August 2005

Joey Rubin

fiction

Lunar Park by Bret Easton Ellis

Bret Easton Ellis has made a career of writing exciting novels--usually because of their subject matter as opposed to their execution. Consequently, every novel he has written so far has already been, or is being made, into a big-budget movie. While this is surely a great thing for his checkbook, it's also a compliment to certain qualities in his work. Movies require strong story lines and well-developed, nuanced characters. Ellis is a capable storyteller and, in his own way, develops full -- if painfully vapid -- characters. Yet, excitement aside, what movies also need (good movies, at least), and Ellis has not included in his latest novelistic effort, is a strong thematic focus and a clarity of execution.

Lunar Park, which will be released this month, begins as a mock-memoir. In the first section, Bret Easton Ellis, a fictionalized version of the author, recounts his beginnings as a novelist and his subsequent rise to fame. (Well, actually, more like his triumphant beginnings as a novelist and his immediate rise to unmitigated and debaucherous superstardom.) The novel then recounts the events leading to the "present," in which the story of Ellis being haunted by his past, figuratively, becomes the story of Ellis being haunted by his past, literally -- and then attacked by his past, physically (it bites him on the thigh). If this recap makes the novel seem silly, it's understandable. The novel is silly.

On the promotional website for Lunar Park (in parallel interviews: one with Bret Easton Ellis the man and one with Bret Easton Ellis, the fictional narrator of the new novel), Ellis attributes the chosen genre of the new book to his childhood love of Stephen King. This does play out in the novel, which leans toward being a supernatural thriller (and by "leans toward," I mean it uses ghosts in an attempt to be scary). In a conceptually interesting-- though in practice, tiring -- trope, characters invented by Ellis in his earlier fiction come to life and, throughout the work, terrorize Ellis and his
family. (This is interesting when the characters are from Ellis's published fiction--the intertextual elements that tie American Psycho into Lunar Park are compelling. However, when Ellis realizes, some 200 pages into the novel, that the stuffed animal that had been chewing on the walls of his children's bedrooms was actually created in a story he wrote when he was a child, the "tie-in" feels forced and reeks of afterthought.)

What is most frustrating about Lunar Park is that it is two distinct novels failing to become one working whole. On one hand, it is a King-like spook fest, and on the other, it is an Ellis-like look at contemporary, dysfunctional America; together, these two novels create a frustrating dissonance that is neither confident nor constructive. Unlike King's novels -- which have often been criticized for focusing on "spook and gore" to the exclusion of psychological insight -- Ellis's Lunar Park tries hard to delve into the psychological woes of its main character and does so to such a point that the spook and gore seem out of place and cardboard in comparison.

Lunar Park is, essentially, a novel about the breakdown of a postmodern, post-nuclear American family. Ellis's main character (er, Ellis) is "haunted" throughout the novel by the fact that he was unable to mourn his father's death and is currently unable to connect with his son. This "haunting," however, becomes the dominant metaphor of the work, as the ghost/demon of his father comes back to warn him of something/destroy his family, and as his son "becomes a ghost"/disappears. (I use slashes, not to be cute, but because the novel is quite unclear. When the "ghost doctor" comes to fumigate Ellis's house he reports that two forces are doing the haunting -- but we never really learn the distinct source of these forces. Was the father evil and the son good? Is Ellis evil and both family members beneficent? By the end of the novel, none of the supernatural storyline is resolved, explained or, really, even concluded.)

Where a movie's visual intensity may bring to life many of Ellis's more "boo"-driven scenes--the East Coast house, which serves as a backdrop throughout, turning slowly into an exact replica of his childhood home in California; the violent transformation of the dog into a man-eating, vengeful demon--in the novel, these gothic elements are garishly executed and lack the subtlety necessary to make something truly eerie. Compared to the heartstring-pulling sadness of a man alienated from his father and alienating his son, the whispers of a ghost and the shock of a cartoonish dog-possession do not pack any real emotional punch.

In the end, Lunar Park's desire to tell a meaningful story about fathers and sons is foiled by the complicated metaphor of the supernatural, not enriched by it. The decision to make Lunar Park a gothic thriller, presumably to enliven a hum-drum (read: true and human) suburban story with the excitement of paranormality, is rendered ineffective when contextualized by the honest struggle of a man attempting to connect with his family. And in the end, Lunar Park is not really exciting--just a bit sad, unfulfilling and, unfortunately, a tad cheesy.

Lunar Park by Bret Easton Ellis
Knopf
ISBN: 03754112713
320 Pages