- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 27, 2005

LUNAR PARK

By Bret Easton Ellis

Knopf, $25, 309 pages

REVIEWED BY VINCENT D. BALITAS



In a time when millions of Americans sit glued to their television and computer screens to learn how to live their lives, what to read, what to buy,what games to play and what to believein, should anyone be surprised by a dumbed-down America’s plunge into cultural, political and religious dissension, by its increasing lack of civility? In an age when mind-numbing sitcoms and CSI clones teach us how to ridicule rather than to understand human foibles, and how to avoid capture should we decide to join the growing ranks of serial killers, child and spouse abusers and drug dealers and users, who could doubt that the rotten apples ultimately will prevail?

Bret Easton Ellis has fashioned a successful career chronicling some rotten apples: the sex- and drug-addicted spoiled brats of “Less Than Zero;” the sex- and drug-obsessed bored college students in “The Rules of Attraction;” the sex, drugs and violence that drives “American Psycho,” his most famous (infamous?) novel. In “Lunar Park,” Mr. Ellis continues his at times compelling, at times tedious analysis of life among the upper-middle class and its descent into triviality and the ephemeral. Drugs and violence of all sorts take center stage, but the sex that was so much a part of his previous work is generally absent. Perhaps all the drugs snorted and smoked, and all the cocktails swallowed are to blame for the rootless narrator’s weakened libido.

What has not changed in Mr. Ellis’ new novel is what is called, in the film industry, product placement, the prominent display of brand names and products for a fee. I don’t know if fiction writers can cadge cash or freebies from companies by identifying, say, a suit as an Armani or vodka as Ketel One. The following is a good example of what occurs in Mr. Ellis’ fiction: “at six o’clock Jayne dressed me in a pair of black Paul Smith slacks and a gray Gucci turtleneck and Prada shoes.” (If novelists could supplement their incomes by plugging clothes and booze, can book reviewers and poets be far behind?) John O’Hara was a master at delineating class divisions and ambitions by telling us what his characters drove and wore. O’Hara’s fiction is to some degree outdated in part because few still remember the cars and clothes, and fewer care. Mr. Ellis’ fiction might suffer a similar fate.

“Lunar Park” begins with what reads like an autobiographical statement, but to read it as such is misleading. We cannot be comfortable, nor should we be, that Bret Easton Ellis the author is speaking because the central character and narrator is Bret Easton Ellis, a rich and successful author, a celebrity writer in an age when “reality” shows are all the rage. Everybody wants that 15 minutes of fame. By having his character bear his name, Mr. Ellis is not doing anything new. John Barth and Philip Roth, to mention just two, appeared in their books. A whiff of authenticity is part of this ploy. Fiction-makers have long fought against charges that what is imaginatively created is somehow less important than what is real.

“Lunar Park” is a mishmash of subplots. There is a horror story worthy of a Stephen King imitator. There is also a frightening mystery about the disappearance of several young boys. And what would a novel aspiring to best seller lists be without a serial killer? In what is a nice though not new twist to serial killer fiction, Mr. Ellis has a psychopath who is copying the murders committed by Patrick Bateman in “American Psycho.” Ah, the possibilities multiply. At times, Mr. Ellis seems to be searching for a way to tackle father-son relationships. He even quotes “Hamlet” in an epigraph. However, he is always trying to get quick jokes in by giving us Ophelia Boulevard, Elsinore Lane and Fortinbras Mall.

How can we take anything in this novel seriously? Should we? Does it matter?

Although Mr. Ellis has been attacked for his subject matter, he has not been taken to task for his writing abilities. There are several well-written sections in “Lunar Park,” three of which involve parties: Jayne, the narrator’s wife, “never understood that the Party had ‘been’ my workplace. It was my open market, my battleground … . Parties seemed frivolous and random and formless but in fact were intricately patterned, highly choreographed events … the Party was the surface on which daily life took place.”

At a birthday party for a neighbor’s child, the narrator observes that “The whole thing seemed harmless … until I started noticing that all the kids were on meds (Zoloft, Luvox, Celexa, Paxil) that caused them to move lethargically and speak in affectless monotones. And some bit their fingernails until they bled and a pediatrician was on hand ‘just in case’.” The reader should shudder at what is happing to our nation’s children, or at least to those whose parents have prescription drug plans, and are wealthy enough to afford private schools, private therapists, private detox clinics.

It is difficult to recommend “Lunar Park” because it seems to be more of the same from Mr. Ellis. The novel is too long and is narrated by a stoned drunken lout who rarely is interesting. Fans of his earlier fictions, and Knopf must think there are enough to warrant a 125,000 copies first printing, will love his new one. Other readers might not be so kind.

Vincent D. Balitas is a poet, teacher and critic in Pottsville, Pa.

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