Imperial Bedrooms

The narrator of Bret Easton Ellis's Lunar Park, his 2005 tale of supernatural, Gothic horror, is called Bret Easton Ellis and shares several traits with the novel's author. The narrator provides a summary of the author's career and quotes the opening lines of his novels. But, on the evidence of Lunar Park (in which Patrick Bateman, the serial killer from Ellis's reviled and admired American Psycho, makes a return), the narrator may or may not be the author. Or be him in parts only. It's hard to tell - as it ought to be.

This strain of postmodern game-playing deepens in Ellis's new novel, Imperial Bedrooms. It is a sequel, 25 years on, to his precocious debut, Less Than Zero, a novel in which Ellis chronicled a "wealthy, alienated, sexually ambiguous young man's Christmas break and all the parties he wandered through and all the drugs he consumed and all the boys and girls he had sex with . . ."

Clay, a successful screenwriter and the narrator of this novel, is not the Clay who narrated Less Than Zero. But, like the young man of that first novel, this Clay also returns to Los Angeles for a break. And Imperial Bedrooms, too, details all the parties he wanders through and all the drugs he consumes and all the sex he has.

This is postmodern LA noir, steeped in paranoia, violence and degradation. Clay's obsession with an aspiring actress-cum-hooker, Rain Hunter, provides the narrative engine of the novel. Ellis is also a master of atmosphere, and his long, run-on lines tumble into one another, intercut by staccato dialogue and incidents treated like film jump-cuts.

He is just as good with the details of surfaces; this fascination with veneers enables Ellis to reach and explore the recesses of morally compromised souls. The characters of Imperial Bedrooms are all emotionally void and ethically bankrupt, and Ellis shines an icy light on their cynical, worn-out, disaffected and alienated conditions.

The motif of a billboard with the legend "Disappear Here" written on it occurs in Less Than Zero. It is reprised in Imperial Bedrooms. The most pressing question to which Ellis tries to find an answer in this disturbing novel is why and when human beings begin to lose their soul, and how their humanity starts to disappear, bit by bit.

Imperial Bedrooms
Bret Easton Ellis
Picador, 256pp, £16.99

Soumya Bhattacharya is the author of the novel "If I Could Tell You" (Tranquebar Press)

This article first appeared in the 26 July 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: leader of the Labour party

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis