Lunar Park by Bret Easton Ellis
From Brian Howe, for About.com
Imagine that you're Bret Easton Ellis. You became an instant star in college, writing two brief, nihilistic novels (Less Than Zero and The Rules of Attraction) that became the uneasy voices of an era. You cemented your stardom and controversial status with American Psycho, a novel that combined outrageous violence and deadpan delivery to drive the reading public into a frenzy of speculation - was it a penetrating social satire, or a misogynistic glorification of violence?
Your next novel, the sprawling Glamorama, did nothing to stem the tide of suspicion and venom that had become your milieu. At least since American Psycho, people have largely forgotten to investigate the big themes presented in the work; obsessed with the question - does he mean it? Everyone wants to know the size of the gulf between the 'real' Bret Easton Ellis and the one that wreaks such ugliness on the page. What do you do? Simple: you give them exactly what they want, exactly how they want it. Or so it would seem. But you've got a few tricks up your sleeve yet.
Bret Easton Ellis's new novel, the apocryphal memoir Lunar Park, is a feat of literary sleight-of-hand, a bait and switch game that finds Ellis addressing his controversial work and his relationship to it in a fictionalized confession. Its first spellbinding chapter relates the lurid story of Ellis's rise to stardom, exactly the sort of tell-all that readers have craved. Ellis blames his abusive, manipulative father for the bleak worldview that would inform his writing, and portrays his first two novels as neither indictments nor glorifications - he was writing what he knew through the lens imparted to him by his father.
This period also marks the beginning of his tortured relationship with one of the main characters of Lunar Park, the actress Jayne Dennis, whom he impregnates and abandons. Ellis describes his downward spiral throughout the writing of American Psycho and Glamorama, becoming fatter, more narcissistic and nihilistic, more drugged-out and profligate by the day. Finally he hits rock bottom: broke, strung-out and friendless, he returns to Jayne and their now-teenaged son, moving into the suburbs of New York for one last chance at a normal life.
But if Ellis is being suitably penitent to appease his critics and suitably open to thrill his fans, all is not as it seems. While the author emphasizes that "Every word is true", there are plenty of clues to let us know that we're getting a caricature of Ellis, the creature of pure impulse that critics accused him of being. The most glaring clue is Jayne Dennis, an entirely fictional character. As soon as the ruse reveals itself, we're back to square one, trying to separate truth from fiction in the author's work and to figure out what he means.
This murkiness of intention is what makes Ellis's books so fascinating, and what imbues the first chapter of Lunar Park with such power. There are essentially three movements, three narrative modes, which comprise Lunar Park. The first fills in the back-story. The second, which begins the book proper at chapter two, is the strongest and funniest, as it sets up the novel's mysteries and finds Ellis attempting to assimilate into suburban family life. He's up to his old tricks from the start - at a Halloween party, the supposedly clean Ellis does cocaine with Jay McInerney ("The Jayster"), tries to make out with a grad student in the bathroom, and gives his medicated son alcohol.
Ellis is hilarious at painting himself as an outsider in his family - he's like an alien who's studied humans and memorized their gestures, but not the cues to deploy them, and he strikes notes of indignation, concern and paternal authority at all the wrong times. This section of the book also contains some great meta-commentary on his work. He's working on a new novel called Teenage Pussy, a "pornographic thriller" about a young, hip, Manhattan bachelor's erotic life, "elegantly hardcore and interspersed with bouts of [his] laconic humor." Baiting his critics, Ellis writes, "You could read the novel either as a satire on 'the new sexual obnoxiousness' or as the simple story of an average guy who enjoys defiling women with his lust." It's a terrific self-parody, and will be hilarious to those familiar with Ellis's work.
The second movement also sets up the mysteries that will drive the novel, which is essentially about the inescapability of the past, toward its tragic conclusion. Strange occurrences, obscurely connected and ranging from the silly to the supernatural, become literal expressions of the tension and unease around the Ellis house. The family's pet, a Golden Retriever named Victor (yes, Ellis is still recycling character names), regards him with a weirdly intelligent suspicion. The paint is flaking off the outer walls of the house, and the sconces in the hall flicker whenever Ellis passes by. His step-daughter's toy Terby (a grotesque parody of the Furby) is exhibiting menacing and almost sentient traits, shredding pillows and walking on the ceiling.
The furniture in Ellis's living room is being covertly rearranged, ashy footprints stamped into a carpet that seems to be growing shaggier and turning green. Ellis keeps spotting his deceased father's old car; he's receiving blank emails (which he'll eventually discover contain astonishing attachments) from the bank where his father's ashes are stored; palm trees are springing up in New York; a mysterious figure who may or may not actually be American Psycho's Patrick Bateman is creeping around the periphery of his life, as is a weird and not-quite-seen creature from the woods. There are signs that the crimes committed in American Psycho are being re-enacted in real life, and around the area, boys close to his son's age are vanishing into thin air.
Ellis has said that he intended Lunar Park as an homage to Stephen King, and this becomes apparent in the book's third, final and weakest movement. Unfortunately, Ellis squanders some dark magnetism as he makes overreaching connections between his various mysteries, attempting to fire every gun he hung on the wall in the second movement. Sometimes he overstates obvious connections instead of letting the reader draw inferences; sometimes he works too hard to make everything cohere and obliterating the compelling blank areas that usually enrich his books. He drops into a terse, melodramatic procession of one-sentence paragraphs and reiterates the waves of panic and fear that overtake him so often, in such purple prose, that they lose their force.
The man who once revealed too little is perhaps now revealing too much, especially when the monster from the woods, which the reader assumes will remain ambiguous, makes a literal and disappointing (for the horror of the creature can never surpass our imagination of it) appearance. To say more would spoil it - this is essentially a mystery novel, and its mysteries must be preserved - but suffice it to say that Ellis's old life is literally overwriting his new one, and, as he clearly knows, in his former life he amassed debts that cannot go unpaid, no matter how far away he moves or how drastically he reinvents himself.
Even if Lunar Park takes an unfortunate turn during its protracted resolution, it's still an engrossing novel from an author who wears masks even as he ostensibly reveals all; an author with too sophisticated a view of authorial and personal responsibility to couch them in anything but shades of grey.