I confess up front that I have read none of Bret Easton Ellis's fiction before Lunar Park. Nothing in the way his previous books have been described or promoted made me think they would be worthwhile reading, and both the hoopla surrounding his first two books (boy writer makes good, portraits of an era, blah blah blah) and the "controversy" provoked around American Psycho made me if anything even less disposed to bother with him. It all seemed like such a transparent way to concoct an artificial excitement about a writer (some writer, any writer) at a time when it was becoming difficult for fiction to compete for the fashion dollar in an increasingly hyped-up "media environment."
But then I read two reviews of Lunar Park by critics/bloggers whose judgments I generally trust, Traver Kauffman (Rake's Progress) and Steven Shaviro (The Pinocchio Theory). These reviews made me think that perhaps I had been unfair to Ellis, that despite the bad impression left by the publication and reception of his previous work he was a writer of some interest after all.
Thus I really did want to like Lunar Park. I wanted the satisfication of a new, if belated, discovery; I wanted the critical insights offered up in these reviews (both very intelligently presented) to be borne out in my experience of reading the novel. Alas. While I cant' go so far as Steve Almond, who asserted "It may be the worst novel I've ever read," I can say I found it to be pretty dreary indeed. I'm still not sure I understand the resolution of all of its various Stephen King-derived horror-narrative tropes and devices, but then by the time I got to the part of the novel where these things were apparently going to be explained, I really didn't care anymore.
Traver's primary contention is that, despite its implausibilities, Lunar Park is finally "creepy and compelling entertainment." Unfortunately, the novel seemed to me not at all creepy, but all too bland and formulaic. The first chapter promises some interesting variations on the metafictional device of creating a presumably fictionalized persona for the author of the novel we're reading--necessitating that we refer to LP's protagonist as "Bret Easton Ellis"--but this quickly enough spends itself in the entirely uninteresting scenario in which "BEE" has married a famous actress and is attempting to raise a family in the suburbs. None of the histrionic attempts to enliven this scenario with father-son, husband-wife, and writer-celebrity "tensions" can counterbalance the fact that we (or at least I) don't give much of a damn about this situation or about "BEE"'s struggle to free himself from the demons that have haunted him all the way through his pathetic career as a Famous Author. "BEE" is an extremely annoying character, and nothing that Bret Easton Ellis can do in depicting his persona's hapless self-scrutiny can modify him over the course of the novel except to the extent that he moves from being merely unpleasant to being utterly contemptible.
Perhaps the "entertainment" value here lies in the very extremity of this character's cluelessness. Perhaps we're to enjoy, even admire, the way in which Bret Easton Ellis is willing to portray "Bret Easton Ellis" as a transcendent jerk. But what would be the point of this? A kind of mea culpa for the years of bad behavior in which Bret Easton Ellis has allegedly indulged? Who cares? A figurative thumb-in-the-eye of all those who have accused him of such behavior? (You want depraved? How about this?) For those of us who don't care about Bret Easton Ellis's behavior, bad or otherwise, this is hardly edge-of-the seat drama. And I certainly did not find Lunar Park's horror story contrivances to be "compelling entertainment." As it happens, I like horror fiction and films perfectly well (not Stephen King--I can't get past the fact that he's simply a poor writer), but the efforts Ellis makes to incorporate horror conventions into this novel are just plain incompetent. I didn't believe in any of them, and some of the episodes in which Ellis tries to be "creepy" are embarassing. (The scene in which a "paranormal investigator" cleanses "BEE"'s house reads like an inept imitation of Poltergeist--and the faux naivete with which "BEE" confronts it all doesn't help a bit.) I continued reading Lunar Park to the end only because I kept thinking Ellis might ultimately do something surprsing with these horror conventions or might bring out some redeeming quality in "BEE" I just wasn't seeing. Suffice it to say that neither happened.
