Bret Easton Ellis shot to fame whilst still in college in 1985 when he published his first novel,
Less Than Zero. An exploration of the lives of the young, rich and dissolute in 1980s Los Angeles, it instantly captured the imagination of a generation. Since this infamous debut Easton Ellis has written six more books dealing with issues of consumerism and celebrity in the modern world, among them
American Psycho. For his latest, Imperial Bedrooms, released last week through Knopf, Easton Ellis returns to California and revisits, 25 years later, the troubled souls of his debut novel. Here, exclusively for NOWNESS, he creates a portrait of an obsessive character in the throes of post-relationship drama––once again capturing the neuroses that are so ineluctably a feature of our modern lives.
“It’s my birthday,” was the first thing he said to her at the party in San Diego, and later that night in his motel room she talked about all the things that moved her. They dated for about a year, starting that summer. And, like he did in all of his relationships, he immediately noticed his suspicions and couldn’t let them go.
For example: the gifts she had given him that Christmas, two days before she left LA to see her family in the midwest, seemed exotic to him, more expensive than what somebody who managed a restaurant could actually afford—the Piaget watch; the pearl cufflinks that he would never wear. And there were always flowers and gift certificates and tickets to concerts.
Her desire seemed real—“It is real,” she stressed when he confronted her—so why did he feel that he had become duped this time? Why did this always happen? Who was controlling the narrative?
The inevitable break-up kept replaying itself over a series of weeks at the end of that spring, and yet they kept coming back together—his insistence, her reluctance—until, exasperated, she finally ended it. “I don’t want to talk to you ever again,” he told her.
After the shock subsided he realized: she had met someone else. He realized: when they’d been together she had probably hooked-up with several other men. He realized: his suspicion about this had probably hit him a couple of months after she had halfway moved into his apartment. But he only realized this now: after she had left.
He realized: it had always been casual for her, despite the attention and the gifts and the bragging to her girlfriends about him. He realized: she did not share the same desire.
She wasn’t a bad person, he kept telling himself––it was no one’s fault. But then the year went dark and the world of numbness and pain (he had never felt anything like it) overwhelmed him. This had happened before, but never in such a savage way.
Everything kept moving more slowly until time stopped. Real despair. He thought he had experienced it before, but during that bleak year he realized he had felt nothing like it, that up until now he had been spared.
He thought about the weekends they spent up the coast—but they were now manufactured illusions that he realized they had both created. Everything about those weekends now seemed fake: the “surf,” the “dunes,” the aerial shots of the convertible driving up Interstate 1 in a slow-motion spiral.
But then the unreality was always so much more beautiful to him than the reality. “Isn’t that always the case,” he murmured to himself.
At first he avoided her Facebook page; but then it seemed as if he was never not looking at it, searching for clues through the pictures she had posted. What was she doing at a shooting range? Why was she on a beach in Palmilla? When had she bought the Golden Retriever? One page led to another page and then to another, and then it was four o’clock in the morning and the bottle of wine had been finished––but it didn’t matter because he couldn’t really sleep anyway.
He hated every movie he saw that year. He could barely concentrate on novels. The saddest National songs were all he could listen to. The worst thing: his suffering didn’t touch her.
And the suffering was acutely physical—the stress, the migraines. He could actually feel something entering his heart: it was a dull blade, it was a razor, it was a wire. It was the deep slice he kept feeling in the middle of his chest.
He fought the pain until he finally surrendered to it and drifted with it, letting the pain take him where it wanted him to go. He made a list of all the things he would never miss about her. And then he was embarrassed. And then he made another list.
He realized both of them were so controlling that, instead of simply getting to know each other, they had crafted the relationship and built it according to each other’s needs. It was her fault, too, he kept promising himself.
He traveled a lot that year, but time zones and calendars and anniversaries, his birthday—it all melted away into a hard confusion. What had happened between them could never be mended. It was simply too big. Everything became harder: travel, work, sleep, driving––concentrating on other women he was out with.
He thought about moving; leaving the city. She still lived there and was routinely sighted by friends. He was both saddened and delighted when one of those friends mentioned that she didn’t look so good anymore: she had “gained weight”; she had “done something to her hair”; she was “drunk at a club”; she “probably missed him” because the guy she was with was a douche.
He had even glimpsed her once at The Sunset Tower and had bolted the business dinner, suggesting to the table that they go elsewhere, making up an excuse by pretending to look at his iPhone and telling the table he had mistakenly double-booked at another restaurant.
“Don’t look back,” he kept telling himself. But where was the logic in that? Why not look back? Why was it so hard to forgive her? Why was it always so hard to forgive her? Everything failed him. How had he become so afraid of her?
His friends didn’t want to hear about it anymore and gently tuned him out when he mentioned her name. But mentioning her name had become an addiction and he couldn’t stop himself. The friends stopped listening.
They hadn’t seen each other in over two years. They met in a restaurant on Melrose. He had broken down and called her. After he hung up he almost instantly regretted it.
She sat across from him, apparently eager, but he realized it didn’t matter: he no longer trusted her. She told him that he never really had, and that was the problem. He looked away, impatient.
But he listened to her: the apologies, the mistakes, how lost she had been.
Finally, he pretended he was late for a meeting. He found his voice and it was unwavering. “What time is it,” he asked.
She didn’t say anything. She just smiled. The moment began clarifying itself.
“Look at your wrist,” she said softly.
He was wearing the watch she had given him that Christmas.
Neither one of them knew it then, but they would be married in two years.
When she took his hand in that restaurant and asked if he would forgive her and if maybe that could start over, he said yes. But he also realized that he was the type of man who had always believed that the memory of the past helped to write the future.
So: this time he would have to rewrite the past.