Bret Easton Ellis wrote "Less Than Zero" while still a college student at Bennington; the book was published 25 years ago. In Sunday's book pages, we look at Ellis, his career as a writer and his new novel, "Imperial Bedrooms," which features Clay, the narrator of "Less Than Zero," now in his 40s.
I interviewed Ellis at his home in late May; these are some parts of that interview that won't be in Sunday's paper.
Carolyn Kellogg: In this book, you revisit
characters that you invented 25 years ago. And you beat them up.
Bret Easton Ellis: I really only wanted to revisit one. I wanted to revisit Clay. And
that was the thing that happened, in terms of why the book was
written. When I was
writing "Lunar Park," to kind of like square away some of the stuff
about the Bret Easton Ellis character, I wanted to
familiarize myself with his work again. And I hadn't read any of the
books, I really don't read any of the books after they're published.
And I hadn't looked at "Less Than Zero" then in like 18 years. And so I
reread it. And I thought,"Oh, interesting. Well, what's he doing
now?" And then I put it aside. But that question kept coming back.... The idea
keeps -- it overwhelms you. And you start making notes, and you
start to become very intrigued by this idea.
I don't know if I thought about
wanting to beat anybody up, wanting to beat the characters up. Though,
OK, I'll admit, as they moved into middle age, my sensibility is such
when I'm writing fiction that I tend to turn towards that -- room.
The dark room, I guess.
CK: To put pressure on the characters?
BEE: I guess put a little pressure on
the characters. A book is also, I think, if I look back on my career,
an emotional map of where I was at any given point. When I look back
at all the books that I've written, I can say OK, yeah, that book
exists because I was there at that point. That was who I was. That's
what I was feeling. That's what I was fantasizing about. That's what
hurt me. I was very lonely. Oh! Or, whatever.
One of the great things about getting to spend time with someone like Ellis -- he spoke to me for nearly two hours -- is that there is room for the discussion to wander. While we talked, he mused about the controversy over his comments about female directors in his Movieline interview and alluded to his glad-Salinger-is-dead Tweet (yes, that's really Ellis on Twitter) -- but I thought some of the most interesting things he had to say were about his work.
You've taken Clay and remade him in a
really different way. He was passive before and now he's guilty.
BEE: [quietly, at first] He didn't stop that girl from
getting raped. He didn't call the police. That
always bothered me. He didn't do anything about that 12-year-old girl
in the bedroom, 25 years ago. OK, are you guilty if you maybe don't participate but
you don't do anything else about it either? I mean, that kind of
passivity was frightening to me when I was writing "Less Than Zero." I
found Clay's passivity, I found it both a way of him protecting
himself from this bleak moral landscape he was a part of -- that
passivity was protecting him, was a self-protective thing. But also
at the same time, I felt that he was guilty of not -- that passivity
was also a flaw, it caused him not to act, in times that he could
have. And to say things that he should maybe have said, or clarified.
I don't know. Clay bothered me in the first one.
But that's again -- you know, a
portrait of narcissism was the big nut that I had. Of entitlement.
This imperial idea.
Ellis describes "Imperial Bedrooms" as "the portrait of a narcissist." But without prompting, he admitted to me that he'd tried that before.
"'Lunar Park,' sure,
is the portrait of a narcissist, too," he said. "So is 'American Psycho.' But this
time out, the narcissist reaches a dead end."
-- Carolyn Kellogg
Photo: Bret Easton Ellis at home, June 7. Credit: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times
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