Review: Lunar Park by Bret Easton Ellis Print

Lunar_park(San Diego Union-Tribune September 4, 2005)

A Big Self-Conscious Mess

If a novelist writes a bad novel, a critic has a duty to say why: The plot is lame, the characters flat, the conflict uncoiled, the theme old hat. But if the novelist is Bret Easton Ellis, who began his career in 1985 with the strangely beguiling "Less Than Zero" and whose newest fiction reads like his last two roundly detested works—the BTK-like screed "American Psycho" (a novel that women's groups vehemently objected to, Simon and Schuster dropped, eating their $300,000 advance, and Knopf published) and the fashionista flop "Glamorama"—a reviewer has to watch it. He shouldn't let his disgust with Ellis' predictably affected infantilism overcome his judgment.

But, so help me, "Lunar Park" is a waste. Ellis' first novel in seven years is trite and celebrity-self-obsessed and convoluted, with a protagonist who is, that's right, Ellis himself, the trite, celebrity-self-obsessed and convoluted novelist who can't help it that his life has turned into a trite, celebrity-self-obsessed, convoluted novel. Ellis' tone—Don't hate me because I'm so clever—taints nearly every page. But such brattishness is not what's infuriating. It's the author-publisher conspiracy: Knopf's press run of 125,000 copies is coupled with a marketing campaign that suggests we should read Ellis because he's a saucy knave, not a good writer.

Knopf is right, of course, which is what's infuriating.

"Lunar Park" is a roman a clef, in which Ellis' Ellis lives in a Fairbanks Ranch-like home with his newly acquired family: a movie star wife, named Jayne Dennis; a stepdaughter from one of Dennis' liaisons; and Dennis and Ellis'11-year-old son, whom Ellis wanted aborted and has never acknowledged, but now wants to father. After rehashing, in a Vanity Fair-like preface, the burden of his fame (promiscuous sex, ambiguous sexuality, seven-figure advances, movie deals, rampant doping, estranged father), he lives through six days of a haunting that scares him a lot more than it scares his family, largely because it features the scum who've peopled his earlier novels – beings nobody but Ellis can see.

Were that scary, we might crow. But it's not. What is, is Ellis'unrelenting dumbness as tortured writer, self-hating narcissist and insufferable showman.

But hold on. Can't a piece of genre-bending postmodern fiction that entangles a real-and-fake celebrity author with novelistic intentionality have meaning?

It might, if Ellis could do something other than melodramatize his paranoia. The book's middle three-fifths is a tedious muddle of supernatural events that terrorize Ellis and ape early drafts of Stephen King. One climax occurs when a demonologist and his crew rake the house with their galvanometers, hoping to find an Amityville-like source. And they do. Mr. Ellis, I'm afraid the source is not the house. What is? Mr. Ellis asks. You are, replies the demonologist. I myself am hell.

But can't heart-stopping terror arise from such a tormented protagonist? It might, if Ellis's character weren't so idiotically drawn. None of his family likes him. The kids think he's weird because he badgers them about his hallucinations. In the setup, he has the ever-pliant Dennis take him back because she reasons family life will, like a trip to the Betty Ford clinic, restore his sobriety. Here's how: "She listened. She made an offer. She held out a hand." Soon, she's terminally sorry about extending that hand because Ellis is major baggage: Xanax addict, slob, alkie, womanizer, a regular Elvis.

He's also wormed up with an unexplainable evil, which Ellis' Ellis finds more intriguing than how his behavior effects others. Thus, Saints Alive, the stepdaughter's toy bird, starts to claw stuff to pieces, the paint on the house begins flaking off, and the dog's anus dilates to 10 inches and reveals . . . you don't want to know.

We should care for a man who is bedeviled by all this—and is having trouble finishing his latest opus, which Knopf's top knobs are lusting for, another "pornographic thriller"? But how can you sympathize when not until Page 223 is there a moment of tenderness between Ellis, the father and Robby, the son. Robby: "And you scare me. You're so angry all the time. I hate it." Ellis: "That's all gonna change. I'm gonna change, okay?"

But can't a Borges-like snare, in which the author's imagination is stalking the author, steer us meaningfully through the fun house of self and persona?

It might, if the whole affair weren't dripping with snake oil. The publicity fellows at Knopf have companioned a "Lunar Park" Web site to the book. There, you can read the fake back story of Jayne Dennis and see the fake pix of her and Ellis, of her and Keanu Reeves, of her at the Oscars. On the site, you can also gasp at other boyish inanities that may further the mystery of the novel, but, in the end, are to literature what "Celebrity Justice" is to jurisprudence.

Maybe this novel is meant to satirize our self-referential culture. Indeed, whose ego in fiction's sphere is more Viagra-ed than Bret Easton Ellis'? To wit: Ellis' Ellis is "so famous" that writing students, party crashers and dope dealers "looked at me in awe." Ellis' Ellis woos Aimee, a plucky literature grad student, who is later found dismembered by another student who may or may not be the dapper Patrick Bateman, from "American Psycho," and may be stalking Ellis as well. Don't kill me because I'm so clever. (Guess who Aimee had been writing her dissertation on, against her adviser's wishes?)

Then, mid-haunting, Ellis' Ellis is interrogated by a detective who's read "American Psycho" and cites the "Vintage edition" page numbers (there is no other edition) to prove that somebody is copycatting the Bateman's murders. All this is beyond self-aggrandizement; it's self-product placement. It would seem that Ellis can't stand it that "American Psycho's" leading man is more famous than he is. Even though our media love-child may be seeking self-understanding—were he really, he would try memoir—the silly evil and the marketing excrement take him further from, not closer to, self-awareness.

To assure you that a Thomas-Larson-demonic-reviewer self did not hijack my psyche and force me to write this critical jeremiad against Ellis and Ellis' Ellis, I offer a positive. One reason his novel will likely sell is that celebrities who expose themselves (even in a novel) command an audience. Is there value in Bret Easton Ellis recognizing that he doesn't have to be tortured by Bret Easton Ellis? I think so—but in political terms. "Lunar Park" may mirror just how dangerous the self-delusions of a few powerful men can be.