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The 'Bedrooms' of Bret Easton Ellis? Dark, of course

By Todd Leopold, CNN
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'American Psycho' author talks new book
  • Bret Easton Ellis' writing prescient, influential
  • Ellis says his work comes from personal place, not desire to make big statements
  • Ellis' new book, "Imperial Bedrooms," is a sequel to his first novel, "Less Than Zero"
  • Book's characters may be older, but they're not wiser; they remain distant and alienated

Atlanta, Georgia (CNN) -- You could call it "Ellisworld."

It's a place filled with laconic, distant characters, brand names and coolly assessed surroundings.

Details magazine told its creator, Bret Easton Ellis, "Your critique of society now seems way ahead of the curve. In a way, you invented Paris Hilton and Spencer Pratt and the Kardashians." The UK newspaper The Guardian even called a slate of young writers with similar styles and interests, such as Tao Lin and Aatish Taseer, the "Easton Ellis Generation."

But the man himself says he doesn't start with the intention of making big, influential statements. For him, it's very personal.

"I'm thinking about things that have to do with my own pain or inner turmoil or alienation or stress or loneliness, and then a novel becomes formed through these feelings," Ellis said in an interview at CNN Center. "I don't sit down one morning and automatically sit up and say, I'm going to write a grand, sweeping indictment of Wall Street, so I'm going to write 'American Psycho,' or I'm going to write a dark Hollywood novel that's also the sequel to 'Less than Zero,' [and] I'm going to start it Monday. It doesn't work that way."

That sequel to "Less Than Zero" -- Ellis' first book, and the one that launched his career -- is "Imperial Bedrooms." Among its characters are movie producers, drug dealers, on-the-make actresses and lonely alcoholic writers, people for whom wealth or self-promotion have bred cold detachment. Some are the characters from "Zero" now 25 years older, though generally no wiser.

Clay, "Zero's" narrator, is the alcoholic writer, who's returned to Los Angeles to turn one of his books into a movie. In the process, he re-enters the orbits of his old school friends Julian, Blair, Rip and Trent.

They're still trying to connect -- and still failing.

Ellis has explored that darkness and alienation in all of his novels, whether they involve the recent high school graduates of "Zero," the serial killer of "American Psycho" or the narrator (named, not incidentally, Bret Easton Ellis) of "Lunar Park."

His style and subject matter have divided critics from the beginning, and Ellis' quick rise to fame prompted many to pull out their knives.

The son of a wealthy real estate investor, a child of the Southern California lifestyle he wrote about, Ellis first emerged on the literary scene as a 21-year-old Bennington College student. His chilly prose in "Zero" earned mixed reviews, and his membership in the New York club scene was mocked, particularly by the acerbic Spy magazine.

"I think the American press did want a very groomed writerly person who was the epitome of what they like to look at as 'literary youth,' and I just didn't fit the bill," he says now.

The clamor rose to new heights with "American Psycho," his 1991 novel about an extremely rogue Wall Street trader. The book's detailed descriptions of murder and mutilation prompted its original publisher to drop the work before publication and inspired protests from the National Organization for Women about the book's treatment of women.

Almost 20 years later, Ellis is still surprised -- and amused -- by the controversy.

"You've got to understand, I did not really take it all that seriously . People, I think, had misread the book," he says, explaining that "Psycho" got caught up in the late-'80s/early-'90s politically correct atmosphere that made pariahs of the rap group 2 Live Crew, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and singer Madonna.

"This narrative started taking place about the book that wasn't true. And I just had to sit on the sidelines and watch it play out. ... The book was one thing I had spent three years working on, and I knew it wasn't what the press was calling it."

Ellis got the last laugh. In the years since, the book spawned a 2000 film starring Christian Bale (and a straight-to-video sequel with Mila Kunis and William Shatner); lead character Patrick Bateman is featured on websites (one graphic design site, devoted to clever business cards, gave it the headline "Patrick Bateman could kill for these business card designs"); and then there's that fascination with celebrities, money and luxury goods, which is ... well, everywhere.

But he's still as divisive as ever, as "Imperial Bedrooms" reviews attest: "very much on target," said Clark Collis of Entertainment Weekly, awarding the book an A-minus; "empty," "a work of limited imagination that all too deftly simulates the effects of having no imagination at all," wrote Janet Maslin in The New York Times.

Even his influence gets knocked: "Here are the short choppy chapters; the flat run-on passages; the authorial ennui and banal recitation of brand names -- all of which felt fresh when he premiered them in 'Less Than Zero' and now have been cribbed by two decades worth of Comp Lit majors," said the San Francisco Chronicle's review.

Ellis says he doesn't care. His dismisses talk of a "Bedrooms" movie -- "I have no idea what's going on with that. There's nothing in the works" -- and looks to others for inspiration. For "Imperial Bedrooms," his literary influences included L.A. noir specialist Raymond Chandler and a longtime lodestar, Joan Didion.

Indeed, he's returned to L.A. himself, moving back about four years ago after almost 20 years in New York.

So the City of Angels, which he paints with such bleak colors in "Bedrooms," can't be all that bad, can it? Of course not, he says of the city of his birth. The portrayal is nothing ... personal.

"I like Los Angeles," he says. "I don't think L.A. really is the problem. I think it's the characters who are the problems."