Dr. Alex E. Blazer

Department of English & Rhetoric

Georgia College & State University

Milledgeville, GA 31061

alex.blazer@gcsu.edu

alexeblazer.com

 

"Disappear Here":

The Pathological Decadence of Bret Easton Ellis's

Less Than Zero and Imperial Bedrooms

I turn the radio up, loud. The streets are totally empty and I drive fast. I come to a red light, tempted to go through it, then stop once I see a billboard that I don't remember seeing and I look up at it. All it says is "Disappear Here" and even though it's probably an ad for some resort, it still freaks me out a little and I step on the gas really hard and the car screeches as I leave the light. I put my sunglasses on even though it's still pretty dark outside and I keep looking into the rearview mirror, getting this strange feeling that someone's following me.

(Bret Easton Ellis, Less Than Zero 38)

 

[. . .] that night I dream about the boy, [. . .] and I keep asking him, "Who are you?" and for some reason he's gesturing at me, the muscles in his arms and chest straining, and as he moves closer I can see the tattoo of a dragon on his forearm and there's blood in the boy's hair and when I stumble into the guest bathroom in the middle of the night, [. . .] I turn on the lights, and in the mirror above the counter, written in something red, are two words: DISAPPEAR HERE.

(Bret Easton Ellis, Imperial Bedrooms 104)

In his chapter on decadence from the study, Blank Fictions: Consumerism, Culture and the Contemporary American Novel, James Annesley argues that although writers like Bret Easton Ellis "can be seen to echo fin de siècle fiction's interest in extreme experiences and pleasures, the transitory moments of release experienced in nineteenth-century decadent texts are only momentarily reflected in blank fiction. This key difference can be interpreted by considering the way in which nineteenth-century decadence sees a resistance to commodification that blank fiction can not share" (134). Ellis's Less Than Zero (1985) both criticizes and caters to consumerism; Clay, its preppie protagonist and postmodern dandy, drifts through a disconnected culture barely stitched together by sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll, and snuff films. He self-consciously reflects upon his decline and melancholically realizes his emptiness yet takes no productive action, no action period. He can only be a spectator to the emotional devastation of families broken apart by the rise of consumerist values, the psychosexual alienation of friends selling themselves for drugs, and the debased violence of snuff films circulating in an abject market. Although at 20 he is "freak[ed] out a little" by the advertising billboard that begs him to indulge in an act that is the existential equivalent to self-cancellation, "Disappear Here," Clay at 45 in Imperial Bedrooms (2010), Less Than Zero's sequel, changes from passive spectator to pathological narcissist, sadomasochist, and active psychotic. The college student who watched his friend Julian prostitute himself becomes the middle-aged man who orchestrates his murder. He still views snuff, now via YouTube on his iPhone; but now he enacts sexual violence on others himself. In this paper, building on Annesley's discussion of decadence, I will first explore the decadence of Less Than Zero from a psychoexistential point of view by criticizing the unconscious thanatoptic desire of Clay's passive gaze. Second, I will examine the sadism and psychosis of Imperial Bedrooms. Third, I will argue that Ellis's sequel serves as a caution to the capitalistic decadence of our commodified culture. Commodity fetishism breeds not only profligate perversion but also pernicious psychosis. Clay is faced with an existential test. Because he chooses the consumerist gaze over concrete connections with human beings, because he decides to "Disappear Here" into an annihilating abyss of decadent pleasure, he returns 25 years later not as an overwhelmed spectator but rather as a compulsive sadist. His miserable failure in Less Than Zero engenders his pathological descent, decline, and decadence in Imperial Bedrooms.

 

This abstract summarizes my presentation, "'Disappear Here': The Pathological Decadence of Bret Easton Ellis's Less Than Zero and Imperial Bedrooms." The Louisville Conf. on Literature and Culture since 1900. U of Louisville, Louisville. 24 Feb. 2011.