Having completed his vivisection of '80s apathy and excess with the peerless American Psycho, Bret Easton Ellis took his gleaming scalpel to literary genres, transforming conspiracy-thriller pulp into explosive pop-art opera with Glamorama and grafting metafictional dourness onto domestic horror with Lunar Park. With Imperial Bedrooms, Ellis once again wrestles with a borrowed form, but this time around it's Chandler-esque noir whispering between the pristine sentences, and it's a big snooze.
Ostensibly a sequel to Less Than Zero, the solar-flared snapshot of L.A.'s rich-kid wasteland that made Ellis famous and loved and loathed, Imperial Bedrooms catches up with Clay and Blair and Julian and Rip as they drag their drugged and tanned bodies into middle age. Not much has changed in 25 years: Ellis' Los Angeles is still a bright hell of mutual exploitation, while his pack of walking ciphers have inherited their parents' soul-crushing film industry jobs, the spoils of which differ little from the Bacchanalian perks of their teenhoods.
As in Less Than Zero, the staggering vapidity is filtered through Clay's dazed point of view, only the stakes have been raised and the humor dialed down. The nascent paranoia and dread humming at the edges of Less Than Zero come to full, steamrolling life here, as a pulpy plot pulled from the airport terminal racks: An associate turns up flayed and sans hands in a desert, threatening text messages haunt Clay's iPhone, a blue Jeep trails him through Hollywood, and an aspiring actress-slash-femme-fatale draws Clay into a perverted roundelay that everyone but him seems to know the words to.
Ellis' long and winding sentences, as tortuous and gorgeous as Laurel Canyon Boulevard during golden hour, are sturdy conveyances through L.A.'s smog, but they too often terminate at plot points trapped on the drawing board. Ultimately, the resurrection of Less Than Zero's familiar names and arrangements seems like a last-ditch effort to draw us into a failed noir experiment, but Ellis' characters are the last things we ever cared about. They exist to bear witness, and Ellis is there to record and ironize the sickness they can see but can't quite feel. What they see in Imperial Bedrooms is crime fiction apprenticeship, and Ellis documents the hoary routine all too faithfully.
Bret Easton Ellis reads at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. 7:30 pm Monday, June 28. Free.