The Mirror Crackd
Photo by Ian GittlerHas there ever been a novelist who has moaned more about his own fame—while doing everything in his power to make himself more famous—than Bret Easton Ellis? Has fame itself ever seemed so vital a fulcrum in the creation and sustenance of a writer's self than it has with Bret Easton Ellis? Is there a more spectacularly narcissistic writer in America?
Ellis, in case you need the primer—which he is happy to provide to you in the opening pages of his autobiographical fantasia of a novel, Lunar Park—began his career by penning Less Than Zero while still a college kid at Bennington. In that novel, you could never tell if Ellis was aware of just how horrific a vision he was perpetrating: the experience of reading it comes down to its most representative scene, a vivid description of a vicious gang rape of a 12-year-old girl seen through the eyes of a kid so drugged-up numb that his (non) response is nearly as repulsive as the rape. Since the novel was set in the cocaine-saturated clubs, mansions and hotel rooms frequented by rich kids growing up in Brentwood and Beverly Hills in the early 1980s, the novel could be read as a moralist's commentary on the new Reagan decadence—how mountains of money and the new media culture were sucking the innocence out of our youth, leaving them zombies whose only desire was to eternally up the ante on sensation: higher highs, weirder sex, creepier forays into sadism. Even if you didn't buy the moralist angle, Less Than Zero was still a fascinating performance, and Ellis became the standard-bearer for a new kind of pornography—one that took violence as well as sex as its subject of exploitation—which writers like Dennis Cooper and A.M. Homes would soon pick up on, and which paved the way for filmmakers like David Lynch, Quentin Tarantino and David Fincher to bring the serious bloodletting to the masses.
Hailed by many, including himself, as a "spokesman for his generation"—ridiculous on its face unless you think everybody who grew up in the '80s was a rich, spoiled, bisexual druggie attending a private school in the East—the young Ellis bought and then contributed to his hype. He partied in conspicuous places, got himself splashed all over the New York tabloids, and when his glam-boy star started to dim after his second novel tanked, he emerged with American Psycho, the most sensationally violent novel ever given its imprimatur by a major American publishing house. Driven by essentially the same ingredients that sustained Less Than Zero—egregiously jacked-up descriptions of sadism narrated in tones so deadpan that it could be read, if only very charitably, as commentary on the morally empty society of the rich and decadent—American Psychobecame a massive international best-seller. Ellis' riches and fame grew exponentially, and with this second dip into the Zeitgeist he evidently became more convinced than ever that his story was America's, that what happens to him is what is happening to us, and that therefore it was time to give us the Bret Easton Ellis story, which turns out to be Lunar Park, a breathtaking piece of self-mythologizing hubris and narcissistic grandstanding that is so sentimentally self-pitying at its core that it can only have come from someone for whom fame (and its sorry American trappings) is the measure of all things.
Lunar Park is partially dedicated to Ellis' father, Robert Ellis, who died in 1992, a year after American Psycho hit the cultural stratosphere. Ellis pere is given a partial portrait as Clay's emotionally remote father in Less Than Zero, but what is more to the point here is that Ellis fils, who stars as himself in Lunar Park, claims that Psycho's main character, Patrick Bateman, the now infamous stockbroker-by-day-serial-torturer/murderer-by-night, was modeled satirically on his father. That Ellis' real father died (at age 51) in the face of the gale-force winds of American Psycho's publicity no doubt gave Ellis pause, and the guilt he must have felt in profiting so amply from mocking his father in print is of course a rich resource begging to be tapped in a novel. Ellis taps and taps, but what he comes up with—a genre-shifting tale about a novelist named Bret Easton Ellis who is pursued by the ghost of his father just as he, Ellis, is trying to escape the decadence of his past by moving into the suburbs and trying to learn to be a responsible husband and father—is fraught with clich (mostly ripped off from horror movies), overdramatic writing and woe-is-me attention grabbing.
It starts humorously enough, with a prologue in which Ellis pretends to be bemused about his career trajectory ("I was on display. Everything I did was written about." "The book cemented my authority as theauthority for this generation.") and giving us the reasons why he had to escape his fame-addled life for a quiet one in the suburbs. The new Ellis comes equipped with a wife (a famous actress, of course—who else would Ellis marry?), two kids on an extensive diet of "meds," a McMansion, a job teaching creative writing at the local college, a beguiling mistress (of course), and a bunch of addictions (coke, alcohol, prescription drugs, heroin) he's vaguely trying to get rid of. Fellow brat-packer Jay McInerney makes a lame cameo, and Ellis runs us through some of the paces of the suburban novel (dinner with the neighbors, problems with the kids at school, couples counseling) in a way that's okay as satire but that clearly doesn't engage his real interests.
His real interests are in showing how the past—his father, his books—haunts the present, but since Ellis' talent is essentially to take a serious theme and pulp it down till it screams bloody murder in your face, Lunar Park can't help but borrow every trick in the book (and the movies) to pump some juice into his story. So we're treated to an evil doll named Terby; an anonymously e-mailed video Ellis receives featuring the actual death of Ellis' father; a series of grisly copycat murders based on American Psycho; a McMansion that mysteriously metamorphoses into Ellis' boyhood home; a number of adolescent boys who disappear without a trace, including Ellis' son; and a cream-colored 450 SL Mercedes, sometimes driven by the ghost of his father and sometimes by a guy who thinks he's Patrick Bateman. Periodically, whole pages of Ellis' prose will be written in one-sentence paragraphs that beg us to read them as high suspense. All of the bizarro events, however, that supposedly show how Ellis is literally being haunted by the past can be easily explained as his fantasies and hallucinations (fear-induced, drug-induced), and so while the novel gets pretty inventive with the violence toward the end, we know it's only Ellis imagining it. Not only that, but since Ellis has never exactly been a master of character, we have a hard time caring about anybody—which gives the reader some painful moments when Ellis pours on the sentiment and the moralizing. At the end, he's practically begging to be loved, which is a no-win situation for a narcissist, not to mention a no-win situation for a novel.
LUNAR PARK BY BRET EASTON ELLIS; KNOPF. HARD COVER, 320 PAGES, $24.95.
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