Books

Bret Easton Ellis and the Dark Side of the Moon

Jeff Gomez

'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.

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."


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.

Books

Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.

Music

PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.

Film

'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.

Music

Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.

Film

Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.

Music

Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.

Music

The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.

Music

Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.

Music

Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.

Music

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.

Music

'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.

Music

Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.

Television

Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.

Film

Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.

Music

The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.