Bret Easton Ellis‘ Lunar Park is — let me just say this to begin with — the best novel I have read all summer (new books by Cormac McCarthy and John Crowley notwithstanding). Like Ellis’ previous books it has been released with great fanfare and expensive publicity, as a result of which it has sold fairly well (it is ranked #121 in current sales on amazon.com as I write this), despite receiving mostly negative reviews. One never reads novels in a vacuum, and it’s impossible to read and think about Ellis without noting the strange combination of his celebrity on the one hand, and the disdain and incomprehension with which the literary establishment regards him on the other. Or to put the same paradox in a different way: Ellis is an extraordinarily literary and writerly writer, and yet few artists of any sort have gone as far as he has in exploring and reflecting upon our current post-literary, multimedia culture. This situation is one of the things that Lunar Park is about.
Lunar Park is a surprising book, in many ways. Ellis’ previous books have been largely devoid of interiority. Less Than Zero, The Rules of Attraction, and The Informers have narrators and characters who drift through in a continual haze of drugs and expensive commodities and meaningless sex. Patrick Bateman of American Psycho shows no passion as he recounts the details of his murders in the same detached tone as he does the details of what everybody was wearing, or of what bizarre nouvelle cuisine meals he ate at various overpriced yuppie restaurants. And Victor Ward of Glamorama is chronically clueless, constantly strung out on Xanax, and incapable even of grasping simple metaphors. Ellis’ tone in these novels is generally flat; his language is often minimal and repetitive. All in all, Ellis’ writing has been seen as the quintessence of postmodern affectlessness and insistence on surfaces; most often it’s been criticized and scorned for this, and at best it’s received the backhanded complement of being regarded as a “satire” of pomo blankness (a reading that Ellis himself has sometimes encouraged).
But Lunar Park, unlike anything Ellis has written before, is a novel of interiority. All of Ellis’ novels have one or several first-person narrators, but this is the first book in which the narrator is self-reflective, highly self-conscious, and concerned more with his own inner states of being than with outward appearances (coolness, celebrity, the media, expensive clothes and food). Indeed, Lunar Park is pseudo-autobiographical: the narrator/protagonist is one Bret Easton Ellis, a novelist famous and controversial for his high life at fashionable nightclubs, as much as for such books as Less Than Zero and especially the notorious American Psycho. Ellis cannibalizes his own life history to set up the story of a writer who is trying go straight, leave behind his own past excesses with drugs and celebrity, and start a new life as a family man, a husband and father, in the suburbs. The first chapter is a tour de force in Ellis’ old style, only more self-lacerating than before because of its confessional mode. It’s a description of Ellis’ (real and fictional) career, filled with huge advances that are spent before the books are even written, cocaine binges, celebrity gossip, public collapses into incoherence, and even dinner with George W. Bush at the White House. But then it becomes the (entirely fictional) story of Ellis’ marriage to celebrity actress Jayne Dennis, of whose twelve-year-old son Ellis has been proven by DNA testing to be the father; together with an account of Ellis’ attempt to come to terms with the death and the horrific legacy of his own (actual) father, who he claims was the model for serial-killer Patrick Bateman of American Psycho. The narrative digs into various kinds of reckonings, about fathers and sons, about love and family, and about the moral responsibilities that need to be faced by writers of immoral or amoral fiction.
Formally, then, the book would seem to be a kind of palinode — an apology and recantation — both for Ellis’ real-life and writerly excesses, and for his aesthetics (his espousal of postmodern nihilism). Except that — the palinode is a parody, and the interiority that the novel so powerfully suggests is just as powerfully, indeed quite savagely and gleefully, deconstructed. It’s not just — and not even mostly — that Ellis’ quest for redemption is played for comedy (though it is to a certain extent, as Ellis downs enormous quantities of vodka and Klonopin, together with various controlled substances, to master the anxiety of living up to the demands of respectable married existence). But mostly because the book’s very self-reflexiveness, and the narrator’s own self-reflectiveness leads into a hall of mirrors, a mise en abime that defies any resolution. The techniques that mainstream novels, from the 19th century to today, have used in order to constuct the appearance of interiority are pirated by Ellis to suggest instead that everything is an appearance, a performance, a writerly imposture. The narrator’s introspection reveals only that he has no depths and no center, and that everything he does is driven by outside forces and superficial motives. The novel is filled with sincere moments of longing and confession and reform, with moments of the desire to go straight, “to get back to basics” (4), “to concentrate only on our family now [because] it was the only thing that meant anything to me” (199), to affirm the fact “that a family — if you allow it — gives you joy, which in turn gives you hope” (304); but each of these moments ends up being framed as a theatrical performance, being suspended “in quotation marks,” being revealed as an expression of social conformism, of what you are supposed to feel, even if nobody ever actually does. “I no longer had the hard-on for her that I once did, and tried to soothe her with vague generalities I’d picked up on Oprah” (85): Lunar Park is relentless in the way it picks up on feelings of panic, anxiety, need, depression, loneliness, helpless caring, and regard — and dissolves them into exercises in psychobabble, or maudlin literary conceits. Lots of American novels of the past fifty years have dealt with the emptiness and vapidity of suburbia, with the hopeless alcoholism and passionless adultery behind the facade of the great affluent American dream; but Ellis treats this vision as itself nothing more than a tired and unimaginative cliche, a situation people live out because it is what is expected of them.
