Imagine the true confessions of Bret Easton Ellis. Not just the sex and the drugs and the sappy pop-music soundtrack; not just the pseudo-celebrity, the small-world publishing gossip and the flash profits from minimalist anomie and splatter-porn; not just, as he puts it, “Propaganda designated [sic] to enhance the already very chic image of author as handsome young playboy”—imagine the inner man exposed. Imagine Bret Easton Ellis, who 15 years ago gave us American Psycho, as a son, a father, a husband. He’s exposed, vulnerable, frightened, wounded—like you and me. Imagine Bret made real.
Yes, it’s a scary thought, but that’s exactly what Mr. Ellis has attempted in Lunar Park, a bizarre fictional confession that skids briefly across the slick surface of the young “Bret Easton Ellis” and his quintessentially mid-80’s Brat Pack misbehavior (the phrase “vast apathy” occurs three times in the first dozen pages) before plunging into the goo of a lonely man’s uncharted midlife inscape. Appropriately, Mr. Ellis plays it as a horror story, complete with haunted house, demons, ghosts and “paranormal investigators.”
Bret’s adventures in introspection begin with a retreat to “Midland County”—to the suburbs, that is—a last-chance effort to escape the hideous torture of literary celebrity and a train-wreck heroin habit: “My wistful attitude about fame and drugs—the delight I took in feeling sorry for myself—had turned into a hard sadness, and the future no longer looked even remotely plausible.” So he “got clean” in May, and by July he’d moved in with and married Jayne Dennis, “a well-known actress” and mother of two children, one of whom—here’s a shocker—is Bret’s biological son, tardy fruit of an affair that blossomed briefly in the reckless 80’s.
Bret’s boy, Robby, is a surly 11-year-old (he’s also “passive and enervated,” thanks, perhaps, to his meds—“vast apathy” for a new millennium). Robby loathes his father, just as Bret loathed his own father, who died shortly before Robby was born. The Midland County “McMansion” that Bret and Jayne call home is on Elsinore Lane (think Hamlet); it’s Halloween. Anyone want to bet on the imminent apparition of the father’s ghost?
Papa Spook isn’t the only supernatural force on the block. There’s also Bret’s creative talent, which is so potent that Patrick Bateman, the yuppie serial killer from American Psycho, has materialized—in the suburbs!—and picked up, in “real life,” where he left off in the pages of that novel: killing methodically, maximizing the gore. A little monster Bret invented as a boy starts wreaking havoc, too; it has taken up residence in a bird doll that Bret bought for Jayne’s 6-year-old daughter. And all the while, boys about Robby’s age are vanishing without a trace ….
It’s tough coping with the paranormal when you’re falling off all sides of the wagon at once: Bret is drinking again; Bret is snorting coke (“Jay McInerney,” a.k.a. “Jayster,” appears on cue to sample “the Devil’s Dandruff” at a crowded Halloween party); Bret is inching his way toward an affair with a girl who’s writing her thesis on his “work” (when the student mentions his wife, he replies: “My wife? Hey, I’ve only been married three months. Give me a break. We’re still testing the waters—”).
Lurid confessions, Oedipal complications and supernatural incidents set in “the tiredness and the cliché of suburbia” and wrapped in a meta-fiction designed (designated?) to provoke contemplation of the writer’s fearsome imaginative power and its mysterious, possibly sinister origins—I guess Lunar Park must be the product of some heavy-duty brainstorming. It’s still dead on the page.
Affectless prose, like salt flats minus the tang, is an Ellis specialty; he does deadpan with the best. Less Than Zero (1985), big, horrifying chunks of American Psycho (a book good enough to deserve the extreme animosity it aroused), the first 150 pages of Glamorama (1999)—like it or not, these are examples of tightly controlled, rigorously understated writing. Lunar Park is a different kind of flat: exhausted and empty.
The first chapter (the cleverly fictionalized Brat Pack chronicles, condensed to 25 pages) zips along nicely, but already at the Halloween party, the slowdown—the sagging—is worrisomely apparent. Halfway through the novel, I gave up hoping that I’d come across a single stinging turn of phrase or any scene sharp enough to make me tense. Nothing frightening, nothing funny, just a sad, lazy wallow somewhere in between.
Here’s a typical passage. Bret, who’s been drinking, has been told by a man named Kimball that Patrick Bateman is back—either that, or an ersatz Bateman is treating himself to a little copycat carnage:
“I had gotten up, and my knees were shaking …. The room was now filled with despair, torrents of it. I knew even then, half-drunk on vodka, sobering up at a rapid pace, that Kimball would not be able to help anyone and that more crime scenes would be darkened with blood. Fear kept bolting me upright. I suddenly realized that I was straining not to defecate. I had to grip the desk for support. Kimball stood uneasily beside me. I was of no use at that point.”
It’s not easy to see how the author of those desperately lame sentences could have created a plausible character, let alone one who could come back to life, 15 years post-publication, and darken a crime scene with blood.
So when Bret insists that the appallingly convincing American Psycho was not actually his fault, I’m almost ready to believe him. “Something else wrote that book,” he tells himself. Sure, he started it (“I had planned to base Patrick Bateman on my father”), but “someone—something—else took over …. I would often black out for hours at a time only to realize that another ten pages had been scrawled out.” This “haunting” went on, he confides, “during the three years it took to complete the novel.”
A pity that Mr. Ellis wasn’t similarly haunted when he wrote Lunar Park.
Adam Begley is the books editor of The Observer.