Wow. The book is graphic; I am unsure as to the grand purpose behind the book. Ellis doesn’t write a sympathetic character. He writes about broken people who suffer further humiliation of spirit. They then choose to ignore the outrage or to perpetrate them. Clay, the antihero of Less Than Zero and Imperial Bedrooms, responds by taking as much as he can.
I had supposed Less Than Zero to be about kids who suffer from a shallow culture and a lack of mature guidance. Rather than understanding that maturity is a state of mind, the neglected children in Zero do adult-like things. They drink, they fuck, they drive around, they snort, and they spend.
None of these kids actually had to learn to survive; as if navigating the currents of upper class ennui prepares one for life. No, these children have family money and lack for nothing. None of them will ever need to think about how to earn enough to keep him fed, clothed and sheltered. Instead, they only learn how to manage their coke habit.
If the book is simply about having too much money, too soon, without guidance, then it would have been trivial. What Ellis did was to amplify despondency by sexing up the story. It mirrors the state of the characters in the book. Just as the outrageous loses shock value over time, so must the kids seek ever more grotesque modes of enjoyment. There really is nowhere else to go but down. In this context, Less Than Zero plays out like a cry for help.
A reasonable adult would simply want them to stop abasing themselves. But what could be done? Take away their money? That will simply cause them to spiral down the drain faster. It will force the children into whoring themselves that much sooner. The regulator against self abuse is a healthy concept of human dignity, which Ellis has taken pains to show doesn’t exist for Clay. While some the characters avoid doing evil, it is out of fear rather than value for another person. One point is that there is so little one can do; we must live with these monsters. We conclude that when one has everything, he has very little to lose.
In the early 80’s, I suppose to read about 13 to 19 year olds experimenting with drugs and homosexuality was a kick to the head. But the book quickly leaves conventional outrage behind. Clay moves from an inability to relate to people to observing acts of evil. We see Clay happen upon a snuff film (but is it? After all, these kids’ parents all seem to work in film. Perhaps it is fake? Somehow, Ellis presents that alternative as a straw man.) Clay walks in on a gang rape. He doesn’t join, but remained indifferent.
It is unclear how much of that was ingrained or learned. And perhaps it doesn’t matter. No parents are seen in the book. And when Clay’s 13 year old sister is talking about the quality of sex and coke, it seems besides the point to ask whether nature or nurture was at fault. The book again emphasizes what little we can do.
In Imperial Bedrooms, we find the characters older, but no deeper, than in Less Than Zero. Clay is a screenwriter. He has left a girl friend behind in New York to come back to LA. He enjoys the physical delights of the casting couch. Clay withdraws into ever more depraved activities. There is really only two ways for the sequel to go: either Clay works towards redeemimg himself or becomes a monster.
Because we see Clay being outmaneuvered in this novel, the despair that was apparent in the first book is transformed into exhibitionism. In Imperial Bedrooms, we are simply seeing predators fighting. But before the end, we see an amoral Clay, from Less Than Zero, transgressing into immorality. I suppose the difference is that Clay either watched others be harmed or harmed himself in the first book but now harms others. We see him use men and women alike, just to exert power over others. As my 5 year old said of his 2 year brother: ‘He wants what he wants. He’s the king of the babies.’
And then the book ends. Clay is simply led away by a more brutal monster, losing his territory to a more ruthless predator.
At some point, one might ask if Ellis is writing satire. I don’t think there is enough of Clay engaging with society or other personalities. We remain within Clay, locked into his limited point of view (animal sees food, takes food, animal sees pleasure, gets pleasure.) There is one toss away line, about how snuff films are now released on the Internet. I don’t think this single point elevates Imperial Bedrooms to an absurdist look at society.
Imperial Bedrooms, like Less Than Zero, is narrated in the first person. But we never know what Clay thinks. We see him act. Ellis’s style tends to reinforce the feeling that this book is like an animal documentary. We infer Clay’s mental state by his responses to his environment. The readers have to anthropomorphize Clay.
Because Ellis offers very little in the providing his thoughts for how to engage against Clay and his ilk, I can see how his book can be perceived as pornography. It lets depravity titillate the reader while not offering any comment. Well, that’s not true; the fact that one needs a second predator to clean house says a lot. That is the nature of the world. Play victim or to play aggressor.
While Less Than Zero had similar elements, the end of that novel was moderate. Clay’s problem was that he couldn’t treat other people as individuals. That meant Clay had a chance to snap out of it, giving the reader a small measure of hope. He could grow up. In Imperial Bedrooms, the trajectory is aimed downwards. We are only left wondering how steep is Clay’s descent. And there is little we can do to help the characters, or ourselves, if heaven forbid we have something they want.