Sum Of Its Parts

This Rabbit has never quite gotten Bret Easton Ellis’ Less Than Zero to equate. We read the book when it came out in 1985. We liked it for its take on the disillusioned youth of wealthy Los Angeles. We’d been around enough to know that rich kids always have the best drugs. While these spoiled brats weren’t part of any scene we knew, we knew they existed. And we couldn’t help identify with all the name dropping of locations and situations. After all, we lived in L.A., too.

Most of our confusion came a couple years later when the movie was released. We couldn’t keep the two straight. In the movie, drugs were a plague, in the book a symptom. Julian, an unlikable character in the book, gains a bit of sympathy as played by Robert Downey Jr. in the movie  (“a talented, sad-faced clown” according to Imperial Bedrooms). In the movie he dies. In the book, he only wishes he would.

So 25 years later, with the sequel Imperial Bedrooms, our confusion is complete. It’s 20 some years past and Clay, the narrator of Less Than Zero, tells us they had made a movie about the book about his life. “In the book, everything about me had happened. The book was something I couldn’t disavow. The book was blunt and had an honesty about it, whereas the movie was just a beautiful lie.”

Clay, the narrator of Less Than Zero, but not the blond screenwriter who went on to marry Blair, the girl in the book that Clay did and didn’t love, returns from New York in the sequel and is immediately plunged into a middle-aged version of his disaffected youth. Some of the old friends are there — Blair, Julian, Rip Millar, the once and future drug dealer, Trent, who has married Blair but who is still probably getting some on the side (both sides, like Blair’s father–remember? — who has since died of AIDS) — and much of the old evil. It was hard to like any of the characters in the original book, what with the snuff films and gang rape of 12-year-olds.  In the movie, Clay is a crusader of sorts and shows a bit of moral compass. In the book, he’s cold and distant. In the sequel, he is as self-serving, evil and corrupt as anyone else.

Ellis takes his two-sided characters and plunges them into intrigue, paranoia and an overall promise of no-good. Though it’s not about struggling lower class types who’ll do anything to get ahead (excluding, of course, the aspiring actresses), the book still carries the scent of noir. It’s a mystery with lots of paranoia, much easy sex and a sense of impending doom. Existential questions come in the form of , “Why am I being followed?”  or “Am I losing my mind?” or “Has someone been in my refrigerator?” In this way, Imperial Bedrooms is a much more entertaining book than its predecessor. There’s a murky plot to try and second-guess, there are femme fatales and some not so fatale as well as the feeling that no one can be trusted.  And yes, there’s plenty of drugs and alcohol and late night rendezvous. Murder raises its head right from the beginning.

Imperial Bedrooms does have something in common with the original and that’s its take on women. Women weren’t just desirable  second-class citizens in the first book. They were meat. The same is true here but with one hitch. Why does Clay lust after the mysterious Rain, what makes her become an object of hope and desire? There’s no explanation. Even her uncommonly good looks aren’t so uncommon among the uncommonly good looking. What Clay sees in her is something of a last chance even though he’s a guy who likes to take chances. Despite his attachment, she’s still an object. He never leads her to the bedroom. He “pushes” her there.

Like its predecessor, Imperial Bedrooms is one-sided in its take on class. The Hollywood rich may be evil but they’re visible, unlike everyone else. The few doormen and limousine drivers here have sold their souls to someone who can afford to pay them. The only Mexicans are drug thugs. The broad mass of Los Angeles’ population doesn’t exist.  Any truly great Los Angeles novel will be focused on everyone. The rich will be the ones who move through the city invisibly, even if they are pulling the strings. The shock of Ellis’ first book was just how young these debauched privileged children were — some of middle-school age —  and how little their parents cared. It’s not so surprising that their paid-for self-absorption is still there at 40.  There’s little in the way of moral lesson to be learned in these bedrooms (yes, we’re still quoting Elvis Costello). We already know that they’re all no good. “History repeats the old conceits….”  The song Ellis’ title are pulled from — “Less Than Zero”– was inspired, Costello says, by a British fascist who “was unrepentant about his poisonous actions of the 1930s.” Sounds like Ellis’ characters at any point in either book (but not the movie). At end, we read it for the name-dropping and to see who’s left standing. Oh, and who was in the refrigerator.–Cabbage Rabbit

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