“I’m a believer that a book should exist on its own,” Bret Easton Ellis says. Which makes sense. Since Less Than Zero, critics have affixed Ellis to the callous, psychotic, bored, privileged males doing bumps in his fiction. He mastered his 1985 debut’s minimalism as an undergrad at Bennington College (where he gathered material for The Rules of Attraction‘s dorm room bacchanalia), and when his L.A. party kids hit the shelves in ’85, Ellis was quickly identified as the novel’s merge-o-phobic protagonist. In 1991, American Psycho‘s evisceration of ’80s materialism led to charges of misogyny; its crime scenes, engineered by yuppie slasher Patrick Bateman, still eclipse the runway espionage of its glossy follow-up, Glamorama. But Ellis says he wasn’t writing to rile the squares. “It’s all pretty selfish,” he admits. “Writing helps focus me. It helps me understand things about myself. It offers me pleasure. Sure, it’s commenting on the culture, but I just like to read.” He pauses. “This is why I’m not invited to lecture.”
After a seven-year absence, Ellis dares gossip-rag column space with Lunar Park, his first book cast in the past tense, a multi-genre thriller starring a middle-aged, drugged, neurotic, lecherous, and lonesome author named Bret Easton Ellis. The character teaches creative writing part-time while outlining a “pornographic thriller,” Teenage Pussy, which tells the tale of a Kundera-savvy Don Juan seduced by a 16-year-old’s bedroom innocence (and pliability). Scribes adrift in self-made fictional worlds aren’t new (see Dante, J.S. Foer), but with Ellis, the authorial intrusion might give some reason to open the book instead of going by secondhand analysis.
Lunar Park finds a relapsing Ellis in an East Coast McMansion with (invented) actress Jayne Dennis, attempting to build a relationship with Robby, the boy he fathered with her 11 years earlier. Just prior to finding out about Jayne’s pregnancy, Ellis learns that his estranged father, Robert, has died of a massive stroke. Made executor of the crumbling estate, Ellis inherits regret, guilt, and Armani suits with bloody inseam stitching (the results of Pa’s botched penis implant). He links astronomy-loving Robby to the event. A self-professed “professional” video game player, Robby is deservedly distant, but Jayne has a six-year-old, stuffed-animal-toting daughter, Sarah, with an absent L.A. producer pop, who calls Ellis “Daddy.”
Never quite on the same page as a couple, Jayne hangs with David Duchovny at a Halloween party while Ellis snorts cocaine with ex–Brat Pack chum Jay “The Jayster” McInerney in the bathroom after unsuccessfully trying to fuck his romantic obsession, Aimee Light, a student writing her thesis on Ellis. Past books are echoed: Attraction‘s bisexual Mitchell Allen is a neighbor lusting after Jayne; “Disappear Here,” the billboard slogan that haunted Clay in Less Than Zero, becomes a clue for panicked parents.
Prior to the narrative, Ellis diagrams his opening sentences and career trajectory from stark Less Than Zero to Glamorama‘s Henry James in Prada. The progressive thorniness mirrors the excess and entanglements of his life (lists of drugs taken, orgies rivaling anything in Rabelais). With Lunar Park, he hopes for a return to simplicity. But first he hovers over the reception of each novel, especially his post–American Psycho relation to “transgression,” something he says he still doesn’t get. “I see myself pretty much left out of that kind of grouping,” he decides. “I don’t feel that I fit into the smarty-pants David Foster Wallace–Franzen-Lethem crowd. I don’t feel I’m in Palahniuk’s group. I kind of feel I’m alone, but would like to be grouped.” More worrisome to Ellis diehards will be his analysis of American Psycho, both inside the book and out. “When I reread American Psycho, I was horrified,” Ellis says. “You mellow out a little [with age]. You become—for better or worse, depending on the writer—more sincere, more real, and try not to hide behind conceptual ideas.” Then again, perhaps he’s bluffing.
Lunar Park could be interpreted as retrospective, but Ellis insists the decision was the result of a “technical problem”: “I had done this very long outline while I was working on other stuff and it was pretty much the book as it is now, but [the main character] wasn’t Bret Easton Ellis.” Blocked, realizing that it was already autobiographical, he keyed his name into the text. “When I decided to make that choice everything opened up,” he says. “The book then became much more driven and much more personal to me.” Of course, scoop-craving critics have remained too concerned with discerning fact/fiction. “Yes, I was attacked by a bird doll. It bit my leg open. I was on a cane for a year. I don’t like to talk about it. I don’t want to go there,” he says sarcastically. “But did I dine in the White House in ’86? Probably not.”
Besides focusing on the family ties at 307 Elsinore Lane (plus bland, pot- smoking dinner parties and PTA conferences), Lunar Park is 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. There are 12 days of manifestations and disturbances taking place from late October to November: The house decays; a child’s toy gets possessed by a demon (see bird doll, above). It also seems Ellis’s father is trying to reach him from the beyond: E-mails arrive from the bank where his father’s ashes were deposited; he spots a familiar cream-colored 450 SL in various locations. To make matters worse, someone’s enacting murders out of American Psycho, and teenage boys have mysteriously gone missing. But perhaps the biggest sign of suburban dystopia: Victor, the family’s golden retriever, hates him.
“I grew up in suburbia,” Ellis says. “I grew up in a neighborhood where all the kids rode bikes in the street [and] we hung out around our parents’ backyards. [In Lunar Park] I was writing about things I remembered, things about my parents’ strained relationship.” It’s also part of a tradition he admires, including the suburban novels of Richard Yates, Cheever, and Updike.
Scribbling across genres seems like a fuck-you to detractors, but he says the ambitious structure is what the book required. “I felt this narrator would speak in this way or tell this tale in this way. It wasn’t like I had a 20-year-old airhead or a psychopath narrating this book. It was someone very much like myself, and was a writer, and stylistically I think the book demanded that.”
Sentence for sentence, Lunar Park has some of Ellis’s best writing, especially the tour de force elegy closing out the novel. But when asked if the passage in question was a nod to “The Dead,” Ellis downplayed the comment, said he knows the James Joyce story, has read it hundreds of times, but that the motif here was simply “cheap closure.”
Still, he’s prepared for the worst. Ellis is a writer people love to hate, and even one of Lunar Park’s biggest influences isn’t a fan. “It’s weird to write an homage to someone that you like a lot who really doesn’t like your work very much,” Ellis laughs. “When [Stephen] King gave this interview to The New York Times Magazine—he was talking about his son Owen’s writing—he was going, ‘Well, his writing really isn’t like mine, his favorite writer is Bret Easton Ellis, who I think is like a flavor of a month.’ Flavor of the month? I’ll take it, I guess.”
Bret Easton Ellis reads at Coliseum Books on Tuesday, August 23. See the Short List.