Degeneration of a Lost Generation: American Psychos
What good does Imperial Bedrooms do? Why is it written?
Does it entertain? I submit that any reader who finishes this novel and is able to use that word for it—“entertaining”—might honestly want to take a hard look in the mirror and question the condition of his soul.
Does it offer a glimpse of our modern condition? If Imperial Bedrooms rings true to the world you know, how bleak must your life be?
Is it a good mystery? Maybe, if you can find mystery in a book where you don’t like or admire or care for a single character.
Does it rise to a reasonable standard as literature? You decide. Here’s a passage:
One night the girl tried to escape from the house and the boy and I chased her down the street with flashlights and then onto another street where he tackled her just before dawn. We dragged the girl quickly back inside the house and she was tied up and put in what I had told them to refer to as the kennel, which was her bedroom. ‘Say thank you,’ I told the girl when I brought out a plate of cupcakes laced with laxative and made the girl and boy eat them because it was their reward. Smeared with shit, I was pushing my fist into the girl and her lips were clinging tightly around my wrist and she seemed to be trying to make sense of me while I stared back at her flatly, my arm sticking out of her, my fist clenching and unclenching in her cunt, and then her mouth opened with shock and she started shrieking until the boy lowered his cock into her mouth, gagging her, and the sound of crickets kept playing over the scene.
Ah … crickets! Add poetry to sado-porn—is it literature?
Is this novel what Ellis’ career has come to? This whiff-of-desperation retread chocked with gratuitously lurid passages? This study in debauchery? Does he mean to employ the same old trick of shocking his way, yet again, into the literary limelight? Or is he admitting that this is what a writer has to produce today—less fiction than freaktion—to cut through the smothering clutter of TVs and tweets and friendings? It’s a question for all writers: Must fiction now lap dance and drink human blood to get noticed?
The week before Imperial Bedrooms, I read Ellis’ 1985 debut novel Less Than Zero. (In May, Vintage released a re-jacketed 25th-anniversary edition.) It was debatable enjoyment. But talent and intelligence gleamed through the window Ellis opened onto this land of the living dead, and the book certainly made a case, justified or not, for his ordainment as a dark horse among rising writers. Less Than Zero chronicled the utter wasteland between the ears and inside the souls of ultra-privileged Los Angeles high school grads. We saw the scions of our laughing aristocracy—the kids who might have been the best our culture could offer—lost at sea in the age of a nascent MTV, when cocaine and weed fueled the thoughts and actions of rebels-without-a-cause-or-clue in Reagan’s America, when uncommitted coupling went on as frequently and randomly as it does among atoms flying loose in space.
The protagonist of Zero, Clay, could be named for his particular kind of feet. He’s unanchored to any deeper attachment than his own. He floats from bed to bed, drug to drug, party to party. He does possess a soul—Clay cries a lot, wants to cry even more—and Less Than Zero feels like a primal scream. But as a reader, I felt too much of the time like a pillow the writer beat during therapy.
A reviewer for USA Today called Zero “Catcher in the Rye for the MTV generation.” In truth, Clay is closer to Camus’ nihilistic Stranger, star-crossed by the benign indifference of the universe, than to Holden Caulfield. In this instance, Clay and his cast of 20-something friends must endure the terrible curse of having simply everything a human could possibly want. Their parentless, aimless, selfish, privileged indifference left me cold, then annoyed, then simply angry. To Ellis’ credit, he made me believe in his fictional personalities in this book—enough to want to knock the hell out of them, to slap some sense into their silly, self-absorbed heads.
Imperial Bedrooms trades on the success of Zero a quarter century ago. We find ourselves circulating with Ellis’ same sad, rotten cast and crew, aged 25 years, at a hellish party that never seems to end. Clay has grown up to write screenplays. The old L.A. crowd he comes to visit from back East hasn’t improved much. They’re still coupling and uncoupling, still drugging and debauching. They sport tans, get scary face lifts, attempt to sleep their way to fame. They disappear, then turn up in the desert with their heads and hands severed, or on snuff videotapes where they’re being tortured to death. Maturity has replaced any vestige of their innocence with cruelty, scheming, addiction, and—here’s the word—depravity.
Why is a book about these people worth reading? I spent four hours of the only life I have pondering the question.
What does Ellis ask us to learn?
He means for the nasty passage quoted above to demonstrate the monstrousness of Clay, to show how Clay (get it?) has been shaped into a most hideous thing by the soullessness of Los Angeles, and likely some American Psycho teratism in his DNA. So that’s our theme: Here Be Monsters.
If that’s news, this is the book for you.
Imperial Bedrooms leaves you with a terrible, smutty, unsettled feeling. In book after book, Ellis has chosen to work from the most disturbing edges of fiction. You must naturally wonder at some point what such an abiding obsession with shock means. Is something unspeakable from time to time leaping the fictional firewall between work and author? Is Ellis an artist? Or something else, with crickets?
After reading Imperial Bedrooms, I wanted to call an exorcist.
You may wonder, too, what possessed you to pick up this book.