It’s been 25 years since Bret Easton Ellis’ debut, Less Than Zero, was published; now the book is older than most of its drugged-out, terminally bored subjects, who sleepwalk through an endless round of clubs and parties. Ellis returns to Zero territory for his new novel, Imperial Bedrooms, whose denizens are irrevocably marked by the escapades of youth, yet still prone to bad behavior.
As Zero narrator Clay recognizes a supermarket he’s standing in as the site of a halting yet endless Christmas Eve dinner with his parents, he feels “sad relief” at not being able to recall anything more about the holiday. Now a successful author, Clay returns to L.A. to drift through casting calls for the movie based on his latest screenplay; diversion arrives in the form of aspiring actress Rain, whom Clay offers a part in the movie in exchange for marathon coke-fueled sex sessions in his luxury apartment. While she’s around, the stream of threatening text messages and petty break-ins he’s noticed since his return fade into the background. As the messages get more menacing, though, Clay suspects the culprit may be tied to a famously discreet prostitution ring headed by an old high-school friend, and the brutal murder of a Hollywood producer in his circle.
In a metafictional twist, Clay has read Less Than Zero, the product of a former romantic rival; Clay regards it as character assassination, painting him as an “inarticulate zombie.” (He similarly writes off the movie as mushy Hollywood pap.) Still, Clay approaches most of his life with the casual disdain he once reserved for his high-school girlfriend, until his irrational jealousy sets the occasionally ludicrous plot in motion, giving Ellis’ power players and beautiful youths something to talk about, if not motive to act.
Age has been kind to most in Clay’s world, but they still act like reckless teenagers, and the higher the stakes, the more foolhardy they look. Imperial Bedrooms would reject readers’ sympathy if it could ever earn it, but it’s forced to draw on Zero for its sole moment of meaningful emotion, a Bel Air lunch vignette that recalls Zero’s final chapter. In service to his mystery, Ellis reliably produces an aura of menace around such mundane activities as looking in a fridge or checking in at a restaurant, but his characters—and Clay’s estimation of them—are flatter than ever.