Than Zero Clay performs an ambiguous act of visual perception.* Watching Julian have sex with Rip’s client, Clay is supporting a friend, but he also goes along because he does not trust that Julian will return the money he borrowed otherwise. Clay’s presence in the hotel room is an act of self-interest. But it’s a performance too because he doesn’t need the money and could get more if he had to. What’s actually being traded on in this episode is the act of looking itself. To the client Clay’s act of looking is voyeurism, the kink that intensifies the experience of sex with a beautiful boy, while to Clay it is an act of witness, “a full look at the worst,” as Thomas Hardy wrote. This exchange depends on everyone’s obedience to a set of roles. Like in previous scenes in the book, a curtain of discretion is drawn across gay sex here. But what matters is who plays which part, not who did what to who.
This scene proves to be crucial in Ellis’ reinterpretation of his own work twenty five years later. It’s the only one that gets reprised in Imperial Bedrooms, within a passage that depicts Clay becoming “the worst” that he once witnessed. The episode follows his betrayal of Julian and his decisive rejection at the hands of Denise Tazzarek, alias Rain Turner, the actress he has drugged and beaten but still fails to subdue, who says that they will never be together because “you’re just the writer.” Clay then drives to Palm Springs “as if nothing had happened.” But the sadistic ménage à trois that follows, the anticlimax of the book, finds him hiring two teenaged sex workers, one of whom, a girl, tries to escape partway through the weekend, but tells him in the end that she has become “a believer.” Again it’s not the acts themselves that are so affecting in this scene, including even the scatological—inured as one is, to “content” of all kinds, some of which one encountered for the first time, after all, in this author’s books—but rather, what distresses us is the position of the protagonist in a situation whose roles are fixed, a situation he created for himself, on a pattern that he learned twenty-five years earlier, simply now occupying a different place in it. In case we have any doubts about whether this is true, Clay notes with camp deadpan that “in the house was a copy of the book that had been written about us over twenty years ago and its neon cover glowed from where it rested on the glass coffee table until it was found floating in the pool in the house in the movie colony beneath the towering mountains, water bloated.”
Having betrayed Julian, and having failed in a last attempt to turn his arrangement with Rain into a real relationship through bribery and physical force, Clay reenacts the Less Than Zero threesome, this time in the role, not of the passive investor / observer, but of the john, whose guilt, projected onto the boy and girl, in a travesty of Salò, where they stand in for the Julian of his youth, a manipulative and beautiful teenager whom Clay has now murdered out of resentment and repressed desire. Placing himself as the one in control, Clay does not expiate his wrongdoing or release his image of Julian from the complex that has been cathected onto it. Instead he perpetuates and strengthens that image, plunging himself further into corruption and darkness, without end or issue.
We learn from his podcast that Ellis wrote Imperial Bedrooms after moving back to Los Angeles from New York City, a relocation that followed the sudden death of his partner in Ellis’ Manhattan apartment, where he was found still holding the handle of the grocery bag he was carrying when an aneurysm struck him. The vague sense of tragedy washing over the narrative of Imperial Bedrooms emanates from this loss, one imagines, but the author has made it clear that his writing does not issue from a particular event. Still, Clay has come to LA to cast The Listeners and to get away from “whatever it was that happened to me that summer,” and we would misread the book if we ignored its allegory of the author’s life.
Ellis’ work can be interpreted as a portrayal of the mutation of a social class, in the corruption of its manners, the disintegration of its sense of itself, and its desperation. We might find the emblem of this fracture in The Canyons, the 2015 film written by Ellis and directed by Paul Schrader (notorious for the antics of its female lead, Lindsay Lohan) when it is revealed that the character Christian’s trust fund deposits are contingent upon his ongoing attendance at weekly psychotherapy sessions. In the Los Angeles novels, Clay, the tormented Salingeresque moralist of Less Than Zero, grows up to become a “content creator,” the twenty-first-century version of the studio hack of yore on the model of Todd Hackett, Pat Hobby, Joe Gillis, Bud Wiggins and Barton Fink, the dupe with no principles, wounded, naive, cunning, savage and cowardly. A primitive, Clay finally allows his unconscious drives to steer him back into the arms of Blair (termed a “witch” in one of Imperial Bedrooms’ jokes), who, providing him with an alibi for the night of Julian’s murder in exchange for “something in return,” turns out to have been pulling the strings of his autonomy the whole time.
*I owe this insight to Dr Angela S. Allan.
Presented in the seminar “From Poe to Ellis: Genre and Crime Fiction,” American Literature Association, San Francisco, 2018