Lunar Park by Bret Easton Ellis. Knopf, 2005; $24.95; 308 pages.
FROM THE DUST JACKET:
Imagine becoming a bestselling novelist, and almost immediately famous and wealthy, while still in college, and before long seeing your insufferable father reduced to a bag of ashes in a safe-deposit box, while after American Psycho your celebrity drowns in a sea of vilification, booze, and drugs. Then imagine having a second chance ten years later, as the Bret Easton Ellis of this remarkable novel is given, with a wife, children, and suburban sobriety -- only to watch this new life shatter beyond recognition in a matter of days. At a fateful Halloween party he glimpses a disturbing (fictional) character driving a car identical to his late father's, his stepdaughter's doll violently "malfunctions," and their house undergoes bizarre transformations both within and without. Connecting these aberrations to graver events -- a series of grotesque murders that no longer seem random and the epidemic disappearance of boys his son's age -- Ellis struggles to defend his family against this escalating menace even as his wife, their therapists, and the police insist that his apprehensions are rooted instead in substance abuse and egomania.
Lunar Park confounds one expectation after another, passing through comedy and mounting horror, both psychological and supernatural, toward an astonishing resolution -- about love and loss, fathers and sons -- in what is surely the most powerfully original and deeply moving novel of an extraordinary career.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
From Publishers Weekly: Having ridden to fame as the laureate of Reagan-era excesses, Ellis serves up a self-eviscerating apologia for all the awful things (wanton drug use, reckless promiscuity, serial murder) he worked so hard to glamorize.... As a novel by anyone else, Lunar Park would be hokum, but in context, it is a fascinating look at a once controversial celebrity as a middle-aged man.
From The Village Voice: Lunar Parkis a ghost story and a Charlie Kaufman showdown between the writer and his everyday self, written under Philip Roth's influence and as homage to childhood hero Stephen King.... Sentence for sentence, Lunar Park has some of Ellis's best writing, especially the tour de force elegy closing out the novel.
From The Washington Post's Book World:Lunar Park is often very funny, particularly when detailing Bret's latest self-referential, misogynist writing project, the title of which I can't quote in a family newspaper.... Ellis also evokes with nightmarish clarity a certain kind of upper-middle-class life, where all the children are Ritalin-dependent and even the family golden retriever is on Prozac.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Bret Easton Ellis, born in 1964 and raised in Los Angeles, was a student at Bennington College in Vermont. There he wrote his first published novel, Less Than Zero, as an assignment for a creative writing class. The novel was published in 1985 and Bret Easton Ellis became a "name," and that name joined a list of bad boy and girl authors, a "literary brat pick," among whom were Jay McInerny and Tama Janowitz. Simon and Schuster wrote out a check for $300,000 as advance for Ellis's third novel, American Psycho. So violent was the book considered and so anti-female that female editors at S&S protested its publication. The book was delisted. Vintage, an arm of Knopf, bought out the contract and published the novel. Ellis is the author of five novels and a collection of stories, which have been translated into 27 languages. He divides his time between Los Angeles and New York City.
A CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR:
Mr. Ellis was at home in California, as was I, on the day that we talked. I had asked what he was reading. He answered, saying, "It's harder for me to find things that I like than it used to be. I'm pickier. I know people who will read books even if they're not into them -- I can't do it. I've got to like a book to finish it. So, I do toss books aside after 40 or 50 pages. 'I get where you're going -- I'm not going to be on this train. I'm getting off on this ride.'" Ellis said that interviews could be difficult for him. "The questions that I'm terrible about answering are questions that have to do with explaining my book. I'm fine with other questions, but in terms of, like, 'Why is this here? Why did you do this? I'm lame. You can give it a shot."
"Let me give it a shot. It seemed that part of what the book was about is being an author, what it is to be a writer."
"That's exactly what it's about. It is about the creative process, and it is about what it means to be a writer, and what it means to be sitting in a room all day creating fictions. And what does that do to a person? What kind of person is that?
"When I first had the idea for this book in 1989, I wanted to write a ghost story. I don't even think the narrator was a writer at that point. He was working in politics as a speechwriter. When I finally sat down to Lunar Park in the summer of 2000, he'd become a writer. But that happened about midway through."
As to how Mr. Ellis happened to lend his own name to his narrator: "This material ultimately was so personal that I thought, 'Why don't you just go off -- make him you. There are so many similarities already -- just make this character you. Just name him you in fact, and use the books from your past.'
"But pretty much the structure of the book and what the book was about was about 80 percent there in '89. Things that changed were obviously the death of my father, which happened in '92, and so the ghost of the father started to announce itself more often in this outline that I was creating, and also American Psycho, which was something that came out of the blue in terms of the controversy and the scandal and its success. Ultimately I resented its success, I resented the fact that it's my most popular novel, I resented the fact that Patrick Bateman [in American Psycho] became this iconic figure and that began to play a part in Lunar Park. I started to think, 'Well, God, what happens when you create something that becomes a Frankenstein monster?' And how does a writer deal with that?
