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September 13, 2005

With Lunar Park, Ellis swaps hubris for humanity

Why is Bret Easton Ellis famous? At the age of 20, he published a novel called Less Than Zero, which was supposed to be an indictment of his rich Beverly Hills friends and how they were nothing more than shallow, empty vessels. The characters in this book prostitute themselves to support their cocaine habits and pop pills to make it through Christmas morning. They watch a 12-year-old girl get gang-raped and a 16-year-old boy get raped and murdered on camera.

It makes my skin crawl just writing about it—but no, Bret Easton Ellis is a moralist! Why else would he choose to write about—to expose!—these vapid socialites and their unconscionable activities? This reputation was further cemented by The Rules of Attraction, in which students at a liberal arts college casually drift into drug addiction, and Glamorama, in which the fashion industry serves as a front for a terrorist ring; and American Psycho, which is sick.

I never really bought it, though. While I don't believe that American Psycho advocated violence toward women—as Gloria Steinem claimed—Ellis always condoned a decadent lifestyle as much as he condemned it. And in his latest novel, Lunar Park, the author finally acknowledges this—which is why he just may be starting to win me over.

Lunar Park is a horror story, but not in the way that Mr. Ellis intends. Or is it? See, this book is about a novelist named "Bret Easton Ellis"—not the Bret Easton Ellis, presumably, because just enough details are altered for the book to exist in its own bizarro universe. (Although Ellis graduated from Bennington College, a liberal arts school in New Hampshire, he still refers to it as "Camden College"—probably to avoid a lawsuit.)

Sconces flicker ominously and his young daughter's Terby (read: Furby) doll leaves claw marks on the ceiling, but the supernatural occurrences are far from the scariest elements of Lunar Park. No, the scariest scenes are between Ellis and his kids, when we realize just how incompetent he is at fatherhood. Ellis's daughter, Sarah, swallows Skittles whole in an imitation of her mother's prescription-pill addiction. Ellis's son, Robby, has "a Prada wallet and a Stussy camouflage patch and a Lacoste sweatband" but no childhood, because his dad's an unstable drug addict and his mom is a well meaning but preoccupied actress who catapults to fame after starring in a movie with Keanu Reeves.

It's the kind of childhood Ellis's characters had—Clay in Less Than Zero, and Patrick Bateman in American Psycho—and Ellis knows it. So much for Psycho and Zero being morality tales, if their own creator wandered into the same hopeless, materialistic abyss he allegedly warned us about.

But gloriously, miraculously, Ellis is in on the joke this time. He realizes he's a terrible father. He even makes concessions that he may be a terrible writer (sheepishly admitting that American Psycho's 118-word opening sentence may not have been the best idea). He even attempts to warm our hearts, in a passage where he astonishes his wife by referring to Robby and Sarah as "our kids" (as opposed to just "hers.")

Through Lunar Park, Ellis questions his shallow success, ponders his literary legacy, and agonizes over his relationship with his late father. He strains the limits of our sympathy—when he plies his young son with alcohol, for example, or tucks his daughter into bed after doing lines of coke in the bathroom—but never fully exhausts our patience. "What I was being given—I understood immediately—was extremely rare: a second chance with someone else," Ellis writes of his wife. He may be referring to his readers, as well.

This newfound humanity is a major step forward for Ellis—and it's conspicuously absent from Teenage Pussy, the sensationalistic novel he describes in Lunar Park. (Was Ellis really writing this book at one point? If so, I'm glad he abandoned it.) But as always, Ellis is a victim of his own overkill. American Psycho could have been 100 pages shorter if Patrick Bateman had applied 15 fewer skin care products. I understood what Ellis was trying to say about the character's obsessiveness, his attention to detail, his vanity that veered into the pathological. But reading it was like trudging through a catalog. A more talented writer could have conveyed the same information without—as Ellis puts it himself—"the heavy, useless emphasis on minutiae."

For a while, Lunar Park expertly avoids the same trappings. It's sprightly; it's relevant; it can be wickedly funny. A passage in which an inebriated Ellis pisses into a Jumbo Gulp Slurpee cup is juvenile in the best way. But did he really need to preface the text with three quotes? The John O'Hara quote ("People who have made up their minds about a man do not like to have their opinions changed…") is pitch-perfect. The Thomas McGuane and Shakespeare quotes are unnecessary.

Lunar Park's other flaw is that it takes aim at painfully easy targets. Sure, kids are probably overmedicated these days—you don't have to be Tom Cruise to concede that—but Ellis seems to be shifting the blame from his own sick subconscious when he starts bitching about psychiatric drugs. And predictably, Ellis' daughter tramps around in clothing that's way too suggestive for tots, such as a tiny t-shirt with the word "lingerie" printed across the front. What, does Ellis want to blame that on Britney and Xtina?

Another passage, in which Ellis is shocked to learn that his first-grader has been assigned William Golding's Lord of the Flies, is simply curious. Could Bret Easton Ellis, master provocateur, actually be advocating censorship—or at least age-appropriate reading? If so, I wonder if he repents for best-selling status of Less Than Zero, which introduced a large portion of the underage population to the concept of the snuff film. Or is that the reason for the rich undercurrent of regret that courses through this book?

Lunar Park, which is already in its third printing, represents everything that's wrong with the publishing industry. That a left over, overhyped "It" Boy from the '80s can siphon away attention from more deserving talent is appalling—and The New York Times, whose Michiko Kakutani got the ball rolling with her rave review of Less Than Zero 20 years ago, is already jumping on the bandwagon. But for a Bret Easton Ellis novel, hey, I'll take it. Consider me among the cautiously converted.