Ellis explores demons, modern social landscape

“What kind of car did he arrive in? I’ll bet it was a limo.”

“He’s probably in a back room with armed bodyguards right now.”

“So is this his out-of-rehab book?”

These were a few of the conversation snippets overheard while waiting for Bret Easton Ellis to give a book reading at the UM Bookstore last Friday (see story, page 3), and they are exactly the sort of misconceptions that Ellis plays with in his new novel, Lunar Park.

Lunar Park tells the story of a washed-up writer named Bret Easton Ellis, with a body of work mirroring that of the real Ellis, who retreats from New York City to the suburbs to live with his new wife, a famous Hollywood actress, and her children. While teaching once a week at a local college and awkwardly struggling to connect with his estranged son, Robby, Ellis works on his new novel, a “pornographic thriller.”

A spoof on the writer’s exaggerated public persona, the fictional Ellis wears a marijuana T-shirt at his own Halloween party, does massive amounts of coke and tries to sleep with a grad student in his bathroom (“Hey, I’ve only been married three months”). After an appearance at the party by a stranger dressed as Patrick Bateman, the protagonist of American Psycho, Ellis’s suburban McMansion becomes host to a series of escalating supernatural incidents, and the tone shifts from social satire to a dark rumination on family dysfunction and personal demons.

At the book reading, Ellis (the real one) said that he brought back Patrick Bateman as a metaphor for his resentment of the extreme popularity of American Psycho, while his other works are less widely appreciated. This point was driven home by a student who noticed the low initial turnout and said, “forget Lunar Park, they should have put a big poster of American Psycho up-then people would come.”

Though Lunar Park does tackle personal issues belonging to Ellis alone, the crux of the story is far more universal, never devolving into a self-conscious rant on the toll of celebrity as some critics suggest. At its heart it’s about family, the struggle to nurture lasting emotional bonds in an age of email communication and ubiquitous Ritalin prescriptions, a social landscape as desolate as the moon floating on Robby’s screensaver.

Even as Ellis the character does lines of coke and dreams of orgies with the neighborhood housewives, Ellis the author comes across as a moralist, someone disgusted with parents who view their children as little more than a status symbol, an investment expected to yield dividends upon graduating from Harvard or Juilliard. The result of their fanaticism is a world where kids are controlled rather than raised, put on strict dietary regimens, protected by their own bodyguards and overmedicated into submission until they’re little more than robots in DKNY Kids jackets.

Set against a backdrop of escalating terrorist attacks, a mysterious mass disappearance of young boys and Stephen King-esque paranormal activity, Ellis’s story is also about a loss of control, and the protagonist’s struggle to preserve his family amid his collapsing reality suggests that only through strengthening our relationships with the ones we love can we maintain our sanity in the anxiety-ridden new millennium.

For those who refrain from pigeonholing Lunar Park as an act of narcissism, there’s a wealth of profound messages to be found in its pages.

A sharp satire, an inventive metaphysical study and a moving story of a father and his son, Lunar Park might not define a zeitgeist, but that hardly seems to be its goal. Ellis has written a powerful book that succeeds on its own terms, and that should be enough.

Matt Gajewski can be contacted at m.gajewski@umiami.edu.