Many authors would hesitate before writing a sequel to their breakthrough novel twenty-five years after its publication, but Bret Easton Ellis felt no such apprehension when revisiting his sex- and cocaine-fueled 1985 debut Less Than Zero in the recently released Imperial Bedrooms, which depicts his formerly wasted youths entering wasted middle age.
“I don’t think about the reader— ever—and I don’t care,” Ellis says. “The reader is me.”
The only tarnished reputation associated with his debut novel, Ellis insists, is his own; the novel made his name synonymous with narcissistic, hard-partying L.A. teenagers who had too much cash and too little compassion. In the wake of its commercial success and a film adaptation that starred Robert Downey, Jr., the public “perceived an overlap between the writer and the subject matter, and assumed that I was one of the kids from Less Than Zero.” (His controversial 1991 novel American Psycho introduced yuppie serial killer Patrick Bateman to the cultural zeitgeist, and further associated Ellis with privileged hedonism and explicit violence.)
Now a “tame and boring” 46-year-old, Ellis feels a mixture of annoyance and amusement toward his perennial image. “People want to see me as this deranged party boy attracted to excess and decadence who is up all night and wears expensive suits and who is perverted and drug-addicted and I’m just not that person,” Ellis says. “When you use my name in a sentence it denotes something like that—if someone tweets ‘I had a very Bret Easton Ellis night,’ that has so many associations—but in reality I spend my nights watching TV in my sandals; it is so not sexy.” (His favorite show is The Hills, which he describes as “brilliant, gorgeous, very smart, fascinating,” and “the first and only of its kind: a manufactured reality” that is neither scripted nor organic.)
In addition to the public’s mistaken notion of his life’s sexiness, Ellis says, the book itself is misunderstood: “People in Los Angeles tell me that Less Than Zero made them want to move here. Fifty percent of the readers get it and fifty percent are seduced by it.” He resents that “ Less Than Zero is often sentimentalized—it’s taken as this ‘80s artifact like John Hughes movies—whereas to me it was a dark experience about very dark things.”
Ellis prefers not to analyze those “very dark things” inside his head: “Writing a book is emotional, not particularly logical, so I can’t answer a lot of ‘why?’ questions. The books can be read as emotional autobiography—all of them captured where I was in my life at the time—but I don’t really know why. People want answers and I wish I could give them; I am surprised when my outlines and feelings head in certain directions.”
Although his books are intended as social criticism, Ellis would rather tell a story than proselytize for any core philosophy. “There are obviously things you want to say as a writer—there are aesthetic choices you make to present what you’re feeling and what’s on your mind—but my approach is indirect, and it’s very reductive to look for messages in novels,” Ellis says. “When I reread American Psycho there were a lot of things I liked, but I was surprised at its earnestness. American Psycho was certainly against people like Bateman—it was not against his victims, and certainly not anti-woman—but people interpret books how they want, and the author has no control.”
Ellis likewise had no control over “a couple stalkers” and a real-life serial killer who owned a copy of American Psycho. Although the author denies that he is a misanthrope, perhaps it is no coincidence that Imperial Bedrooms ends with the line, “I never liked anyone and I’m afraid of people.” He has made only one public appearance in half a decade and says that “fame is not something I value at all.” He has created a Twitter account but his posts are sporadic and peculiar, such as celebrating the death of J.D. Salinger (“Yeah!! Thank God he's finally dead. I’ve been waiting for this day for-fucking-ever. Party tonight!!”), which he declines to explain aside from revealing that it was not a reference to the potential release of Salinger’s unpublished manuscripts.
Watch the trailer for the Less Than Zero film adaptation, starring Robert Downey Jr.
If this ill will stems from Ellis being labeled “the next J.D. Salinger” upon the release of Less Than Zero, he feels no hostility toward the many young writers who have tried to follow in his footsteps. “Every now and then a new author is marketed as ‘the next Bret Easton Ellis,’ and I guess it feels nice—I never feel ripped off—because I ripped off plenty of writers when I was younger,” Ellis says. “I fell in love with Hemingway and Joan Didion and Raymond Carver and tried to write like them, but a different kind of voice emerged by trying to rip them off; it’s the only way to find your own style.”
With Imperial Bedrooms Ellis has returned to the birthplace of that style, and although he cannot answer the “why” questions, he is adamant that he did it for himself, not for us. “I don’t think about the reader— ever—and I don’t care,” Ellis says. “The reader is me.”
Marty Beckerman is the author of Generation S.L.U.T. (MTV Books) and Dumbocracy (Disinformation). He has written for Playboy, Discover, Radar and Huffington Post. His website is www.MartyBeckerman.com.