Bret Easton Ellis has always been interested in the ways in which people don’t pay attention, and in the cost of attention when it is paid. In the comédie humaine he has been writing since 1985, when his first novel, Less than Zero, was published, his characters, who recur throughout the books, are as torpid and enervated as Balzac’s are driven and determined. Balzac’s heroes and heroines – and indeed his minor characters – always want to make their presence felt; hope makes them demonic. Ellis’s characters, by contrast, are always trying to absent themselves from their own and other people’s lives. They are bizarre and clever and deadpan witty, but these are the ways they have of curing themselves of hope, of nipping it in the bud. American Psycho (1991), in many ways Ellis’s subtlest novel, begins with the words ‘Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here,’ ‘scrawled in blood-red lettering on the side of the Chemical Bank’.
Ellis’s characters come after Balzac’s in the sense that they are already inordinately wealthy – many have both inherited money and made considerable amounts of it – and are already stranded by their inordinate success, or the success of their parents. Ellis wants to show us what happens to people when they are successful by the standards of their culture, when they have got what they are supposed to want (wealth, fame, glamour and sex); when, that is, they have to live without any compelling forms of resistance to the prevailing ideology; when all they have got to protect themselves are anaesthetics. If you can’t bear what you can see you can close your eyes; but every time you close your eyes you are reminded that what you can’t see is still there. Ellis, a very remarkable writer who is in some ways as underrated by his fans as by his critics, gives us a picture of what happens to morality when there is no political life, when capitalism without optimism and without question takes hold, when inattention is the last resort.
The characters in his novels are always forgetting people’s names, failing to recognise each other, missing appointments, too drugged-out to join in or too sober to function. In The Rules of Attraction (1987), his second novel, which is set on a New England campus, the students often can’t remember what they are majoring in; in American Psycho people keep getting the hero Patrick Bateman’s name slightly wrong; in Glamorama (1998) it’s only designer labels and celebrities that the characters are alert to. Many of the best scenes in Ellis’s novels take place at parties, because no one can ever really be at a party without being distracted and interrupted. In Less than Zero people go to parties to talk about other parties: ‘David’s wearing sunglasses and a Fear T-shirt and tells me that he saw me at Kim’s New Year’s Eve party. I nod and tell him that I remember even though he wasn’t there.’ Ellis is very good at minimalist, straightforward accounts of what people look like and complicatedly shrewd accounts of what they sound like, especially when they are conspiring to create a sense of unreality. The project is to be ‘terminally numb’, to keep the misunderstandings going. When people make stabs at understanding what’s going on, calculated forms of naivety kick in very quickly: ‘“Mom, Richard’s bi.” “Bi what?” I asked.’ Ellis wants us to get the ways people have of not getting what’s going on. ‘My father looks pretty healthy if you don’t look at him for too long,’ the narrator tells us in Less than Zero. The new novel, Lunar Park, is at once an attempt to understand what has happened to a fictional character called Bret Easton Ellis, and a long look at this character’s relationship with his father.
It is perhaps not surprising, given Ellis’s obsession with the fables and foibles of inattention, that he should demand a great deal of attention from his readers. And at the same time he makes it easy for them not to notice things: the gags, the sex, the glamour, the horror that Ellis does so well, all seduce us into not looking too long, into not seeing just how artful he is. Right from the beginning of Lunar Park we have to keep our wits about us. The first two epigraphs to the book are plain sentences from the American novelists Thomas McGuane and John O’Hara about how we judge ourselves and others. The third epigraph is a sentence from Hamlet: ‘From the table of my memory/I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records/All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past/That youth and observation copied there.’ The only problem with this sentence is that it’s only half of the sentence in the play. Ellis – obsessed as he is with the way everything becomes an excerpt, the way the context is taken out of everything – has extracted part of the speech in Act 1 Scene 5 that follows Hamlet’s encounter with the ghost of his father. The original speech continues: ‘And thy commandment all alone shall live/Within the book and volume of my brain,/Unmixed with baser matter.’ The commandment is ‘remember me,’ but commandments are themselves things that are remembered so that they can be abided by. The Ten Commandments are relatively clear; most fathers are not quite so specific in the demands they make on their sons. Lunar Park is a story about what happens to a son’s memory of his father when his father has no real commandments to give, and when that memory is one of power and wealth and debauched unhappiness. In Ellis’s cosmology the gods are not dead, but their success has made them despair. And just as Hamlet in this speech renews his marriage vows to his father, in Lunar Park the Ellis character recognises just how ineluctably his fate is bound up with his father’s fate. Back before all the education, and the lack of education, the saws of books, the trivial fond records, there is the uncanny power of the father, the modern father who has only one infinitely perplexing commandment: ‘remember me.’
