Less than zero: Bret Easton Ellis’s sequel misses
Sometime in the 1970s, when money and power became mixed up in the counterculture, it all went horribly wrong, in literature and in life. The primary books that celebrate this intriguing aspect of Americana, works by writers like Jack Kerouac, Charles Bukowski, and Jim Carroll — even Whitman and Thoreau — often featured charismatic quasi-hoboes as their protagonists, enlightened seekers in pursuit of “joy, kicks, darkness, music,’’ in Kerouac’s famous expression. These penniless hipsters were not looking for freedom from authority so much as freedom from oppression; for the most part, they were willing to live, and let live.
By the Age of Reagan, all that was dead; our hipster icons had been co-opted by Madison Avenue, Wall Street, and Rodeo Drive. The writers who came next, featherweights like Jay McInerney, Tama Janowitz, and our subject here, Bret Easton Ellis, were as insubstantial as papier-mâché when compared with their literary forebears. Sex, drugs, and (after jazz) rock ‘n’ roll had always been the doors of perception in the genre, but were now reduced to mere commodities. The ’80s hipster was no longer engaged in a sort of public shivaree, ecstatically giving and receiving pleasure that would’ve delighted a sensualist like Whitman. Rather, they were self-obsessed onanists for whom a “bump’’ of cocaine only served to further isolate them from other revelers.
Ellis, more an overhyped Richard Brautigan than the Kerouac of his era, has always operated at the junction of nihilism and narcissism, by definition an infertile crossroads. In his “seminal’’ novel, “Less Than Zero,’’ a group of wealthy, androgynous, bisexual teen brats snort coke, groove to Duran Duran, and shift around to LA hot spots like Spago and Chasen’s. Now, for some infernal reason, Ellis is updating his 1985 cash cow by publishing “Imperial Bedrooms,’’; at 192 pages as thin and unconvincing as a chapbook of self-published poems, and so empty and venal and misogynistic it’s downright insulting.
Beyond the truism that there are no sequels to good books (after all, there is no “To Kill Another Mockingbird,’’ “The Sun Also Rises Tomorrow,’’ or “Son of the Great Gatsby’’), the author should have kept another point in mind. When the original landscape you’ve created is barren, don’t expect to reap a bountiful harvest when you start digging around a quarter-century later. In this version, we meet the characters of “Less Than Zero’’ not so much grown up, as merely grown older.
In outline, Clay, the narrator of the first book, revisits Los Angeles as a jaded, fortyish screenwriter, mirroring his return from New Hampshire for Christmas break as a college freshman in the original. His former girlfriend, Blair, is married to an old pal, Trent, and his troubled best friend, Julian, and former drug dealer, Rip, have descended into even lower circles of hell. “Imperial Bedrooms’’ is filled with patches of regurgitated summary where the author clumsily tries to connect this story to his earlier success: “I can’t even keep up the most rudimentary conversation with a salesman over a Prada suit and I end up at the bar in Barney’s Greengrass ordering a Bloody Mary and drinking it with my sunglasses on.’’
Essentially, 25 years later, Clay is still wearing his Ray-Bans in a trendy bar, a handsome, amoral, and annoyingly passive man-child, augmenting his voracious sexual perversion with the occasional dose of Viagra. When a fading starlet named Rain Turner tries to fornicate her way into Clay’s new movie, he discovers that his erstwhile friends have been dabbling in human trafficking, sex slavery, and snuff films. And then (breathlessly), when he crosses paths with the mysterious denizens of a ruthless Mexican drug cartel . . .
You get the idea. Ellis is aiming for noir, for the territory of James Ellroy and Raymond Chandler, but ends up with an XXX-rated episode of “Melrose Place.’’ What, exactly, is this book? Is it supposed to be some kind of cultural artifact? A time capsule from the era of parachute pants and big hair? It’s certainly not a novel, in the sense that’s worthy of that appellation. It’s like something concocted by a roomful of marketing execs, mad men indeed, possessed of a bone-deep cynicism regarding the merits of actual storytelling.
Of course, Ellis’s new book is laden with the obligatory references to Ambien, Grey Goose vodka, Josh Hartnett, Kevin Spacey, “Lost,’’ et al, brand names that are meant to be “relatable,’’ I suppose. But that’s not literature, it’s product placement.
The publishing industry, like every other facet of the entertainment business, has been overrun by celebrity mongering bean counters at the aptly named “parent’’ corporations that oversee it. Unfortunately, that means we can expect a slew of self-proclaimed “genuine literary events’’ like this one coming our way for the indefinite future.
Jay Atkinson’s latest book is “Paradise Road: Jack Kerouac’s Lost Highway and My Search for America.’’ He teaches in the journalism program at Boston University and can be reached at email@example.com.