Anyone who's read Bret Easton Ellis's third novel American Psycho (Vintage, 1991) knows that it's one of the most disturbing and violent books in American literature. Like the rest of his books, I read American Psycho as soon as it came out, trying to pay as little attention as possible to the hype surrounding it. I think the book is well-written and offers an effective and harsh critique of our age's consumptive habits, which quite often are pathological. But I also remember finding the book extremely disturbing, more than any novel I'd read before. I wondered how Ellis was able to write some of the scenes in the book without succumbing to depression or fear.
Ellis's Lunar Park (Knopf, 2005) is a return to the violence and evil of American Psycho. The meta-fictional aspects of this book have been written about extensively in recent months, so I won't go into that element of Lunar Park. What I found of value in the novel is how it aligns (and doesn't) within the spectrum of his previous work. Ellis is more or less repudiating the extreme nature of some of his other books, especially American Psycho. The epigraph from Hamlet he uses to open the novel makes this second-guessing of American Psycho relatively clear:
"From the table of memory
I'll wipe away all trivial fond records,
All saw of books, all forms, all pressures past
That youth and observation copied there."
These lines are spoken by Hamlet in Act I, after having encountered his father's ghost in the forest outside Elsinore castle. Ellis alludes to Hamlet throughout the book, sometimes unsuccessfully. But what he does by starting the novel with these four lines is to make his case as explicit as possible. He is attempting to un-write, to erase American Psycho.
Surely, he'll be accused of growing tame. The predictable litany of criticism decrying his "mainstream" or non-existent talent as a novelist will emerge from those readers who still think of him as a mediocre writer. There are moments, I'll admit, when I couldn't be sure if Ellis wasn't mocking his own mellowing as a writer. As in a scene where the protagonist observes his teenage son and his friends hanging out at the mall one night:
"Robby trudged toward us under the glare of the mall light and it suddenly bothered me that so little of his life revolved around poetry or romance. Everything was grounded in the dull and anxious day-to-day. Everything was a performance." (113)
This is a lament that has been used to attack Ellis's own writing repeatedly. He's been read as a dull prose stylist who overloads his novels with flat, unpoetic lists of nihilistic events and (especially in American Psycho) of high-end consumer products, without paying any attention to plot or character development.
But, having read his work closely since 1986, I think there's plenty of "poetry" and "romance" to be found in his novels. It is the poetry of "late late capitalism," of this apocalyptic and violent decade we now endure.
Lunar Park opens with a prologue that quickly outlines where the author and his protagonist (a novelist named Bret Easton Ellis) blend into one another, highlighting the early success of Less Than Zero in the mid-1980s and the subsequent scandals and notoriety that followed some of his books. When Ellis describes our present decade, he writes of it as an era plagued by unending war, senseless terrorism and plagues that decimate huge swaths of the world's population. Ellis is of course exaggerating at this point but I can't help wondering if he is simply looking ahead to the logical outcome of our present evil era.
At least twice in this book Ellis refers to Lunar Park as his "last novel." Perhaps he means this literally. But most likely he is simply saying goodbye to the extreme evil and violence he conjured in American Psycho. At a time when reading the newspaper offers up more than enough psychopathic, paranoia-inducing events and individuals, Ellis sees the transgressive nature of his previous work as being unnecessary or redundant.
As with Hamlet's considerations of his father's ghost and his own self-doubts, Ellis's protagonist implies that by writing a book as violent as American Psycho he may have conjured an evil force into reality. Interestingly enough, Ellis's previous novel Glamorama (Knopf, 1999) was centered around a top-secret cell of terrorists who attacked airplanes and cities with bombs. That novel, like much of his work, should be read as a warning and as a highly realistic account of the world around us.
There are plenty of moments in Lunar Park that do end up sounding flat and trite. But these are made irrelevant by how masterfully Ellis explores the existence of evil and its consequences in our daily lives. I am convinced we live in an evil era. Ellis makes this idea the vortex of his excellent new novel.