Ellis’s books have always been primarily about parents, even though the children, their representatives, have been the main characters. The parents are, without exception, chronically unhappy and self-obsessed (in The Rules of Attraction, ‘The Freshman band is called The Parents – that’s enough to send out some message to people’s feelers that something wrong is going down’). And the childhood memories that occur fleetingly throughout the novels have an anguished nostalgia that is truly terrible. American Psycho, as Ellis points out in Lunar Park (and indeed in American Psycho), was a gruelling and inspired novel about the fantasy life of a man who has had a certain kind of father, about what having that father and remembering that father might do to a man’s apprehension of women – and above all to his apprehension of himself. What happens, Ellis was asking in that novel, if there is no one around who can stop the violence because there is no one around who can actually see the violence that is being done? The sharp young bankers in American Psycho, like the fashion victors and victims in Glamorama, have siblings (i.e. contemporaries) but not parents, appetites but not political ideals, ambitions but not hope. In Lord of the Flies the boys were on an island. In Ellis’s novels, at least up until Lunar Park, there has been no elsewhere – other than oblivion. And the violence was the route to this longed-for oblivion (the violent acts function as malign forms of attention and devotion; they are never glamorised or promoted by the narrator). In Lunar Park the Ellis character faces up, as explicitly as he can, to the father question. In Lunar Park the moon is a man.
It should be said, given the palaver about this book’s self-consciousness (the main character is called Bret, the stunning first forty or so pages are about Ellis’s career as a writer, the plot turns on someone pretending to be a character in American Psycho and so on), that one doesn’t need to know anything about the real Bret Easton Ellis or to have read his previous work to get what’s going on. Like Balzac’s Comédie the book picks up threads and characters from previous books, but Ellis is careful not to make his books cliquey. He is so attentive to just how cultic contemporary life is, to the serial collusions of everyday life and the ‘vast apathy’ this involves, that he works hard to alienate the reader at the same time as drawing him in. So at one point late in the book, when certain rather gothic horrors start happening in Bret’s family home, he intervenes like an arch Brechtian storyteller:
There were clicking noises.
(I am not going to defend what I’m about to describe. I am not going to try to make you believe anything. You can choose to believe me, or you can turn away. The same goes for another incident that occurs later on.)
The only reason I witnessed this was because it happened so quickly, and the only reason I did not immediately turn away was because it seemed fake, like something I had seen in a movie – a prank to scare the children.
Ellis is more convinced than most contemporary novelists that the real is what we want to turn away from, and that the reader, by the same token, will only go on reading as long as the writer has made it all seem fake. If description is its own defence – if to describe something is to defend it, to attempt to coerce belief – then description should come with a warning. But Ellis takes it for granted that no one now wants to witness anything, and that if they are going to witness anything they will have to be tricked into it; they will also have to be shown how adept they are at turning away. When the most alluring thing in the culture is what he calls in this book ‘radiating a numb burned-out cool’ the hardest thing to see is what this cool is a cure for, what the aspiration to it is reactive to. So Lunar Park is a more explicit disclosing of preoccupations that existed in the earlier books: the preoccupations, old-fashionedly enough, are about truth and honesty, parents and children. ‘I realised the grim fact,’ Bret writes, ‘that as hard as you try, you can hide the truth from children for only an indefinite period, and even if you do tell them the truth, and lay out the facts for them honestly and completely, they will still resent you for it.’ The truth will out, and everyone will suffer; children have an instinct for the truth, and the truth is something they resent. And the truth is always about their parents.
But can you keep the truth from yourself as an adult? This is the question that really exercises Bret. ‘As a writer you slant all evidence in favour of the conclusions you want to produce and you rarely tilt in favour of the truth.’ The reader is warned but not exactly helped, and the writer declares himself to be helplessly or wilfully misleading. In wanting to make his disillusionments as plain as possible in Lunar Park – ‘My father created me, criticised me, destroyed me and, then, after I reinvented myself and lurched back into being, became a proud, boastful dad who attempted to re-enter my life’ – Ellis has to expose (and sometimes over-expose) his misgivings about writing. If we can only face the truth when it is faked in art – that is, when we don’t really believe it to be true – then what are we supposed to pay attention to in this book? It is not news that questions about belief might be questions about fathers, or that we have art so that we may not perish from the truth, or that perception is manipulated by wishing. What is news – and what makes Lunar Park so powerful and so poignant – is that fathers can destroy their sons’ capacity for belief in anything, that parents can make feeling alive unbearable for their children, that art tricks us out of truth, that when reality becomes unbearable we attack our powers of perception. ‘I convinced myself that I hadn’t seen anything,’ Bret tells us halfway through the book, once he has begun to see that something or someone (or both) is trying to destroy his family. ‘I had done this many times before (when my father struck me, when I first broke up with Jayne, when I overdosed in Seattle).’ You can convince yourself that the bad thing is in fact good, you can convince yourself that the bad thing isn’t really there; and the only real drawback of doing either of these things – both of which Ellis suggests art is particularly adept at helping us to do – is that you are unable to mobilise whatever resources you may in fact have to deal with this thing. Reality matters only because it is what we actually have to deal with. Lunar Park is the story of a contemporary man trying to get real having learned too much unreality from his relationship with his father, and so having acquired too much of a taste for it. And writing, he has begun to realise, is part of this taste for unreality, perhaps the most persuasive way of legitimating it.