In short, literary interiority — or, more precisely, a brilliant simulation thereof — does the same work in Lunar Park that was done by media images and glittering commodified surfaces in Ellis’ previous novels. Victor Ward in Glamorama lives his life with a soundtrack of pop songs, and he is always being followed around by film crews which turn his life into a reality show (though the novel was written, prophetically, before the current vogue for reality TV). It starts out being a crew from MTV that is chronicling his efforts to open a new club in Manhattan; but further into the novel, the film crews are orchestrating Victor’s sex life, and forcing retakes of the terrorist actions in which he finds himself being implicated. In Lunar Park, instead of postmodern media we have the more traditionally modernist theme of Ellis as a writer, and the self-referential crossovers between real life and literary fiction. The first line of the novel reads: “You do an awfully good impression of yourself.” The next several paragraphs go on to analyze this opening line, by comparison with the opening passages of Ellis’ other books. Not only is Lunar Park an act of self-impersonation; as such, it is also a futile attempt to remake the author’s life by rewriting his fiction. Similar gambits of increasing complexity go on throughout the novel. Fiction crosses over into actuality, as somebody starts to carry out Patrick Bateman’s murders in real life. And actuality dissolves into fiction, as adolescent boys in the upscale, anonymous suburb where the novel is set start disappearing: it turns out that they haven’t been abducted or killed, but have abandoned the shopping malls and nuclear-family homes for something like Peter Pan’s Neverneverland. The narrator assures us early on in the novel that “all of it really happened, every word is true” (30); but by the end, nearly everything in the narrative has revealed its sources in Ellis’ earlier fiction.
In modernist novels, this sort of self-referentiality is utopian; it points back to the creative power of the author, or the supremacy of the imagination, that permeates and transforms reality. In certain stereotypically postmodern novels, such self-referentiality is instead either a tired display of virtuosity, or the assertion that everything is language, everything is text. In Lunar Park, however, the self-referential fictiveness of the text works rather differently. It presents a kind of collapse, an involution, but more into the boredom and horror of the everyday, and into the multiple mirrors of the movie-video-internet-entertainment complex (from which literary writing cannot ultimately be distinguished) than into the abysses of textuality. Ellis is not suggesting that there are only surfaces, or only texts, so that anything that would seem to float beyond them is an illusion; but rather that selves and desires are precisely effects of surfaces, real in the same way that mirror images are real: we do objectively see them, and they do tell us things about ourselves and about the world (of which we and they are part).
This is why, in the latter part of the novel, the narrator splits into an “I” — Bret — on the one hand, and an inner voice he calls “the writer” on the other. The two are in continual dialogue. The writer imagines scenes that Bret can’t, or won’t. The writer loves chaos and disorder (I can’t find the page reference for this at the moment); he is the one who got off on the kinky violence of American Psycho and Glamorama, in a way that made these books more than just satire. The writer pushes Bret out of the ‘normality’ in which he would like to take refuge, makes him look for extreme, disturbing possibilities. The writer is therefore the part of the narrator who invents horrors (like Patrick Bateman) that then manifest themselves in the real world — which the novel, on one level, is trying to exorcize. But the writer is also the voice that forces the trauma of the Real (as Lacan and Zizek might say) or of the Outside (as Blanchot might say) upon Bret, that dislodges him from his solipsistic fantasy life, and compels him to confront what he is perpetually fleeing from, what he refuses, or is afraid, to recognize.