"I'm a satirist. What does that mean? I'm angry with the world. That's what satirists are, and so I write these novels in order to criticize the culture and all that I loathe about it. I did that for many years. By the time this book came around, there wasn't anything to satirize. Basically, it was a ghost story, and there were things in it that were personal. There's always a part of me that's going to satirize the suburbs and modern parenting. But overall, I didn't feel that sense of self-righteous anger that spurred me to write American Psycho and Glamorama ."
I found interesting, I said, the way in which the narrator was always trying to understand how reality is constructed. "He becomes," I suggested, "an epistemological wonder boy, but a lost wonder boy. He seems too to be filled with more feeling than he knows what to do with."
"Well, isn't everybody? If you're a writer, if you're an artist of any kind, you have to be open and vulnerable and feel everything. Even when I was into writing deadpan, minimalist prose, or when I was channeling the voice of Patrick Bateman, behind that was a lot of emotion. Obviously, I was upset with something and that was my way of expressing it. But it changes as you get older. You want to be more open. This is probably the most honestly written, in terms of prose style, of all my books. All the other books are experimental by comparison. I don't know."
"Critics and readers, through one book after another, demonized you, and yet they bought the books. It was as if book buyers said, 'Ellis is a pig. I long to read what the pig's written now.' There's something insulting about that."
"I think it happened with the first book. I know I was demonized with the third book. But even with the first book, I didn't recognize the Bret Ellis that was portrayed in the media. That didn't seem like me. I think people thought I was from, like, Beverly Hills or Bel Air, which I wasn't. I was from Sherman Oaks. Much more of an upper-middle-class kid than a rich kid like most of my classmates who I was writing about in Less Than Zero.
"I think what happens is when you become famous you die and the famous persona takes over. No one knows you. I mean, you're not going to meet every single person who's read your books and tell them, 'Look, this is what I'm about. This is what I'm like.'"
"Don't you think it's interesting that in the last decade or so that so-called reviewers, so-called critics more often review the author's 'real life' rather than the text itself?"
"I've noticed that a lot in the reviews that I've received over the past 10 to 15 years. I am never bothered by reviews. I'm not bothered by bad reviews; good reviews don't necessarily throw me -- they're nice. What does bother me is exactly what you're talking about -- when that starts to sneak into a review and starts to announce itself, you do get upset."
"Because it's not about the product but, rather, the producer."
"Yes, exactly, and it should be only about that. Believe me, we're probably seeing the best of the bunch when we see people actually writing book reviews. At least these people are trying to grapple with stuff. Most of the time they have read the book. But, maybe not. I don't know.
"My whole career I've been a victim of being criticized for my subject matter. But I gotta tell you, also, quite honestly, it doesn't play any part in the creative process. So, I don't know how much weight I should give any of it. That's what I've always felt about reviews. That's what I've always felt about reactions. And even readers. I read all the reviews I get, I'm always interested in what reviewers have to say, regardless of whether I agree with them or not, and I love meeting readers at book signings. But overall, none of that has anything to do with why you're writing a book.
"Since it's not part of the creative process it is difficult to have to think about why people are writing certain things about you or why people have this idea about you that's not true. It's like, 'Well, okay, I've got so many other things in life that are important and urgent, and things could be much worse.' So, I don't know. I'm not the kind of writer that sits around and thinks about it.
"I think you can tell that from Lunar Park. I don't seem particularly concerned about any of that stuff. But what you bring up is interesting. I just don't know if I have an answer for it."
"When Simon & Schuster decided not to publish American Psycho, did they tell you or did they tell your agent?"
"My agent. My editor was in close contact with me during this process. He kept reassuring me that it was not going to happen. There was no way it was going to happen. My agent called and said, 'I think it is going to happen.' Then it did happen. It was a rough, weird week that I remember very well."
"You were still just a kid."
"I was. I was 25. I was 26 when the book was published. I was a kid. I didn't think I was a kid then, but I look back now -- that's a kid.
"The publishing house itself did not make the decision; it was the corporation that owned the publishing house. That was the problem. And Dick Snider, who was editor-in-chief at Simon & Schuster at that time, would never have cancelled that book. It was done from higher up. It was a defining moment in my career...the defining moment in other people's idea of my career."
"I don't think it is the defining moment for you."
"No, not at all. But again, I hate using the word 'career' even, because if I had a career, I think I would be writing a lot more. I don't look at writing as a career. I look at it as a hobby, as something that I enjoy doing, and I don't have a ton of ideas for books; I don't have 30 ideas sitting around. The books that I've published, that's pretty much it. Five books in 20 years. It doesn't seem like a lot to me. A lot of my contemporaries publish a book a year.
