Coke for Bret Easton Ellis these days comes in those 7.5-ounce mini-cans—the new, vaguely European ones containing only 90 calories. This is what he offers me, taking one for himself, after inviting me into his apartment, which sits right on the edge of West Hollywood. The building is bland but the view is heady: a truly “epic view” that “reaches from the skyscrapers downtown, the dark forests of Beverly Hills, the towers of Century City and Westwood … ”
At least that’s how Clay, the narrator we first met in Ellis’s meticulously wrought 1985 novel of underparented anomie, Less Than Zero, describes the vista from his apartment in the author’s latest book, Imperial Bedrooms. The distinction between what the author lightly fictionalizes and what he invents entirely has always been beguilingly blurry. Zero, and the equally bleak and rambunctious follow-up Rules of Attraction, were sexy, and Ellis and his literary party pack (fellow young novelist Jay McInerney, editor Morgan Entrekin) were too; he gained the sort of celebrity few young writers ever manage (or, these days, seek: Can you imagine Jonathan Safran Foer zonked out from clubbing, blood gushing from his nose?). His last book, Lunar Park, is even narrated by “Bret Easton Ellis,” and includes a satirically nostalgic look back at boldface literary precocity: “It was always the A booth. It was always the front seat of the roller coaster. It was never ‘Let’s not get the bottle of Cristal’ … It was the beginning of a time when it was almost as if the novel itself didn’t matter anymore—publishing a shiny booklike object was simply an excuse for parties and glamour.”
Today, Ellis, who’s 46, refers to that era, with a touch of irony, as “Empire,” which is a reference to Gore Vidal’s definition of global American hegemony. Ellis dates this period from 1945 until 2005. “We’re in the post-Empire world now. Or we might even be going further than that to a dystopian world; I don’t know,” says the wary but gentle-looking Ellis, who is barefoot and wearing a blue hoodie. The question preoccupying the author now is what post-Empire Ellis means. On his Twitter feed, he defines it in terms of pop culture, as if it were a charticle in a magazine. Post-Empire is Shia LaBeouf, Lady Gaga, Twilight, Trader Joe’s, and Kick-Ass. Empire is Bruce Willis, R.E.M., New York, the Polo Lounge, Veuve Clicquot, “the U.S. reaction to Kick-Ass.” Which is where Imperial Bedrooms comes in. It’s set 25 years after Zero, and is advertised as a sequel. As Knopf puts it in the publicity materials, “The story continues …”
But it doesn’t, really. In the new book, Clay is also 25 years older and a screenwriter who has just returned to L.A. from exile in New York (yes, he lived where Ellis lived, too, in the Silk Building just south of Union Square). Here on the West Coast, Clay is confronted with the whole entangled, entitled gang from that first book, all grown up now but still without much of a sense of humor (or proportion) about anything. But beyond the two books’ shared tone of gothic nihilism, Imperial Bedrooms is in many ways the opposite of Less Than Zero, which famously began: “People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles.” Everyone in Imperial Bedrooms, especially Clay, who falls abusively in love with a woman who thinks he will make her famous, wants desperately to connect.
“Minimally decorated in soft beiges and grays with hardwood floors and recessed lighting,” is Ellis’s description of Clay’s apartment, or in fact his own. It looks very much like an extended-stay hotel room; Ellis bought it when he moved back four years ago, intending to stay only long enough to find the right house (he sublet the New York apartment). But the market dropped and he’s still here. When I arrive a bit after five in the afternoon, a slight, arty, twentysomething guy is slouched on the sectional sofa, watching a cartoon on the big TV, a guitar leaning next to him. We chat, but Ellis doesn’t introduce us. In 2004, nearing the end of the Empire era, Ellis’s longtime boyfriend, Michael Wade Kaplan, died of a drug-related heart attack, at 30. Ellis has always been squirrelly regarding what he calls “the gay thing,” and professes to me a certain sympathy for the pragmatic Hollywood closet. Or as he wrote in the semibiographical part of Lunar Park, “I was a mystery, an enigma, and that was what mattered—that’s what sold books.” In that novel, “Ellis” has a wife and kids; his characters are primarily straight, though decadently bisexual.
The apartment came decorated, and it hasn’t been touched since, right down to the still-empty floating shelf by the front door. It does, in fact, seem like a “good place to hide,” as Clay says in the book. After moving in, Ellis realized he could see the Century City penthouse where his father lived after splitting with Ellis’s mother. He points to the building from the living room window, then leads me, mini-Coke in hand, down the short hallway to his office, which is occupied mostly by a large glass-topped desk and two silvery Macs. Behind the desk, partly obscured by the computers, he leans back and steeples his fingers over his lips, as if interviewing me for a job. The bookshelf over my right shoulder is small and contains the very books you’d expect him to have read: Lost Illusions; The Man Without Qualities; Absalom, Absalom!; Play It As It Lays. There’s a pot pipe shaped like Homer Simpson’s head on the table to my left.