Elvis Costello and the Attractions made the "Imperial Bedroom" album, their seventh, at the dawn of the 1980s. The band's heroic status in post-punk had begun to cement, they'd toyed with soul and country, and it was already time for a return to form. The tempos are mostly up (save the blues lounge ballad "Almost Blue"), the arrangements are big, the sound is fairly lush and dense. It's more complex than it sounds, and the songs click through a first listen before you really tune into the bitterness and fear lurking in the lyrics.
The same could be said of Bret Easton Ellis' Imperial Bedrooms (Knopf, $25, 192 pages) -- that it glides along with deceptive urgency and false cheer, with serpents coiled in the shadows -- at least at first. It's a return to characters, if not completely to form. This is, for whatever reason, a sequel to Less Than Zero (another Costello title), the debut novel that put Ellis on the literary map back in 1985. In that smart, zeitgeisty tour de force, chief narrator Clay revisits his Los Angeles home during Christmas break, floats through the remnants of a decadent, druggy, emotionally vacant existence and finally bails, heading to back to an East Coast prep school. The final impression: He at least recognizes a way out of the sense of doom gripping his friends and former girlfriend, and he might actually take it.
Imperial Bedrooms spoils that into-the-sunset idea.
Clay is back in L.A., after splitting time in New York. He's a screenwriter, mildly successful. He's still drinking, taking drugs, floating through ritzy la-la-land without any moral center or, it seems, reason to live. As he moves through the city, sites remind him of the past couple of decades -- the movie deal in that restaurant, the drug-fueled night at that club, the young girl he had sex with in that hotel. He's still a ghost observing it all behind a veil, a soulless Christopher Isherwood training the objective camera on his own life. He still seems to recognize, deep down, just how soulless it all is, or at least that he should be somewhere else. Early on, describing another vapid party, Clay says it's "a mosaic of youth, a place you don't really belong to anymore."
Readers may have the same sinking feeling trudging through this unnecessary continuation of Clay's hopeless drama. Those who felt a kinship with the "Catcher in the Rye for the MTV generation" may look upon this new novel the same way they probably look at MTV today: with a bit of slithering terror. All that new music, all that new pop culture -- it's a beast, always moving and growing, it'll devour you, you'll never catch up, better just to steer clear of it and switch back to VH1 Classic.
Which really gets to the heart of Ellis as a writer. Enough talk about his literary genius, let's call him what he rally is: a terrific horror writer. Imperial Bedrooms is an absolute creepfest, at best, as unsettling as any single current of a Stephen King novel (like Cell). His previous novel, Lunar Park, was more widely labeled this way, but the vast majority of his novels are fueled by graphic gore (the serial killer in American Psycho, 1991) and sheer, white-knuckle, hyperventilating tension (the fashion model terrorists in Glamorama, 1998).
Bedrooms is a festival of panting paranoia. Something ain't right about this new girlfriend of Clay's. There's a blue jeep following him around. He's receiving mystery texts from someone who's clearly spying on him. Plus, L.A. is buzzing with gossip about the vicious murder of some Hollywood moguls. Clay even suspects his ol' compadres Rip and Julian are somehow connected to it. He tries to avoid them. He fails.
In the end, a question repeated throughout the novel -- "What's the worst thing you've ever done?" or, alternatingly, "What's the worst thing that's ever happened to you?" -- is answered, gruesomely. Clay has spent two novels now (three if you count his cameo in The Rules of Attraction) trying to figure out where he is and how that defines him. The "Disappear Here" sign from Less Than Zero is still up, and Clay sees it again here. When he tries to kiss his new girlfriend in public, she turns away. "'Not here,' she says, but as if 'not here' is a promise of somewhere better." Clay clearly stopped believing in a better place long ago, and it's definitely not in any Imperial Bedrooms.