Dark Side of the Moon

[16 August 2005]

By Jeff Gomez

For my part I know I do not think I am any better or any worse than most people, but I know that if I set down every action in my life and every thought that has crossed my mind the world would consider me a monster of depravity.
—W. Somerset Maugham, The Summing Up

John Irving once said that when he’s in between the writing of novels, he starts his autobiography. Before he knows it he begins to lie. First he lies a little, and then a lot. Finally he realizes that he’s no longer writing his autobiography and has begun instead yet another novel. A cursory look at the fantastic new Bret Easton Ellis novel—Lunar Park, his first in six years—looks very much like what Irving described: much embellished upon autobiography posing as fiction. After all, the book revolves around a character named Bret Easton Ellis who shares most of Ellis’s genuine biography: was born and raised in Southern California, went to college in Vermont, and shortly thereafter became a best-selling writer and celebrated author at an early age with the publication of his first novel.

In the opening pages of Lunar Park, Ellis describes what it was like to witness Less Than Zero explode into more than he had expected: “I watched with a mixture of fear and fascination—laced with excitement—its transformation from a student assignment into a glossy hardcover that became a huge best seller and zeitgeist touchstone, and was translated into 25 languages and made into a big-budget Hollywood movie, all within the space of about 16 months.”

“Ellis—like Prospero—is ultimately the creator of the novel’s increasing chaos.” The star of Bret Easton Ellis’s Lunar Park, the author’s first book in six years, is… Bret Easton Ellis. Jeff Gomez explains.
LUNAR PARK
by Bret Easton Ellis
Knopf
August 2005, 310 pages, $25.00

After college Ellis moved to Manhattan, where he wrote three more novels, partied with other literary luminaries of the time, and was also turned into gossip fodder. In between all of that, in 1992, his father died. A man he describes as being “careless, abusive, alcoholic, vain, angry, paranoid,” his absence from Ellis’s life brought more distress rather than comfort, and in Lunar Park Ellis ostensibly wrestles with the facts of his father’s life, his legacy, and the impact on him as a writer and as a person, as well as mercilessly plumbing his own depths in an effort to finally find out what has made him into the kind of man and writer that he is. Or at least that’s what we’re supposed to believe.

The story, after a mock-serious opening chapter named “beginnings” where Ellis recounts his life and career (the facts begin to blur early and often), takes place in Midland, a quiet suburb a few hours outside of New York City. Ellis is married to Jayne Dennis, a famous model-turned-actress, and they live with their 10-year-old son, named Robby, and Jayne’s daughter from a past relationship, the six-year-old Sarah, born during a period of separation. Dennis is taking a break between films while Ellis is gearing up to begin work on a new novel, tentatively titled Teenage Pussy. But before he can get started, Halloween arrives, and with it comes a scary story (it is, after all, Halloween): children in the area have gone missing, 13 in all, while a serial murderer has been recreating the gruesome acts committed by Ellis’s fictional character from American Psycho, Patrick Bateman. In the midst of all of this Ellis desperately tries to keep his sanity and his marriage together, while also trying in vain to connect with his distant son, as well as attempting to figure out what is the strange and terrible force that is haunting him and his family.

While some of Ellis’s fictional hybrids haven’t quite gelled in the past, (such as the vampires in his story collection The Informers), the pitch of Lunar Park is nearly perfect and Ellis hits all the right notes, many of them so succinctly and with such deft details that the facts finally become irrelevant because the alternative is so much fun.

The recent example for this kind of novel at first seems to be Philip Roth, who has nearly a half dozen books that include a “Philip Roth” character who has many biographical traits of the real author. What Ellis and Roth share in this respect is the use of their own lives as a springboard for their fiction. However, in Roth’s case, he can’t stand sticking to the truth; the closest he’s come to straight autobiography was a slim book from the late eighties called The Facts, where his own life bored him after only 200 pages, whereas his orgiastic fantasies such as Sabbath’s Theater and Portnoy’s Complaint have kept him amused over the course of thousands of pages.

But unlike Roth’s rather narcissistic novels, Ellis’s alternate reality stretches out much farther than just himself. In Lunar Park, he imagines a world where terrorists stage not only big attacks on familiar or important landmarks, but also in “...crowded Burger Kings and Starbucks and Wal-Marts and in subways at rush hour”. Ellis’s apocalyptic vision continues: “Miles of major cities had been cordoned off behind barbed wire, and morning newspapers ran aerial photographs of bombed-out buildings on the front page, showing piles of tangled bodies in the shadow of the crane lifting slabs of scorched concrete. More and more often there were ‘no survivors’. Bulletproof vests were on sale everywhere, because scores of snipers had suddenly appeared; the military police stationed on every corner offered no solace, and surveillance camera proved useless.” It’s with masterful paragraphs like these that Lunar Park rises above the namedropping and literary gossip, and shows that Ellis’s ultimate staying power as a writer will rely on his powerful imagination and vision, rather than on the shock of his subject matter or presentation, not to mention the scandals that sometimes surround his work.

And while a lot of the novel’s most immediate charm comes from the novel’s wry positioning of truth and the humor that grows out of that (Did Ellis really dine at the White House, and did he really have a drug-fueled breakdown during the Glamorama tour?), the far richer rewards of the novel are found elsewhere. For instance, in a short scene that takes place with Ellis and his kids at the mall, he captures perfectly the nuances of adolescence in suburbia: “The boys glared at one another as they talked yet everything was said with a marked lack of enthusiasm, and they made vain, halfhearted threats at each other. All of them had headphones dangling around their necks and cargo pants from Banana Republic and they all wore the same orange-tinted wraparound sunglasses that Robby was wearing. When one of the boys glanced over at me as if I were contagious I finally understood that I was The Distraction—the reason this conversation was not going to last much longer.” Having long been called a satirist, Ellis sheds that tag with passages like these, showing that it’s his skill to observe and reveal-rather than just ridicule—that make him a powerful writer. Lunar Park is filled with many brilliant moments like these.

And yet, for all of the references to himself and his work, the shadow of another famous writer looms over Lunar Park: Shakespeare. To begin with, there are numerous nods to Hamlet in the story itself: the father’s ghost haunting the son wrapped in turmoil, Ellis wracked with remorse and near disintegration (not to mention the fact that Ellis and his family live on Elsinore Lane, and that local landmarks include the Fortinbras Mall and Horatio Park). And yet—with all of Lunar Park‘s rich fantasy and horror elements—the Shakespearean character that looms the largest over Lunar Park isn’t Hamlet but is instead the magic-illusionist Prospero from Shakespeare’s last play The Tempest. Ellis—like Prospero—is ultimately the creator of the novel’s increasing chaos.

But not everything in the book quite works; the rearranged furniture and the trails of slime harken back to the unexplained chill and mounds of confetti that cropped up in his previous novel Glamorama, and yet while every detail doesn’t quite add up (but let’s not be picky; Lunar Park is a book that’s designed—the same with most novels that include touches of magical realism—to not add up), the ride it takes you on is alternately hilarious, beguiling, frightening, and finally tremendously affirming, and in the end it adds up to Ellis’s most thoroughly enjoyable novel yet. Fans and non-fans alike will find much to like and admire in its pages, and while of course much of the story isn’t real (despite Ellis’s claim at the beginning that: “All of it really happened, every word is true”), as a song by The Divine Comedy once said, “She’s a fake. Sure, but she’s a real fake.”

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/050816-lunarpark/