A friend of mine recommended Lunar Park to me almost exactly a year ago, at the department holiday party in 2005. It was the end of my first semester of graduate school in the history of science, and I was thrilled to be having a conversation about fiction and literature for a change. We’d been discussing the McSweeney’s crew, and had moved on to those writers-with-three-names (David Foster Wallace, Bret Easton Ellis, &c.), when my friend asked if I’d read Lunar Park, Ellis’s latest. I confessed to only having read Glamorama; he said this new one was good and that I should check it out. Of course, work intervened, and I thought little of it for the next few months.
But in November of 2006, I was looking for something nonacademic to read. I had been listening to selections from Wallace’s Consider the Lobster on CD, and I thought I might want to check out the whole book for the winter break. When I discovered to my dismay that it was already on loan, I thought of Lunar Park, which I had seen reviewed that week in the Onion A.V. Club among a group of books about writing. It was in the library. I found it and, standing in the stacks, I read the beginning:
“You do an awfully good impression of yourself.”
This is the first line of Lunar Park and in its brevity and simplicity it was supposed to be a return to form, an echo, of the opening line from my debut novel, Less Than Zero.
I flipped through the next few pages, which included references to every novel written by Bret Easton Ellis. Oh boy, I thought, I might have to do my homework here. Fortunately, on the shelf in front of me were both Less Than Zero and The Rules of Attraction, the only other novels of his I was interested in reading, the reports I’d received on American Psycho and my experience watching the (excellent, disturbing, upsetting, unwatchable at moments) film having been enough to permanently dissuade me. These other two were the college novels, the clearing-the-throat novels — I figured they were pretty safe. So I took all three books down to circulation and checked them out, grinning.
There are other activities I might more rightly blame (writing an NSF proposal, preparing talks, re-watching season one of Twin Peaks, cooking almost a whole Thanksgiving meal by myself, enjoying my Thanksgiving with friends instead of working on term papers) for my miserably busy end-of-semester, but for the purposes of this review, let’s say that reading two Bret Easton Ellis novels in the space of a week and a half is among them. Nevermind the velocity and ease with which these first two novels go down. Nevermind their usefulness in keeping me sane amidst long afternoons in the archives. We’ll blame them anyway.
Lunar Park begins with an autobiographical (or is it?) recap of Ellis’s career thus far: the books, money, the drugs, the celebrity, the debauchery, the reputation. It then settles in for the story. Lunar Park roughly follows the tale of Hamlet, as it might play out in affluent suburbia were Hamlet a (not-actually-)recovering drug addict celebrity author married to a famous actress and haunted by the ghosts of his father and his fiction. Ellis plays himself (or does he?) in what reads (like all his books) very much like a movie — which is to say both that it inspires vivid and specific images on the part of the reader, and that reading it feels much like watching a story play out on screen under the direction of a rather terrifyingly talented filmmaker. (It is not surprising that so many of his books have made their way to the screen — Less Than Zero, The Rules of Attraction, American Psycho — nor would I be surprised if either Glamorama or Lunar Park were soon to appear on a list of coming attractions. Of course, these latter are far better books than either Less Than Zero or The Rules of Attraction, both of which are quick and fast and … oh, enough of this annotation. Back!)
Ellis, recently married to his former lover and mother of his one son (the younger daughter having come from another union), is comfortably ensconced in a large house on Elsinore Lane (yep — there’s an Ophelia Lane or Road or Street or Avenue somewhere, too), with a part-time post teaching creative writing at the local college. He’s about to host a Halloween party, and, despite all that has gone so well for him, he is already beginning to backslide. He’s doing drugs again, his marriage is not going well, he’s having a vague-but-not-consummated affair with a graduate student, and despite all manner of therapy, he and his son are simply not connecting. The mood is tense: bad things are afoot.
As the ultimate unreliable narrator, Ellis is excellent as himself, for the reader is never exactly sure where the reality of Bret Easton Ellis stops and the fantasy of Lunar Park begins. This uncertainty keeps the book’s premise from being too obvious — like Glamorama, it takes the reader a while to figure out exactly what is going on. I won’t give it away, exactly, for the pleasure of Lunar Park is in the weird discovery, and I hope you will read it. But I will make a few, more general comments.
If Less Than Zero, The Rules of Attraction, and American Psycho are novels about the eighties, and Glamorama a book about the nineties, then Lunar Park is definitely Ellis’s novel of the aughts. Indeed, one of Ellis’s sharpest skills as a writer and cultural critic lies in his ability to capture and reduce (as in the culinary, rather than the intellectual sense) a historical and cultural moment, strengthening its flavor and power to create a depiction that is not exactly exaggeration or hyperbole, but which is not enitrely real either. Rather, it is something hyper-real, so real that it’s realer than real: immediately discernable, if not immediately unpackable. It’s what makes his work not just fluff or shock-writing or semi-pornography (though I think even he’d admit those things are in there, too, and on purpose). The meta-narrative of Lunar Park makes this clear: he’s including himself in his own critique, perhaps above all else.
In this sense, Lunar Park is Ellis’s most mature novel. It is self-reflective and redeptive in a way that his earlier work is not. It is a book about himself, about self-obsession and self-destruction, about dependency and weakness, about family and memory and, yes, even about love. And it is, as the A.V. Club review promised, a book about writing: both in the Italo Calvino If on a winter’s night a traveller book-as-meta-book sense that it is about the act of writing a book, this book, the book you, reader, are reading right now; and also in the David Cronenberg film version of Naked Lunch sense of being about the creative act of writing itself, its power over the writer, the reader, and reality, the way that it calls worlds and creatures and ideas into being, instatiates them, gives them a reality all their own. It a book about writing in the way that Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves is a book about filmmaking; it recalls the strange otherwordly-yet-believable mood of that novel, as well as its focus on haunting and place. And it is a book about selfhood and identity in the way that Fight Club is. What happens when the writer’s mind intersects with his world, when these two realities interpenetrate? Does an author need his demons to make art? Do uncontrolled fantasies erode reality? These are some of the questions underlying Lunar Park. The questions make it interesting; Ellis’s answers make it a turning point.