Lunar Park - Bret Easton Ellis

Bret Ellis is a divisive author. You raise the banner to damn or praise, but there's scarce middle ground. This of course, is just how he likes it. No-one writes a book like American Psycho who doesn't relish the animosity.

I for one am firmly in the cheerleading camp, just pass me the pom-poms. American Psycho is the most dramatically obscene book I've ever read (with the possible exception of Naked Lunch), but that's not what it was about. The book was an unequalled satire of 80s Wall Street America. The vapidity, the ruthlessness, style not just triumphing over but trampling on substance. Above all it captured the sheer emptiness of the age, emptiness in its most profound sense. That's satire in its most profound sense too, not signposted finger-wag gags at obvious targets, but a scalpel that gets under the skin of it's victim, and then turns the rotten beast inside out.

It pains me sorely to play the "political correctness" inverse scare card, no-one who values their soul wants to breathe the same dead air as Scruton and Littlejohn after all. But the feminist/morality/decency axis frothing at American Psycho were dramatically missing the point, every bit as much as the corseted ladies who fainted at Swift's Modest Proposal and the concerned chorus who sang their ill-judged protest-ballad at Chris Morris's paedophile Brass Eye episode.

Patrick Bateman, anti-hero of Psycho was a black joke, not an icon. He was the ultimate expression of the "Blank Generation", not in the heroic-nihilist-outsider sense of the 70s as coined by Richard Hell, but a deluded 80s nothing. The funniest chapters explained, viciously and hilariously, his love for Phil Collins, Whitney Houston, and Huey Lewis and the News. This is the diametric opposite of the critic's claim of glamorisation. Bateman was not just a psychopathic, misyogynistic, homophobic, empty-headed clone. He was also fundamentally naff.

[It's interesting, the whole "musical taste as signifier of spiritual worth" motif. Irvine Welsh uses it explicitly. Note that the schemies we semi-sympathise with such as Renton and Spud of Trainspotting all have the impeccable taste of Welsh himself, decent dance, Iggy Pop, Smiths, Fall etc , whilst the all-out loathsomeness of D.C. Bruce Robertson in Filth is heralded by his love for Whitesnake. Perhaps there's some truth in this, probably not. The point is you don't give risible tastes to those you glamorise.]

And yet............ supposing Psycho was every bit as style-trapped and hollow as those it purported to decry, and that Ellis was disingenuously, morbidly getting off on the violence on display in his work. Supposing he was the over-rated, spoiled, insipid, perverse, spaced out self-obsessed solipsist his detractors always said he was. Well, Ellis has supposed it himself, and Lunar Park is his story.

Lunar Park presents itself as the straightforward first-person narrative of "Bret Easton Ellis", spoiled, self-obsessed, solipsistic rich boy etc. etc. etc. author in a state of debauched twilight. We join up with Bret as he half-heartedly attempts to start a new married life with the long abandoned film- star mother of his similarly long neglected teenage son, as they lead their sterilised, gated lives in the rich outer Holywood suburbs. Simultaneously sharing with and jarring against his neighbours' ubiquitous obsessions with Stepfordite hygiene and diet, Bret has singularly failed to dull his own diet of booze and drugs.

As this "Bret" self-regardingly presents himself a style emerges every bit as subtly self-mocking as that of Patrick Bateman in Psycho, a prose deliberately glib, blank and seemingly artless. This is where the detractors claim to strike home. "Bret is a smug, flat, amoral prick! Advertising the fact doesn't alter it!" That Bret can have even his supporters worrying at the back of their minds this might be the case is testimony to razor-sharpness of the satire, the audacity on display. In the end, you believe or you don't, it's a leap of faith. Believing is a lot more enjoyable.

Self-congratulating frat-boy authors of the 21st century are not quite so vital a target of satire as the odious New York corporate boys of the 80s however, and while the razor runs sharp, the book would wear thin pretty quickly if this was all it aspired to.

Instead, it delves, dives and swoops into very varied territory. Strange things happen. Children are going missing around the gated community. Ellis' house begins to take on the hues of his childhood home in sinister fashion. While louche, aging swinger Ellis hangs around the college where he teaches "creative writing", hitting on teenagers, one fling in particular gets strangely out of hand. His estranged son retreats into a disturbing misanthropy which may or may not be simply a sullen justified sulk at abandonment. And at a fancy dress party organised at Bret's behest, someone turns up dressed as a certain P. Bateman. A very exactingly realised Hell breaks loose.

It's hard to imagine a book more self-referential, "knowing", post-modern. Too clever by half, it's asking for its glasses to be pulled off and its head thrust down the toilet. One way it redeems itself from smugness and ultimate irrelevance is the immense subtlety in which it conveys the dizzying myriad twists of the author's gaze. The changes in tone are nothing short of masterful. It shifts from a playful if vinegary satire of twattish authors, to murder mystery, to shlock ghost story, to an unexpectedly adroit study of failed parenthood. Once again, this should be a real mess, but its real achievement is that there is no sense of jolt as it veers from one to another, the joins don't show.

Each style is handled expertly within itself. The creepy potential of e-mails as a previously untapped source of modern horror is particularly innovative. But the most welcome surprise is the lyrical, lengthy final passage. It could not be further removed from the fatuous drollery of the novel's opening, and yet is somehow totally in keeping.

Ambiguity can be the most vibrant life-blood of art, and Ellis keeps us guessing from here to infernal eternity. There is no resolution here, no redemption. For all the archness, this seems a real cry from the depths of a flinching soul.

The book is dedicated to Bret's father Robert Ellis, presented in the book as a calculating monster and the blueprint for Patrick Bateman. It is also dedicated to Michael Kaplan. Kaplan is apparently Ellis's real-life partner who died in 2003. That the Ellis of the book appears to see his occasional same-sex liaisons as mere overspills of a jaded Id is perhaps the only real proof that the man who wrote this book has some degree of genuine detachment to the horrors that unfold within. I hope for his sake that's true. That I end up doubting even this is perhaps the final tribute to the truly entrancing hall of jagged mirrors he has constructed, and the intriguing, beguiling and moving tale produced in consequence.

[Shorter version first published on Spike Magazine, 2006]Back