Bret Easton Ellis is not an author for the faint of heart. At his most sedate, Ellis merely subjects his characters to alienation and despair, along with rapid self-destruction (fueled by quantities of drugs that would daunt even the late Hunter S. Thompson.) When he’s feeling particularly transgressive, Ellis revels in describing gang rapes of children, decomposing corpses of hookers and elaborate chain-saw mutilations across his pages.
But the underlying satire and societal indictments, along with Ellis’ witty and inventive prose, make it well worth wading through the gore. As a result, previous works like “American Psycho” are excellent reads. But after more than a decade, one begins to wonder if perhaps Ellis hadn’t simply said all he has to say about exorbitant substance use and mass apathy.
Then again, the heights of “Lunar Park” suggest that this enfant terrible of contemporary American fiction has only begun to plumb his depths. And with only occasional lapses, he does so with remarkably few eviscerations.
“Park” is a strange creation. It is filled with moments of sublime beauty but burdened by wince-inducing gimmicks; heartfelt and earnest, but with hints of deception. Most bizarrely, Ellis himself is the protagonist — his novel is a sort of surreal autobiography, a fanciful exploration of a direction his life could have taken.
In the first chapter, Ellis lists the highlights of his story up until the present day: a strained relationship with his father, drug-addled summer days in Los Angeles, the writing of his first novel at a hedonistic New England college called Camden, and the heady decade of debauchery that followed his early literary success. Much of this aligns with reality, of course. Even the most flamboyant vignettes (the eight-week crystal meth binge that produced “Less Than Zero,” for instance) could very well be the truth.
He calls an old girlfriend looking for a second chance, and the novel launches into the realm of pure speculation. The ex-girlfriend, a fictive A-list model/actress named Jayne Dennis, has spent the last 10 years raising Ellis’s son, whom she bore against his wishes. When she receives Ellis’s desperate call, she offers him the chance to start over — as her husband and his son’s father. He agrees, then abandons the hills of Hollywood for a mansion in the Connecticut suburbs.
Predictably, the arrangement is not as idyllic as our hero had hoped. Ellis finds that his maturity and domesticity fall far short of Jayne’s expectations, and his son is cold and distant to the father he has never known. Jayne’s daughter (by another man) is welcoming enough, but her psychological troubles are a constant source of worry.
Ellis’ difficulties fitting in with his new family are hardly the worst of his problems. After only three months of his new life, disturbing events begin to occur with increasing frequency. The furniture in the house begins to rearrange itself. A young man who closely resembles the demented protagonist of “American Psycho” keeps showing up, and may be linked to a series of gruesome murders copied in detail from the novel’s pages. All the while, boys the age of Ellis’ son are disappearing, without a trace, from towns all over the county.
Ellis attempts to make his plot suspenseful and surreal, but his devices are stale and tired. The supposedly chilling coincidences are hackneyed and obvious. Sheer silliness clashes with the mounting horror Ellis purports to feel. In one of the book’s most underwhelming scenes, he and his son are chased around their house by a tawny-haired monster.
But despite the ineffectiveness of the novelist’s foray into the mystery genre, there is much in his novel that is deliciously complex and poignant. The satirical portraits of wealthy suburban children are hilarious in both how much they exaggerate and how they hit the mark. The theme of fathers and sons is heartbreaking in its earnestness and barrenness. And the sheer beauty of the last 50 pages of the book proves that Ellis’s writing, when it works, can be transcendent.
But best of all is the author’s unflinching portrayal of himself, or at least some version. “I could never be as honest about myself in a piece of nonfiction as I could in any of my novels,” he says, and it shows. He is pathetic, he is reprehensible, and he is ineffective — which is precisely why the book remains convincing despite weak structure and flimsy devices.
We believe, as we listen to Ellis’ confessions, that somewhere in the self-proclaimed “maelstrom of lying,” is the truth. This emotional core is something new for Ellis, something lacking in the perpetually slick and biting critiques of old. It is in protagonist Ellis’s attempt to reconcile the various parts of his nature, to face his past and save his future, that author Ellis at last comes of age.