Ellis’ 1985 debut, Less Than Zero, was narrated by Clay, who cataloged the amoral boredom of his social circle’s brand-obsessed, drug-addled lifestyle. The book was made into a quintessentially ‘80s movie starring Andrew McCarthy and Robert Downey Jr., among others. Now, Clay is 43, and back to narrate this sequel.
For more than one critic, the operative word for the new novel is “flat.” In the New York Times, Erica Wagner writes: “Ellis’ work has always been stitched with cross-reference and self-reference, threaded through with a sense that the boundary between fantasy and reality is disturbingly fragile. It’s what makes his work, at its best, so striking. I can well believe the haunted fascination that sparked off Imperial Bedrooms. But the resulting novel falls flat.” In the Onion’s A.V. Club, Ellen Wernecke concludes, “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.” And in the Wall Street Journal, Alexander Theroux says, “The prose is flat,” and that “the novel’s true subject is a yawning lassitude not philosophical enough to be called profound.”
In the Barnes & Noble Review, Molly Young argues that the flatness is the point: “Ennui is a narrow feeling, and . . . Imperial Bedrooms is, correspondingly, a book with a tiny but complex purview. This isn’t at all a bad thing.”
Of those critics who ignore flatness altogether, most are still disappointed. Janet Maslin lists the five books Ellis has written since Less Than Zero, and says: “Hit or miss, each of those books had more vigor than this one.” In the Chicago Sun-Times, Thomas Conner says readers may find themselves “trudging through this unnecessary continuation of Clay’s hopeless drama.” But in the Guardian, Mark Lawson joins Young on the sunny side of the street:
In terms of American literary inheritance, Easton Ellis adds the playful self-advertisements of Philip Roth to the ambiguously complicit social reportage of F Scott Fitzgerald. Imperial Bedrooms ranks with his best exercises in the latter register, teeming with sharp details of a narcissistic generation.
Imperial Bedrooms by Bret Easton Ellis
Knopf, 192 pp., $24.95