By Bret Easton Ellis
Bret Easton Ellis owes us all an apology.
Not for books like the notorious American Psycho, but for Lunar Park, a book that is, in turn, a kind of apology for American Psycho.
Confused? Welcome to the tired world of metafiction, last refuge of writers with nothing much to say and no energy or imagination left to say it.
The hero of Lunar Park is Brat Pack author Bret Easton Ellis, author of such novels as Less Than Zero and American Psycho. His life is a round of easy money, hot women, hard drugs, and parties with celebrities. In other words, he is a self-conscious child of the “Reagan eighties.” As Lunar Park opens, however, he seems to be finally settling down into suburban life (OK, it’s a really, really nice suburb where famous rich people live, but still the ‘burbs). He has a beautiful movie-star wife, two children, a golden retriever, an SUV, and a job teaching creative writing at a local college. It is a writer’s version of the Good Life. A writer of TV commercials for insurance products marketed to young urban professionals, that is.
Ellis’s suburban idyll cannot last. Indeed it scarcely gets started. The author is haunted by demons. These demons have something to do with memories of his lousy relationship with his recently deceased father, but may have more to do with a history of substance abuse. In any event, just in time for Halloween his troubled past starts coming back in an ugly way. Someone is stalking him in his old Mercedes. His modern house in the suburbs starts turning into the house he grew up in. Retro yes, but definitely not cool. Then his daughter’s toy bird starts coming to life and attacking people. There are strange power outages. Hall lights flicker in their sconces as he walks past them.
And, worst of all, characters from his novels start visiting. Including the American Psycho himself, Patrick Bateman.
Family breakdowns, endangered children, a possessed doll, evil in the suburbs . . . if that sounds like the premise for a Stephen King novel you’re on the mark. Lunar Park is an homage to Stephen King. A rather lame and unnecessary one, given how often King himself has gone this same self-reflexive route, but an homage just the same.
Where to begin condemning a book this bad? (And this, I should add, is coming from someone who liked Glamorama!) The scary stuff is just silly; the suspense, leaden. The satire, except for one dinner scene, is neither funny nor topical (unless you really live this kind of fantasy lifestyle, in which case you probably don’t read anyway). Ellis has never asked us to care about his characters. In fact, we’re usually meant to half despise them. The change of gears here is too sudden. There is little sympathy for the grown-up Brat. His family relationships – the emotional core of the book – are positively maudlin. He breaks down in tears at marriage counseling and falls on his knees in front of his wife, begging forgiveness and promising to make it all up to her. Sheesh.
Even Ellis’s usual sure hand at timing, so essential for any comic writer, is out of synch. He has a habit here of writing in breathless, staccato pulses that are supposed to imitate his mind hammering out some horrifying revelation (italics for emphasis optional). One imagines him teaching such a device in his creative writing class: If you want to alert the reader to the fact that something really important and worth noticing is being said you make each paragraph a single sentence. Hey, if Stephen King can do it, why can’t the rest of us? Here are a couple of really crude examples:
But I wasn’t answering her anymore because I realized who was in the passenger seat of Aimee Light’s BMW.
It was the boy who had come to my office wanting me to sign a book.
It was the boy who came to a Halloween party dressed as Patrick Bateman.
The same boy that Aimee Light claimed she had never seen before.
It was Clayton.
Because Clayton was – and had always been – someone I had known.
He was somebody who had always known me.
He was somebody who had always known us.
Because Clayton and I were always the same person.
The first passage quoted comes as a complete anti-climax. In fact it’s pretty clear when Ellis first sees the boy in the passenger seat of the BMW that it’s Clayton. And yet the chapter drags on for another five pages before we get to his “discovery” of the boy’s identity. What’s worse, it’s also pretty clear from the first time we meet Clayton (some thirty pages earlier) that he is one of Ellis’s fictive doppelgangers. And yet the second passage quoted comes near the end of the book, where it could hardly come as a surprise to anyone.
One can forgive Ellis his newfound sentimentality, loss of wit, and his enthrallment to all the clichéd devices of pulp horror and postmodern self awareness. What can’t be forgiven is writing this bad. Lunar Park isn’t even an interesting failure.
It’s clear from the beginning.
And it only gets worse.
This book stinks.
Review first published October 1, 2005. The use of the almost viscerally pejorative label “Reagan eighties” in any discussion of the cultural life of that “low, dishonest time” (art critic Robert Hughes, quoting Auden on the 1930s) is especially interesting given how much more extreme the domestic policies and cultural consequences of the present American administration have been. The Reagan eighties couldn’t have imagined the Bush years. What are we going to be saying about 2005, twenty years from now?