:: Article

This Is Not An Exit

By Max Dunbar.


Imperial Bedrooms, Bret Easton Ellis, Picador 2010

‘It’s not so much that I get bad reviews as that I get the same review,’ Irvine Welsh complained at Waterstone’s Deansgate a few years ago. ‘It’s either ‘dark, disturbing, nihilistic – brilliant!’ or ‘dark, disturbing, nihilistic – what a cunt!”

You could say the same about Bret Easton Ellis at this point in his career. Good or bad, the criticism writes itself, and ignores many glaring attributes that should be obvious to the reader. The first is that Ellis has a soul. Read Lunar Park, an intricate ghost story wrapped around a moving exploration of the relationship between fathers and sons. Ellis can recognise beauty in the world. From Imperial Bedrooms: ‘I fall asleep to the music coming from the Abbey, a song from the past, ‘Hungry Like the Wolf,’ rising faintly above the leaping chatter of the club, transporting me for one long moment into someone both young and old.’

He has also demonstrated a consistent comic gift. The frenetic opening chapters of Glamorama, where the narrator is doing last-preparations for a club opening, display Ellis’s talent for dialogue that’s both funny and realistic: ‘The whole point of Super Mario Bros is that it mirrors life,’ the narrator declares to his girlfriend. ‘Kill or be killed.’ American Psycho features lengthy, meaningless conversations about the best kind of mineral water and whether a tie holder is necessary for businesswear. The novel is a riff on modern manners, including cringe scenes to rival The Office, with Bateman as a malign yet hapless Walter Mitty character who takes refuge in murderous fantasy as compensation for his social and sexual inadequacies. As Ellis wrote in Lunar Park:

Patrick Bateman was a notoriously unreliable narrator, and if you actually read the book you could come away doubting that these crimes had even occurred. There were large hints that they existed only in Bateman’s mind. The murders and torture were in fact fantasies fuelled by his rage and fury about how life in America was structured and how this had – no matter the size of his wealth – trapped him.

Lunar Park showed Ellis’s capacity to laugh at himself as well as others. Ellis is the book’s protagonist and in the novel he is working on a ridiculous exploitative parody of one of his own books (chapter titles include ‘The Intrepid Threesome,’ ‘Hairy Pinkish Tacos,’ ‘Do You Mind If I Just Jack Off?’) Lunar Park‘s first chapter relates a literary book tour recast as the public meltdown of a bloated rock star, complete with bodyguard’s memos: ‘Writer was dragged to a waiting squad car while holding on to bewildered young yeshiva student attending the reading – whom writer continuously fondled and groped – until ambulance arrived. His eyes rolled back into his head, writer’s last words – shouted – before being driven off were quote ‘I am keeping the Jew-boy’ unquote.’

Ellis has always had a casual relationship with his characters, ambling in and out of their stories like ‘the damaged party boy who wandered through the wreckage, blood streaming from his nose, asking questions that never required answers.’ Imperial Bedrooms begins with Clay, the main character from Ellis’s debut (the notorious student tale of violent excess) discussing the novel of his life and subsequent film adaptation: ‘I suddenly became the movie’s moral compass, spouting AA jargon, castigating everyone’s drug use’. Twenty-five years on, Clay is a screenwriter back in LA to lash together a film. And this is where it gets weird.

For the critics have a point; the overwhelming vibe of Ellis’s work is a flat low hum, the high white note of a plane overhead, the song of the void: ‘a view that confirmed you were much more alone than you thought you were, a view that inspired the flickering thoughts of suicide.’ Clay gets strange stalkey texts and emails and is followed by men in cars. Throughout this spare novella there is a darker story acted out behind the scenes. We see it in shadows and details. Only Hunter S Thompson did paranoia this well. The sense of impending doom, when there’s not a cloud in the sky.

Imperial Bedrooms is a coda for the completist. The obvious reference is Raymond Chandler, who is quoted at the beginning, but the novel reminded me more of The Sun Also Rises in its economic portrayal of dialogue and drinks. You get the impression Ellis is closing the curtain on something: the question is where he can go from here.


Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals. He is reviews editor of 3:AM.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, July 7th, 2010.