The Square Circuit

Academia, parenthood, living in a bankrupt city, and what I read in the process.

Monday, August 29, 2005


Well, it's like with every other Easton Ellis novel. I don't particularly LIKE the novel, and I certainly don't like Easton Ellis, and in the novel he takes pains to accentuate everything about himself that most people would hate: his flatness, his narcissism, his Warholian fascination with celebrity, his self-medication, his inability to truly engage with other people. But, like with every other Easton Ellis novel that I've read, it's damn good.

Let me back up a little bit to explain that first paragraph. How, I would ask my students, can you equate the voice of this narrator with the writer himself? Twain isn't Huck Finn; Melville isn't Ishmael; Chabon isn't Grady Tripp. Ellis, though, is fascinated with the possibilities created by that permeable membrane between writer and narrator. My suspicion is that he's saying something about the nature of celebrity culture, wherein these days we don't remember the characters played by the popular actors of the day as anything but facets of the celeb's person. Performers who disappear into their parts to the exclusion of their own identities are admiringly called "actor's actors" by the press, but it's not them (Streep, Hackman, Joan Allen, Gary Oldman, Philip Seymour Hoffman) who drive the newsstand sales of IN STYLE and the viewers of ACCESS HOLLYWOOD. It's the A-listers, the Pitts and Jolies and Cruises and Kidmans and Harrison Fords (who makes an appearance in LUNAR PARK), who build their careers as one would build a brand, choosing roles that create a singular "image" for that actor. Neal Gabler does a nice job creating a "unified field theory" of this phenomenon in his book LIFE: THE MOVIE (he explains this here).

Ellis, whose books have been drenched in the outwardly blase/inwardly slavering L.A. attitude toward wealth and consumption and celebrity ever since he wrote LESS THAN ZERO in college, simultaneously attacked and celebrated the importation of this attitude to New York in the Reagan 1980s, where it mixed with go-go capitalism and the Trump way of life to create... well, who knows. Ellis would say "to create Patrick Bateman," but that's too easy. I'd say "to create million-dollar two-bedroom condos on Rivington Street or Avenue C." Ellis chronicled this life as he lived it--more, as he would probably say, as he and McInerney and Jamowitz and Fisketjon created it. It's familiar, the clubbing and the coke and the violence and the emergence of Manhattan as glamorous again after the 1970s and early 1980s and Bernie Goetz and all that.

Ellis' later books continued to mine this vein. AMERICAN PSYCHO, of course, is a vile slab of writing, but a good one. The problem with Ellis is that he's so damn talented you've got to read these books, but they're nasty. And he holds a fascination for younger writers. At my graduate school, his reading at the writing program was the event of the decade; no visiting writer, including the various Nobel Prize winners who came, drew an audience like his or created the post-reading buzz he engendered. I don't know if it was Ellis' half-earnest, half-ironic attitude toward violence and drugs and a high life that young writers simultaneously crave and despise, but a lot of copies of AMERICAN PSYCHO were sold that week.

So, LUNAR PARK. It's a metafiction--a fiction about itself--and it's an obnoxious game but, like Philip Roth's OPERATION SHYLOCK, a smart one. The first thirty pages are great. Ellis retells his history from the publication of LESS THAN ZERO to the "present." His history is Ellis amplified: as he tells it, he was more famous, more reckless, more addicted, richer, dated more famous women. It's like Ellis viewing his past on coke. The book then lurches into the present, at which point Ellis has married "Jayne Dennis," an A-list actress, moved to the suburbs, and is trying to be a father to their son and to her young daughter. At first, it feels like it's going to be LITTLE CHILDREN, a comedy about suburban life and modern childrearing. But, as any readers of reviews now know, the plot kicks in when "someone" starts recreating the crimes of Patrick Bateman in this suburb. Children start going missing. And the ghost of Ellis' father--who, Ellis admits, was the original model for Bateman himself--starts haunting him. There's also a heavy-handed HAMLET thing going on.

Worth the read. But Ellis is as loathsome a character as ever.


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