"I do tend to read my contemporaries, and I often scratch my head and wonder, 'Why the hell are you wasting your and my time with this book?' I mean, this must be so miserable to be forced to write this book within a period of nine months, so you can get it to your publisher, so you can get the hard cover out, so you can go out on tour."
"Did you think always that you wanted to be a writer?"
"Yes, I always thought that, ever since I was a little boy. I wrote many storybooks when I was a little boy. And, yes, it was always something that I was thinking about. Because I liked reading. And there were a lot of books in the house; my mom was a voracious reader. I loved the library. I read at a very early age. The pleasure that I got from reading was addictive enough in order for me to want to do it myself. I wanted to write.
"So that's where it came from. People often say, 'Oh, so, what teacher made you want to write?' 'What teacher was the one?' It wasn't any teacher. It was books. Books made me want to write. I did not take workshops in college because I wanted to learn how to write. I took workshops in college because I was already writing and I wanted to be in a writing workshop. That's basically it. And then Less Than Zero got published. But, yes, from a very early age on I always was writing.
"The other fact that would come into play, I was living in a household that had a very strained marriage in it, a lot of alcoholism, a lot of scariness, and it was a way for me to vent to myself, to talk to myself. Reading and writing were a means of escape. They were their own way of transporting myself out of the reality of what the situation was into another world. But the irony there was that I was writing very dark things. So it wasn't like I was writing science fiction stories or fantasy stories."
"But you didn't know anything else other than darkness."
"No, that's true. I didn't know anything else. That was my only point of reference was the darkness in the house."
"As in this new book, the narrator touches the gravestone and the stone drips blood."
"The reader knows for sure then, 'I am in for something so strange.' But also, moments like that in Lunar Park are painful. In part, what unhappy children do when they write is that they try to make another world that they can live in. This book is full of that house."
"Yes. That's true and interesting. I don't like to look at books as therapy for the writer, though ultimately they are. Something gets resolved with every book you write. I did not expect the stuff that got lifted off me when I was finished with this book. I'd been in therapy a lot about my dad -- he died unexpectedly -- we were not speaking at the time, and it was a harder thing to take than I first thought. I was in shock that he had died so young. And so the shock of his death was what I related to for about a year or two. And then I began to realize the loss.
"He had gotten impossible in his last years. You could not talk to him. He was an impossible guy. But on the other hand, I do hear from friends who had strained relationships with their fathers in their 20s, that their families mellow out. Many of my male friends are surprised by this thing that's happening with them now as they're entering their 40s, that this strained relationship that they had with their fathers mellows with age. My father did have some good qualities. He was a very funny guy, and he did speak to the hypocrisy of stuff. He was very smart. But he also was extremely unhappy, and he drank too much. And he was an abusive guy.
"When I was writing the book, my dad was the point of reference that I kept thinking about all the time. I was talking to him while I was writing the book. And by the time I ended the book, I should have realized that therapy wasn't going to do it, what was going to do it was this. I'm a writer, I write novels, and this was what was going to resolve a lot of issues I had."
"Do you ever think that there are many people going through the world with whole pieces of your books in their head, and they no longer can separate them from their own memories or their own pasts?"
"Well, I am one of those people with other people's work. I have writers in my head that I'm always thinking about every day. And I guess books work that way. That's what's wonderful about them.
"Also, I was very surprised all over again, about how passionate people can become about a writer. I'm always so surprised because it's such a solitary thing. You're so alone. The whole process is lonely. And so when you're out, say, on a book tour, the juxtaposition between the creation of the book where you're alone in a room for five years, and then you're out in front of 800 people at a Barnes and Noble, and they're all telling you their feelings about this book that was just released. I don't know. It's kind of hard to take seriously almost. This is so strange."
Back in the 1990s Daniel Halpern edited a book titled, Who's Writing This? Halpern asked various writers to muse on the difference between the public author, or, authorial person, and the private, non-writing person. What did Mr. Ellis think that difference was?
"I've never talked about that before, but I'm pretty good at doing that regardless if I'm with someone or if I'm not with someone. You have this other mundane life that you have to deal with on a daily basis. And then if you're working on a novel, it's probably a very dramatic life that you return to, for three or four hours in the afternoon or in the morning, and then again it's, like, 'I've got to meet the guys for drinks or the movies.' It is a very curious way to live, but it's pretty true for me. Writing isn't method acting. Even if I'm writing a sequence that's extremely emotional or is a very seductive scene, if I have stuff to do I can turn it off and realize, 'Okay, look, it's 5 o'clock....' That does not mean that you're not inspired by the material, it just means that you've got to be very careful with it.
"Writing is fun. And it should be fun. I don't understand writers who bitterly complain about writing novels. I don't get it. Do something else. The process should be fun and it should be inspiring; you should be excited to spend every day, able to do it. I don't understand the writers who drone on and on about 'Oh, it's so hard; it's so difficult...'"