This means that Lunar Park tends to show us how selves and desires are social fictions. Existentially, we are thrown back on these images and effects, these mirror reflections, and it is as foolish to dismiss them as phony as it is to invest them with mystical qualities, as if they were deeper and more resonant than they actually are. Politically, however, these effects and images have a lot to do with the social positions that we inhabit. Ellis has always written almost exclusively about affluent and privileged WASPs, and he never lets us forget it. The world of Lunar Park is a world of expensive malls and elite private schools and children hypermedicated on Ritalin and Prozac and whatever else can prevent them from being too curious, too manic, too afraid, or too divergent from the responsibilities and powers of the class they have been born into. The wealthy suburbs are safety zones, where scared white people hunker down in isolation (or so they hope) from a post-9/11 America which is not only inhabited by poor people and people of color, but in which, also, in Ellis’ fictive account, terrorist attacks in big cities have become a monthly occurrence. Yet this means, of course, that the affluent suburbs end up mirroring whatever they have armed themselves against. One brilliant passage recounts a national malaise, as reported in the media, in which “damage had ‘unwittingly’ been done. There were ‘feared lapses’… Situations had ‘deteriorated’… The populace was confounded, yet didn’t care… the survival of mankind didn’t seem very important in the long run” (55 — I’ve left out most of the paragraph of hilariously cliched, utterly indistinct abstractions).
In its last third, Lunar Park metamorphoses into a suburban horror novel, as the narrator’s home is haunted by demonic dolls, ghastly images from his past, and other psychic monstrosities. In interviews, Ellis has described this aspect of the novel as a homage to Stephen King — in much the same way, he adds, that the supermodels-as-conspiratorial-terrorists plot of Glamorama was a homage to Robert Ludlum. Many reviewers, even if they liked the earlier portions of the novel, have been critical of the supernatural latter portion. But to my mind, this seeming fall (from affective intensity to shlock horror) is a crucial part of the novel’s brilliance. Ellis’ insight here is that mass-market horror fiction is precisely the flip side of the high-art novel of self-conscious interiority. Stephen King is really Henry James turned inside-out (an assertion that would not at all shock or surprise the author of The Turn of the Screw). Horror projects inward anguish outward into the material and social world (the haunted psyche becomes the haunted house), and in doing so reveals that that inwardness was in fact itself first produced, and projected inward, by the outside world. (This argument is starting to sound a lot more Hegelian than I intended; but I can’t help it, strange things do happen in horror fiction). And so, Ellis gives us scary monsters, glimpsed for mere seconds, in prose the equal of King’s (which I do not despise the way severe high-culture types might). But one of these horrors turns out to be a figure from a story that Ellis (the real one? or just the fictional one?) wrote at age 12, and whose obvious Freudian overtones are easily mocked (251); while another is described as follows: “the only reason I did not immediately turn away was because it seemed fake, like something I had seen in a movie” (272). Horror is yet another arena for the self-referential collapse I mentioned earlier, one in which the banality of the everyday and the traumatic force of what the Lacanians call the Real are entirely conjoined, and both are theorized as effects (in the sense both of “cause and effect,” and of “special effects”) of the media, or more broadly of postmodern, informational capitalism.
I could say a lot more — and cite a lot more — but this posting has gone on too long already. All in all, Lunar Park resonates with a very tricky and profound sort of affect. It’s an emotionally intense novel, and at the same time an extraordinarily distanced one, with a strong dose of absurdism. I’ve often written about how postmodern irony and flippancy, the placing of all feelings in ridiculous “quotation marks,” in fact works as an emotional intensifier (this is the mechanism, for instance, in the films of both David Lynch and Guy Maddin). But Ellis is onto something even stranger here — in the way his novel is always teetering on the edges of cliche, on the edges of sincerity, on the edges of wistful longing, without ever falling completely into any of these; and in the way that, the more confessional and inward-looking the narrative gets, the more generic and impersonal it also gets, so that it offhandedly, subtly corrodes our most cherished feelings about personhood and privacy. Ellis is at the same time exorcizing his private demons, and demonstrating to us the illusiveness of any such gesture; he’s projecting an emotionally powerful, but ultimately wishful fantasy about fathers and sons and reconciliation and making up somehow for the irreversibility of time (what Nietzsche called the tyranny of the “it was”), and at the same time pointing up the fictiveness of this wishful fantasy, and the way it plays into, and is even generated by, the media-entertainment complex within which we cannot choose but to live.