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A Raymond Chandler Inspired Thriller: Imperial Bedrooms, by Bret Easton Ellis
Imperial Bedrooms (2010), by Bret Easton Ellis, is a dark mystery/thriller where a man named Clay returns to L.A., where he grew up, while working on a movie and reconnects with the people and the culture there. Which means he attends parties, does drugs, gets mixed up with really dangerous people, begins to quickly get followed, and who meets a young actress who tries to seduce her way into a role on his movie (not necessarily in that order).
This book is the sequel to Ellis’ first novel, Less Than Zero, and was the last novel be intended to ever write. Shortly afterwards, he pursued a career as a screenwriter and podcaster, which paid well, but in 2023 he became tempted to write novels again and released The Shards.
This novel, Imperial Bedrooms, differs considerably the work it is a sequel to. Less Than Zero is a wandering story, inspired by Didion’s Play It As It Lays, about a young man hanging out with friends in L.A. over the course of a few months. It is a stark look at how empty and nihilistic that lifestyle is, and it has no narrative. Imperial Bedrooms is more or less the same thing, except the book isn’t about the nihilistic lifestyle—it’s about the plot. It’s a captivating mystery-thriller novel, not a social commentary, and I think a lot of readers didn’t expect that and didn’t know how to respond.
It is one of the only books this year I have binge-read because I was unable to put it down. I finished it in either two or three days. I couldn’t put it down. I’ve actually read it three times since it came out thirteen years ago.
Note: if you would like to read my notes for Less Than Zero, the article is here:
What Was Noteworthy?
Tension through Style
The style is similar to Less Than Zero, yet is very different. This time the prose is harsher and has sharper edges. At first, I found this less engaging, but this style of prose has a secret power that was revealed later in the book: you can take this harsher, sharper prose and ratchet up the tension to a stunning degree. Ellis eventually begins to omit almost all punctuation, and begins writing paragraphs in place of sentences, and then pages in place of paragraphs. This prose advances forward with such a breakneck, heart-squeezing rhythm that it felt like there was no time to rest. It was frantic, and as Clay moves from merely anxious into full panic mode, we feel it.
It was amazing.
An excerpt related to him trying to figure out who his stalker is:
It’s raining lightly when I leave the party and I forget where the BMW is and then I finally find it parked against a curb a few blocks away on Washington Boulevard and as I’m about to pull out a blue Jeep rushes by and slows to a stop at the light behind me on the corner. I make a U-turn and pull up behind the Jeep and my hair is wet and my hands are shaking and I can’t see who’s inside the car and it starts to rain harder as I follow the Jeep up Robertson toward West Hollywood and through the windshield wipers the streets seem emptier because of the rain and on the CD Meghan Reynolds burned for me last summer Bat for Lashes is singing “What’s a Girl Gonna Do?” and lightning illuminates a turquoise mural on a freeway underpass and then the Jeep makes a right on Beverly and I keep checking the rearview mirror to see if someone’s following me but I can’t tell and then I force myself to stop weeping and turn off the stereo concentrating only on the blue Jeep as (…)
Another note: that excerpt has a very strong rhythm.
Apophenia Via Style
A detail about what is shown and what is not: Ellis buffets us with detail, but that detail is mostly surface level. He refrains from sharing information with us about what lies beneath the surface, and especially, what lies within Clay’s heart. The longer we go without those crucial pieces of information being provided for us, the stronger the vacuum becomes until it draws you in to fill in the gaps. This is one of the keys to Ellis’s style: it’s not always about what he says, but what he omits that gets our imaginations working.
In game design, we call this apophenia. It is when the storytelling is suggestive rather than explicit, and it invites the audience to imagine more than what is shown to them. Tynan Sylvestor (known for Rimworld) explains it here:
There is an actress who wants to star in the movie Clay is working on named Rain. I found her to be really alluring. But why? What made her so incredibly likeable?