Steven Shaviro, in his review of the book, goes beyond simply claiming that LP is an entertaining read. He thinks that it has higher ambitions, that BEE is engaged in "exploring and reflecting upon our current post-literary, multimedia culture." (If he's also admitting that Bret Easton Ellis is himself "post-literary," I would, at least, agree with this, but for some (unspecified) reason he actually considers Ellis "an extraordinarily literary and writerly writer.") He thinks that Lunar Park, unlike anything Ellis has written before, is "a novel of interiority," but that "the interiority that the novel so powerfully suggests is just as powerfully, indeed quite savagely and gleefully, deconstructed":
The narrator’s introspection reveals only that he has no depths and no center, and that everything he does is driven by outside forces and superficial motives. The novel is filled with sincere moments of longing and confession and reform, with moments of the desire to go straight, “to get back to basics”. . .but each of these moments ends up being framed as a theatrical performance, being suspended “in quotation marks,” being revealed as an expression of social conformism, of what you are supposed to feel, even if nobody ever actually does.
I find this argument wholly unconvincing. Essentially we are to believe that BEE has created "BEE" precisely in order to make us hate him, that the silly, tedious narrative he has constructed is intended to be silly and tedious so we can understand the silliness and tedium of our "mutimedia culture." This is an awful lot of weight to put on a novel simply because its author decided to frame it with a metafictional device and by doing so invoke the kind of "postmodern" analysis Shaviro duly provides. BEE didn't write a bad novel in order to parody the "self-referentiality" of modernism and postmodernism. He just wrote a bad novel.
It would seem that Steven Shaviro really values Lunar Park because its self-referentiality doesn't merely point us to "the supremacy of the imagination" or make "the assertion that everything is language, everything is text." Instead it "presents a kind of collapse, an involution, but more into the boredom and horror of the everyday, and into the multiple mirrors of the movie-video-internet-entertainment complex":
This means that Lunar Park tends to show us how selves and desires are social fictions. Existentially, we are thrown back on these images and effects, these mirror reflections, and it is as foolish to dismiss them as phony as it is to invest them with mystical qualities, as if they were deeper and more resonant than they actually are. Politically, however, these effects and images have a lot to do with the social positions that we inhabit. . . .
I'm afraid I find this all a convenient excuse to overlook the fact that Lunar Park is, aesthetically speaking, a badly paced, badly shaped, and badly written novel. Ellis is not interested in "the supremacy of imagination" because, as far as I can see, he has no imagination, and he's not interested in the "textuality" of language because he has no feel for language. (Ellis's style is relentlessly ordinary at best; even when he seems to be setting out on a stylistic excursion of sorts, such as the scene in which "BEE" imagines his father's ashes finally being dispersed into the wind, his language is so banal--"They drifted over a mother's smile and shaded a sister's outstretched hand and shifted past all the things you wanted to share with everyone"--one has to force one's eyes not to film over.) Shaviro seems to be willing to settle for the almost certainly unintended "political" critique contained in a book that just happens to be about celebrity and wealth and that surrounds its characters with the "multimedia" accoutrements of the day. I'm not willing to settle for this myself, much less to critically elevate an undeserving book simply because its "subject" can be made to seem like relevant cultural commentary.
Although I would otherwise never think to compare Bret Easton Ellis with Philip Roth (Roth is a real novelist, Ellis seems one manufactured by the "book business"), Lunar Park nevertheless resembles The Plot Against America in at least one way: Both books are essentially memoirs about their authors' fathers, attempts to capture some fundamental and enduring fact of parental influence through the more imaginative possibilities of fiction. Roth wants to portray his father as heroic; Ellis depicts his as malign. But each winds up writing novels that are needlessly overworked and inflated. Roth, at least, brings his usual intelligence and vigorous prose style to The Plot Against America. There are no such compensations in Lunar Park. Ellis would have been better advised, if he were determined to write about his father (about his own life more generally), to produce a straighforward memoir or autobiography. It might not have sold as many copies as Lunar Park, but it surely would have been better able to justify its existence.