The story of Lunar Park itself, as of all Ellis’s books, is simple, but the writing is not: Ellis continually draws attention to his prevailing unease about the way he writes and about his supposed subject-matter, which is here the fictionalised story of his life. After the rigours of his early success, and the cataclysm of writing and publishing American Psycho (‘What I didn’t – and couldn’t – tell anyone was that writing the book had been an extremely disturbing experience’), Bret decides to ‘try and make it work’ with the woman who is the mother of his son. Jayne is a film star, which in Ellis’s fictional world means someone under a great deal of pressure to appear to be someone. They have had a ‘troubled’ relationship, but Bret is in recovery from his difficult childhood and his extravagant fame and wants to move to the (extremely affluent) suburbs and make a go of family life, and particularly of his ruptured relationship with his young son. Bret is always at risk of turning back into one of the characters in his novels: druggy, dissolute, evasively funny and compulsively secretive, looking for the exit when things get at all complicated. He is always fraught trying to get away from fraught situations. Jayne is keeping a wary eye on him because everyone thinks this probably isn’t going to work. And quickly it starts not working. Bret begins to experience the family home as haunted by strange, indefinite, violent creatures and calls in an exorcist. Boys start disappearing from the neighbourhood. A man pretending to be a detective tells Bret that a man is pretending to be Patrick Bateman, the hero of American Psycho, and is performing a series of copycat killings in the area; the pretended detective turns out to be the killer, and the detective he is pretending to be comes from American Psycho. And so on. While all this is going on, Bret, as part of his embourgoisement, is teaching creative writing at the local college, trying to seduce a student who is doing a PhD on his work, and being stalked by another student.
This is a stalking and haunting novel with various and sometimes too many gothic effects (the family live on Elsinore Lane). There is a lot of very amusing camp melodrama as Ellis puts this ingenious book through its paces, moving from genre to genre – from candid autobiography and deadpan confession to gothic and cinematic horror – with amazing verbal skill. Lunar Park is a series of set pieces – parent-teacher night, the kids, couples counselling, the hauntings and so on – and is as episodic and pacey as the consciousness of his characters, none of whom can do very much for very long (except take drugs). But the book also contains a profound unsentimental sadness, a sense of long-standing grief and abiding dismay that makes all the special effects both more intelligible and more plangent. The excitement blots out and blots up the mourning and melancholia of Bret’s relationship with his intimately absent father.
Lunar Park’s hidden rant is about the corruption of children by their parents. Bret, normalising himself, goes with Jayne to a dinner party with their neighbours; the talk is about their children: ‘There was something off about their obsession with their children that bordered on the fanatical. It wasn’t that they weren’t concerned about their kids, but they wanted something back, they wanted a return on their investment – this need was almost religious.’ And the people in this social group who make so-called real investments are the fathers, several of whom are bankers (wanting a return is as good a description as any of God’s relationship with his son). But the book’s hidden sympathies are all with the fathers, and the kinds of thing they themselves must have suffered to be in this predicament with their children. In a fit of mock-heroics in a couples-counselling session, Bret says: ‘“I don’t think the father ever needs to be there.” My eyes were watery again. “People are better off without them.”’ But Jayne contests this, using Bret as an example of how the father suffers without the son. Ellis has always been a more serious, and more seriously sentimental writer than he wants to be, but in Lunar Park many plain things are said plainly, with no jokes attached, and most of them are about ‘the face of the father being replaced by the face of the son’, about the fact that ‘sons would always be in peril, fathers would always be condemned’, about being ‘almost exhausted by grief’. Bret realises that the reason the son repudiates the father is that there is such an affinity between them: the one thing the son knows about the father, in some obscure way, is what the father has suffered, what he has been through.
In one of the eeriest parts of the book, Bret discovers that his stalker has managed – by uncanny, inexplicable means – to make a video of his father in the last moments before his death. We watch the father drinking vodka in his Jacuzzi, going back into the house, looking at himself in the mirror and sobbing, and then staring into the camera. The camera, Bret tells us, was ‘bold and covert at the same time’. Lunar Park, too, is bold and covert at the same time, and extremely sharp and clever and touching about how fathers and sons go on keeping an eye on each other, ghost-writing each other’s lives, whatever their so-called relationship was like. The son is the afterlife of the father, Ellis seems to suggest, and writing the book was one way of paying attention to this. It’s a good slant.