It's been 25 years since Bret Easton Ellis' career-defining novel Less Than Zero was published to equal parts critical acclaim, commercial success and cultural backlash. Zero revealed a nation where the kids weren't all right — far from it, in fact. Shielded by youth and glamour and armored with money, Ellis' young-adult characters swapped sexual partners, straws, and needles with a frequency many found morally barren and ethically bereft. The characters have grown up only in age in Ellis' recently published Imperial Bedrooms, a sequel that surpasses Zero in beautiful, timely nihilism. Bedrooms reveals a lost generation seemingly found, although a familiar sadness remains.
Zero's empty characters defined a generation: the lost and searching Clay; his on-again/off-again girlfriend Blair; and the tragic Julian. In the two-and-a-half decades since the New York Times' notoriously unflappable critic Michiko Kakutani called the book "one of the most disturbing novels I've read in a long time," Zero's glassy-eyed recklessness has thoroughly infiltrated pop culture. Its influence can be found in the tortured, pedophiliac stalk of Interpol's music; the culture-addled missives of writer Tao Lin; and the hedonism of the pretty young things on "Gossip Girl."
Bedrooms dives into the expectedly fraught adulthoods of Zero's characters: Clay's now a New York film producer casting his new movie in L.A.; Blair's engaged to still-philandering Trent; and Julian's past continues to haunt him. It's a characteristically dark work for Ellis, but one with grisly happenings that can't be dismissed as fancifully as those of, say, American Psycho. The author's ultimate fate for Clay will launch a thousand conversations about the human capacity for evil.
In a recent telephone interview, Ellis insisted that Bedrooms wasn't a novel he ever intended to write; rather, he began to wonder what had become of his characters after rereading Zero. He revisited the book while writing his 2005 fictitious meta-memoir Lunar Park, in which an author named Bret Easton Ellis is haunted by his entire body of work.
Conversing with Ellis feels like arriving late to a cocktail party he's been hosting for some time. While discussing British model/socialite Peaches Geldof, who's reportedly doing a children's book "inspired" by Ellis, the already animated and inquisitive author becomes even chattier as conversation turns to MTV's scripted reality show "The Hills." He implores for its viewing, not content simply to hear of "Laguna Beach" ("The Hills'" precursor) fandom. Ellis momentarily critiques a few of the show's characters and then stops: "That's not going to mean anything to you because you haven't seen the show. ... The saddest moment was when Heidi's mom saw her with all her plastic surgery for the first time and she just broke down," he says in a voice heavy with genuine concern. "It was heartbreaking."
It's as though Ellis has seen one of his own break and fall apart. And, in a way, he has. Heidi Montag, Lindsay Lohan, and all of the young TMZ celebutantes live in the shadow of Zero's live fast/die young/never feel ethos — a hedonistic spiral Ellis brings full circle to a horrifying comeuppance in Bedrooms.
Ellis is, at heart, a moralist — that's why his stories have had such lasting impact. For an author whose work has enraged legions of feminists (see: American Psycho's Habitrail scene), and been banned by countless schools, he isn't into shock for shock's sake, or self-destruction "just because." He rebuked himself in Lunar Park, and remains thought-provoking through Bedrooms's ghastly final moments. Ellis has seen the futures of Heidi and all the other rich, bored and broken children of the Zero generation. And according to Imperial Bedrooms, they are going to hell.