She is pursuing a relationship where somebody is exploiting her, but she knows that he’s exploiting her and is not in fact some hapless victim. She is trying to exploit him too. She recognizes the game, opts in, and confidently tries to turn the tables on him. Despite her situation, she has a lot of agency.
Dramatic Tension—and a Plot
The story itself was loaded full of dramatic tension.
My understanding is this: we begin with the ending, revealing that the story will end with a major character’s death, and then we rewind and foreshadow some issues Clay has and some problems with the city. Being prepared for some Badness to happen, we add in one ominous mystery after another, and while Clay works to answer his questions, more ominous questions arise, and it stacks and stacks.
To ratchet this up, the world is incredibly mundane (if Hollywood flashy), so that when something ominous happens, the contrast with day to day life is starker. This tension is reinforced by the style—see above.
While I understand this in outline, I would not be able to reproduce it. There’s more to it than what I’m seeing.
There are some literary devices in play: the book is meta to less than zero, and is one where its author, Bret, is a scary individual. This lets the book be an explicit commentary on the older work in addition to a sequel, while also redefining itself. Very cool. I suspect that the Bret referenced here may be the same Bret from The Shards.
The Ending, Expectations, and Ambiguity
Finally, the ending was jarring and dark and I misunderstood it the first two times I read it. But it keeps me thinking about it. My expectations about the book each time had a huge effect on my enjoyment of the book—I don’t think the book itself or it’s description prepares the reader for the material, and many people found the book jarring because of this.
(By the way, this is one of the most common causes of negative game reviews on Steam.)
In the end, it’s hard to know how to interpret the book. And that’s good. It makes it stick with you.
there are subtle hints throughout about Clay’s dark side, but they are so subtle that you don’t know what any of it means
One reason I read this when I did was because I was sick and couldn’t concentrate and this was the easiest prose to process among any books I owned. Surprising for a book with page-long sentences.
people say it exactly mirrors Less Than Zero but I’m reading them in parallel and it’s not true. The parallels are deliberate but are evocative, not descriptive of the actual story. I’m not sure those reviewers were paying attention when they read both books.
Some Quotes by The Book’s Author
On Raymond Chandler:
Well, so I’d been reading a lot of Raymond Chandler, and you know what? The plots really don’t matter. The solutions to mysteries don’t matter. Sometimes they’re not solved at all. It’s just the mood that’s so enthralling. And it’s kind of universal, this idea of a man searching for something or moving through this moral landscape and trying to protect himself from it, and yet he’s still forced to investigate it. The plot comes into play during the outline stage, where the story tells itself.
More about Chandler:
I’d been reading a lot of Raymond Chandler, and that was my big influence.
How the book got started:
the only thing that I really took out of that experience of sitting down with my books and reading them was, “Oh, where’s Clay? What’s he doing now?” And it began to haunt me. I was thinking, “Do I go there? Do I really want to go there?” But ultimately, you don’t make the decision. Emotionally, you become invested in this idea, and you start to make notes, and then you’re questioning whether this is going to work or if it’s going to be something you want to spend a couple of years with. Then it makes its decision for you. And I never thought of this as a sequel. I thought of it as exploring where this character is 20 years later. That was the one driving point. I didn’t want to write a sequel and I don’t think it is. Well, I mean, it is and it isn’t. It’s narrated by him, sure. But I guess I could maybe have switched the names around and it could stand alone.
On the experience of writing it,
That was extremely personal, I was going through an extremely painful period in my life, a midlife crisis you might call it, and yet i went to this book every night after dealing with this horrible movie situation I was involved in and whatever was going on in my life, and for a couple of hours every night that was kind of a therapy, kind of this thing i went to to heal myself, to exorcise all these negative feelings (...), and by the time i finished it, and it was a very short very short book, 160 pages, it took me 3 years to get, i didnt really care any more, i didn't really think much of it; but i picked it up maybe 3 years ago and i was shocked by how much i liked it; i couldn't believe how spare it was, how every word was screwed into place, it had this kind of a haiku feeling to it and this pain just radiates off the page; it is in some ways a very ghastly book (...) a reflection of my disgust at the time.
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