"Write what you know" is the age-old adage, and Bret Easton Ellis has forged an infamous career out of doing just that.
So what does Ellis know? He knows sex, drugs, and rock'n'roll.
He made a splash in the early eighties with Less Than Zero, a booze-soaked, sex-crazed, drug-fueled exposé of the fast life at fictional Camden, a small liberal arts college on the East Coast. Loosely autobiographical, it's a casually amoral, deliberately nihilistic piece of work. Ellis was twenty-one when the novel was published.
With sudden fame and fortune came more booze, sex, drugs, and rock'n'roll—the sort of vices only exacerbated by the rampantly materialist, vulture-capitalist craze of the Reagan 80s. In those heady days of brainless hedonism, a new creature was born: Patrick Bateman, star of Ellis's most notorious novel, American Psycho. Bateman is by day the American Dream made manifest: Harvard grad, trust-fund kid, Wall Street banker, and GQ-ready narcissist. Or maybe he's America's manifest destiny: by night he's a psychopathic serial killer.
The narrator is Ellis himself, or at least a fictionalized version of himself. Maybe it’s atonement. Maybe not.
Ellis was roundly decried by both traditional moralists on the right and radical feminists on the left for his clinically misogynistic approach to descriptions of sex and violence, two subjects which, for Ellis, are not mutually exclusive. The question became whether American Psycho was laser-guided social satire or the pornographic fantasies of an out-of-control writer stuck in arrested adolescence.
And now we have Lunar Park.
A character in the novel, someone impersonating Patrick Bateman, says to Ellis, "I want you to reflect on your life. I want you to be aware of all the terrible things you have done. I want you to face the disaster that is Bret Easton Ellis."
This novel is that reflection, and appropriately marks Ellis's first use of the first-person past tense. Maybe it's atonement. Maybe not. The ambiguity stems from Ellis's mastery of the technique of the unreliable narrator—"unreliable" because his narrators invariably subsist on a steady diet of uppers, downers, coke, booze, and various other reality-dodging substances.
In this case, the narrator is Ellis himself, or at least a fictionalized version of himself. Ellis is participating in a tradition extending back as far as Dante's Divine Comedy and continuing right up to Charlie Kaufman's meta-fiction screenplay, Adaptation. And anyone who thinks Ellis's writing is over-the-top sensationalistic grotesquery should revisit their copy of the Inferno.
Lunar Park opens with Ellis settling in to sweet suburbia, Midland County, to live with B-movie actress Jayne Dennis and her two children, Robby and Sarah, the former of which is his biological son. He teaches a breezy writing course at the local liberal arts college (echoes of Camden), romances a student (who is, of course, writing her thesis on his novels called "The Road to Nowhere"), and works on his new piece of pornographic postmodern trash, Teenage Pussy.
A son haunted by the ghost of his father becomes the son, now a father, haunting his own family.
In other words, he is everything we expect Ellis to be: drug-addled, alcoholic, brain-fried, puerile, and insouciant. And in no position to be a respectable father to his children, or a respectable husband to his wife. Fellow Brat-Pack author and 80's holdout, Jay McInerney, shows up at Ellis's Halloween bash as Bret's partner in coke-snorting crime. Bret comments to him, "Weren't we supposed to give up acting twenty-two forever?"
Jay responds, tellingly, "Well, you're wearing a marijuana T-shirt at your own Halloween party, where you just were making out with a coed in the bathroom, so the answer to that, my friend, is a definite nope."
Ellis is stuck in the role of rock-star writer. He needs his groupies and pharmaceuticals. He ignores his maladjusted children, both of whom are medicated, disaffected zombies at tender ages.
Ellis is forced out of his stupor when strange things start happening at 307, Elsinore Lane. Like his fin-de-siecle Glamorama before it, Lunar Park takes a U-Turn from high comedic social satire in the first act to dark and disturbing commentary on the nature of reality, from a writer's perspective, as the novel approaches its apocalyptic conclusion. Ellis's carefully constructed house of cards, designed to isolate him from the outside world (not to mention his own family), begins to collapse.
For one thing, Ellis's most recognizable character, Patrick Bateman, has come back to life in the form of copycat college student Clayton (after Clay, the protagonist of Less Than Zero). And Ellis's McMansion is slowly transforming into the house of his own disturbed childhood, complete with a child-eating monster from a story he wrote as a precocious grade-schooler, coming back to terrorize his kids.
A recurring motif is the idea that writing gives things permanence, reality.
Ellis is literally haunted by demons from his past: a status-obsessed father who provided the frightening template for Bateman, as well as characters from his warped unconscious bubbling, unbidden, to the surface. Lunar Park is about a man-child becoming a father by facing those demons and discovering something more important than a writer's solipsism. At one point in the narrative, Ellis the father and Ellis the writer split, and the writer provides a detached running commentary on his other half's increasingly panic-stricken attempts to save his family.
But what, or who, is Ellis saving his family from? The external terrors reflect Ellis's inner turmoil—he is the demon that needs exorcising. This unexpected element of self-flagellation makes Lunar Park Ellis's most compelling and affecting read, even if it's not his best written book. Ellis is better at creating a sense of steadily mounting dread than in paying off his set-up. He remains fascinating, however, if only because he's one of the few postmodern writers with a wicked sense of humor and a sure sense of story. Here he's channeling Stephen King's The Shining by way of Hamlet, a less outlandish combination than expected when filtered through Ellis's fecund, if acid-fried, imagination. A son haunted by the ghost of his father becomes the son, now a father, haunting his own family.
A recurring motif throughout Lunar Park is the idea that writing gives things permanence, reality. This raises the question, if something is written can it be unwritten? Maybe that's what Ellis is up to here. He is trying to unwrite his past. He even confesses, regarding the graphic American Psycho, that "exploring that kind of violence" had been "interesting" and "exciting." And it was all "metaphorical anyway—at least to me at that moment in my life, when I was young and pissed off and had note yet grasped my own mortality, a time when physical pain and real suffering held no meaning for me."
That time is over. Raising a family means exposure to pain and suffering, no matter the circumstance. During the course of Lunar Park, Ellis suffers both physical pain and real suffering—emotional and psychological. This baptism of fire leads to a new revelation connected to the ghost of his father that arrives near the book's end:
This raises the question, if something is written can it be unwritten?
I realized the one thing I was learning from my father now: how lonely people make a life. But I also realized what I hadn't learned from him: that a family—if you allow it—gives you joy, which in turn gives you hope.
Lunar Park doesn't shy away from the dark side of human nature. In this way, it comes as no surprise to anyone who's read any other books by Ellis. What surprises is how affecting it is, how much one comes to care for the characters. Ellis's desperate plea for salvation, for redemption from his history by telling his story, is heart-wrenching.
I hope it doesn't go unheard.