Middle-Aging Enfant Terrible Bret Easton Ellis Tells the Story of His Life—Sorta
The 41-year-old Ellis performs a wily bit of P.T. Barnum showboating with his sixth novel, combining the page-turning airport thriller with the tell-all memoir, the ghost story with the Cheever/Carver suburban autopsy, and, toward the end, a modernist pirouette. Lunar Park is by turns a completely trite foray in suburban ennui, a melodramatically hammy meditation on father-son estrangement, and a pedantically grotesque hall of trade-paperback horrors. The one constant that runs through it is that it contains some of the funniest writing Ellis has ever hammered out.
And it leads off with its funniest punch. The opening chapter is a 30-page libretto of manic, howling self-evisceration. Lunar Park’s main character and narrator is a midlife writer named Bret Easton Ellis, who was catapulted to stardom by a 1980s novel about the bored, drug-addled children of affluence called Less Than Zero, which he wrote as a Camden College undergraduate. This first chapter unwinds like a self-recriminating therapy session, with Ellis the character wading through the drugs, lovers, magazine ads, parties, writing a salacious monster of a book called American Psycho, and indulging in more money, drugs, lovers, parties, endless book tours, movie deals, bouncing between New York and Los Angeles, and all the privileges that accords—and always with paparazzi close behind. He hangs out with Judd Nelson and Robert Downey Jr., appears on The Late Show With David Letterman, trades barbs with William F. Buckley Jr., and starts a friendship with another young novelist by the name of Jay McInerney, aka the Jayster. It’s a breathless wake of decadent sin, and even Ellis’ throwaway lines are gems:
"I was trying to stay sober but I’d started opening bottles of chardonnay at ten in the morning, and if I’d drunk everything the night before, I would sit in the Porsche I’d leased for the summer in a Bridgehampton parking lot waiting for the liquor store to open, usually sharing a cigarette with Peter Maas, who was waiting there too.”
That this so closely mirrors the life of the actual Bret Easton Ellis is entirely the point: Ellis (the novelist) has lived so brightly in the media spotlight since Less Than Zero that it’s virtually impossible to separate the Ellis facts from rumors’ fictions, so much so that he might as well be a character to which things happen. And Ellis (the novelist) proves his pen is as sharp as any tabloid columnist’s.
At the end of this opening chapter, Ellis (the character) gets a second chance with ex-girlfriend Jayne, the movie star with whom he had fathered a son, Robby, a decade back during the bad old days. They marry and move to a leviathan home in the suburbs with Robby and Jayne’s young daughter, Sarah, fathered by another man. There among the rest of the McMansions of SUV-driving couples, Robby and Sarah attend the appropriately expensive private school with the other aggressively medicated kids. Ellis (the character) is having writer’s block on his current novel—titled Teenage Pussy, formerly Holy Shit!—and occasionally gets stoned before going to teach at the local liberal arts college, where he’s also trying to seduce grad student Aimee Light, whose dissertation is on the works of Bret Easton Ellis.
Come suburbia, Lunar Park devolves into a clichéd fright fest, if a very well-written clichéd fright fest. Strange things start occurring around the family home. Ellis starts receiving e-mails from the California bank where his father’s ashes are stored in a safe-deposit box. Sarah’s horrendous stuffed-animal bird, who she calls Terby, may be coming to life. Local boys about Robby’s age start disappearing. And a disturbing string of grisly murders start happening that far too closely recall those depicted in American Psycho.
These middle chapters—pretty much the next 270 pages—are as pedestrian as the opening one is great, with Ellis (the character) resorting to more and more trite exposition, narrative tropes, scenes, and ideas to tell his story than Ellis (the novelist) has ever resorted to in his entire career. Puns and anagram word games offer mundane clues to the source of the malevolence bubbling to the surface of the book as subtly as it would in a Stephen King novel. Ellis (the character) starts to freak out. And then another narrator appears, called “the writer,” and Lunar Park dwindles into the bastard offspring of Dean Koontz and Italo Calvino.
It’s tempting to read these chapters as a detached satire of just the sort of forgettable fiction for which Ellis (the novelist) has always been derided and cheered: literary fluff. And if Lunar Park concluded in his usual flourish of style over substance, it would undoubtedly feel like just such a mannered ploy. Instead, Lunar Park ends in two moving paragraphs—very Rick Moody/A.M. Homes emotion, but flesh and blood feelings about heavy loss, nonetheless. And while bookending this novel with the boldest and most confident writing of his career cannot salvage the dithering that transpires in between, Lunar Park casts a strangely affecting shadow. From Less Than Zero through Glamorama, Ellis perfected immediately engrossing novels practically impossible to put down. With Lunar Park, Ellis comes close to writing an immediately engrossing novel that is practically impossible to forget.
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