"Ive decided against wearing masks." - Bret Easton Ellis, Lunar Park
"Whatever, Bret." - me
I just got the new Bret Easton Ellis book, Lunar Park, in the mail today, and so far, I'm really enjoying it. But there are a few factors that are keeping me from enjoying it as much as I'd like. One is that my ARC came in late, and now I've got what seems an absurdly small amount of time to turn over a review. Another - and this is an ongoing problem - is that as a critic and a creative writer, I'm doubly damned when trying to immerse myself in fiction. It's like a special effects designer trying to get lost in a blockbuster. The Critic in me is stopping to take notes, trying to build an argument even as he reads - and the fact that this novel is such a complex mixture of truth and fiction (though Ellis claims that "every word is true") only adds to the distancing, since it seems imperative yet impossible (at this early stage, anyway) to separate them. The Writer in me, of course, is looking for things to steal, trying to figure out how the experience of this novel could help his own work, mentally deriding certain tics while feeling a bit jealous of others. And somewhere in the middle, the small voice of the Reader wishes to just get lost in a good story.
So this is sort of a psuedo-meta-memoir, although it's nowhere near as precious and gimmicky as that description makes it sound. It's engrossing from the first page and stays that way through the 25th or so, as Ellis takes us on a whirlwind tour through his sordid, glamorous past. It's a lurid, splashy tell-all, no doubt with all the blind spots and simplifications such things entail (not to mention the wealth of details that are entirely fictional), and it's mesmerizing. Ellis begins by analyzing the first sentences of each of his books and states a desire to get back to the taut simplicity of his earlier novels, away from the torturous sprawl of Glamorama. He introduces us to his father, to whom the book is dedicated, painting him as an abusive, manipulative and ultimately cynical person, who imparted to young Bret the worldview that would inform his books. The father who always derided his literary ambitions until, at age 21, Ellis published the novel he'd written in college, Less Than Zero, which became an instant hit, and, moreover, the uneasy voice of a generation. But instead of accepting his father's sudden and opportunistic embrace, Ellis threw himself into the Scene, and barely made it out alive. The Rules of Attraction, another novel about "wealthy, alienated, sexually ambiguous students", was written during his senior year at Camden, and it's interesting to note that Ellis calls it an "indictment of ... nothing, really..." Particularly after the publication of American Psycho, Ellis was equally demonized and deified - some hailed the novel as a penetrating satire, others blasted it as a glorification of materialism and misogyny, when the reality seems to be that Ellis was simply writing what he knew, filtered through the jaded worldview he'd learned since birth. But again, it's tough to separate fact from fiction in this mirror world that Ellis is creating: While many of the broad strokes ring true, the details are fabricated, not the least of these being Ellis's relationship with the imaginary actress Jayne Dennis, who even has her own website, and seems to be fooling some folks (but to be charitable, maybe they were just playing along). So anyway, this fictionalized Ellis continued behaving badly as his fame mounted, and by the time of the Glamorama world tour, he's overweight, strung out on heroin and crack, broke, alone, and completely out of control. He impregnated Dennis and refused to acknowledge the child.
This all leads up to the novel proper, which finds Ellis married to Dennis, attempting to raise his child and another she had with someone else, getting clean (not really), living in the suburbs, terrified of boredom but slowly realizing he's happy. And as we all know, horror stories must begin with an idyll to defile. "Every word is true" Ellis says with the directness of all unreliable narrators, then sets about detailing the events that would so quickly unravel his newfound stability. There's a golden retriever named Victor (still loves recycling those character names) who seems to recognize that Ellis isn't as reformed as he lets on, there's a giant Halloween party with naked co-eds and a coke-snorting Jay McInerney, there's Ellis giving booze to his medicated prepubescent son, there's a series of weird events - flickering sconces, a Terby doll (some sort of grotesque Furby parody) that seems to be coming to life and menacing Dennis's daughter, there's a stranger at the party dressed as Patrick Bateman that seems to imply Ellis's old life isn't as far behind him as he'd like to believe, there's an in-progress novel within the novel (a pornographic thrilled called "Teenage Pussy" about a "young, hip Manhattan bachelor's erotic life," "elegantly hardcore and interspersed with jaunty bouts of my laconic humor," and best of all, "You could read the novel either as a satire of 'the new sexual obnoxiousness' or as the simple story of an average guy who enjoys defiling women with his lust."). Furniture is being subtly, ominously rearragned, Ellis is hilarious at depicting himself as an inept father striking notes of indignation and insouciance at all the wrong times, like an alien who's studied and perfected human gestures but hasn't figured out when to deploy them. I can't wait to read the rest.
For more on Lunar Park, check out Brandon Stosuy's review in the Village Voice.