All grown up, Clay is now a middle-aged film-writer and has come back to Los Angeles (from New York) to work on an 80’s themed movie. While auditioning actresses for the movie he meets Rain Turner whose talent is unfortunately limited to her good looks, but is desperate to get a part in the film. Clay and Rain start a mutually exploitative relationship which becomes increasingly sordid as the book continues. While Clay is obviously infatuated with Rain, he senses the power that he has over her and enjoys dangling the carrot of fame in front of her while making little if any effort to actually help her. As the book develops it becomes apparent that something strange is happening. A film producer named Kelly Montrose dies in bizarre circumstances and Clay receives text messages from someone who says they are watching him.
Imperial Bedrooms has similar themes and many of the same characters as Less Than Zero but the protagonist’s voice is very different. Clay is much more conversational and the narrative tone is more present in contrast with the detatched-sounding teenager of 25 years ago. At the start of the book, he actually refers to a film adaptation of Less Than Zero and curiously refers to a ‘writer’ who;
“…failed to accurately describe how I felt that night – the desire, the shock…”
I can’t quite work out if Ellis is suggesting the idea that the real voice of Clay is the one in Imperial Bedrooms and that the book of Less Than Zero is a fiction, or if he is only referring to the film being a mis-representation. Is Ellis implying that the detatched voice of Clay in Less Than Zero is a red-herring? This makes sense to me when I think about the way that the Clay of Imperial Bedrooms is quite an unlikeable character, whereas the teenager I read about in the first book could almost be perceived as a naive onlooker to events – passively moving through the dramas around him as opposed to manipulating.
The change in tone, is a good move in my opinion, as it feels as if you are hearing a new voice. Some of the other devices that Ellis uses like referenceing songs, and gadgets such as iPhones, which worked in Less Than Zero for me felt a bit samey and awkward in Imperial Bedrooms, although for other readers it may well feel comfortably familar. The theme of excess and corruption is stronger than ever in Imperial Bedrooms but I think it has less impact somehow because these days we are more aware of the dark side of celebrity and oddly the modern setting doesn’t have the same kind of ‘cool’ feel as 80’s L.A.
I did like the element of mystery around the murder of Kelly Montrose, but don’t expect a thriller. Imperial Bedrooms is more of a high-school reunion-style look at what happened to those messed up kids from Less Than Zero – to find out how nasty they became as adults.
I’m glad that I read Less Than Zero first, because I think the context adds an extra layer of meaning that makes reading Imperial Bedrooms more interesting. It is kind of fascinating to go back and see what happened to Clay and co. but apart from a kind of cultish curiosity about the characters, I didn’t feel that Imperial Bedrooms had anything really new to say. Perhaps that was the point Ellis was making – that people don’t really change?