There are two ways you can read Lunar Park, besides from the accepted dichotomy of Bret Easton Ellis’ rise to fame/a straightforward novel.
You can read it as an unfocused and bloated mess, stuffed full of repeated symbols and circular subplots to flesh out a paltry narrative; or you can read it as a perfection of its form, its apparent surface limitations a refection of the paranoid claustrophobia the fictionalised Bret (our protagonist) is experiencing.
Of course, Ellis has long proved himself a master of twisting a novel’s form to harmonise with its thematic drives (Rules of Attraction and American Psycho prove as much), so it’s fair to give Ellis the benefit of the doubt, and assume all the book’s decisions were well thought out. There’s no doubt Lunar Park succeeds in evoking Ellis’ ubiquitous sickening sense of impending doom throughout the novel’s pages, though this does turn into something of a fetishisation-come-parody-come-imitation of Hollywood horror long before the end of its four-and-a-half-hundred-odd page length.
It is these Stephen King homage sections (which make up much of a book which is too loose to be a true literary masterpiece) which are the novel’s dullest, plodding along predictable plot points at an equally predictable pace. Exciting elements – the ‘ghost’ of American Psycho‘s titular Patrick Bateman and one bastardised monster of Ellis’ imagining – compete with dull and done thriller tropes which, in comparison, do little to add depth to the novel. The father-as-son, Bret-as-Bateman, and self-conscious self-aggrandizing/self-parody themes are certainly interesting, though none of the novel’s many ideas seem fully realised, and the dualities and dopplegangers present throughout are simultaneously too complicated and too unoriginal to be that interesting.
In Lunar Park we meet a surbubanised Bret (wife, family, dog) who is haunted by, among other things, various ‘monster[s]’ he created (including Bateman), the ghost of his father, and, equally, the ennui of suburbia, mixed into a cocktail of the comedown of fame. Anyone hoping for the self-indulgent quasi-autobiographical parody promised by the novel’s opening chapter will be sorely disappointed by the time the story really starts: Lunar Park may be an accomplished (though uninspired) psychological thriller, but Ellis’ literary voice is simply more adept at portraying drug-saddled orgy-seeking yuppies than men on the verge of a midlife crisis, and this becomes painfully obvious with the juxtaposition of both aspects of the fictional Ellis’ character here.
That isn’t to say Lunar Park isn’t funny, and Ellis’ trademark witticisms are threaded throughout the narrative – unfortunately interspersed by a spattering of first-novel-esque maxims on what it means to be a writer. ‘A writer’s physical life is basically one of stasis, and to combat this constraint, an opposite world and another self to be constructed daily’ Ellis writes, ironically(?). Certainly the conflict between Bret-as-writer and Bret-as-character are interesting, carrying enough post-modernist meta-analysis to keep fans of novels-as-art interested, though the constant peeks-behind-the-curtains to see the twisted arms of the characters serve less to remind the reader that they are reading fiction (in contrast to what the book’s marketers would have you believe) and more to distract readers from the thinness of a never-quite-fulfilled plot. Yes, we get it, writers make characters do things which seem against their naturalistic motivations to advance plot – as so often happens here. Perhaps this confessional nod was a plea for the reader to forgive any cases of deus ex machina?
The tongue-in-cheek observations of the autobiographical form and the detailed exploration of the vacuous mythology of celebrity are certainly the novel’s most developed themes; it is only after Lunar Park’s stupendous opening chapters that it seems to lose focus, as well as consistency of character and authorial motivation (though I suppose, given Lunar Park’s subject matter, this is the point). One minute the fictional Ellis is resenting settling down and fatherhood, the next he’s trying desperately to reconcile with his son, who is otherwise engaged in a conveniently evasive storyline.
Certainly, Lunar Park gives off the impression it was initially conceived as a short story. The perfectly focussed uncanny mysteries of ‘The Party’, which easily could have made any ‘Best Short Stories of all Time’ lists, seems to have been elongated into an extraneous narrative; while the aptly-titled ‘The Beginnings’ may be the novel’s most interesting section, but does little to contribute to the novel’s plot.
Perhaps the book was too ambitious for its own good. After years of being branded as a controversial figure who profited from the pornographisation of violence, maybe Ellis wanted to create a ‘literary’ work to prove his mettle as a ‘real’ author. The truth is, if Ellis the author concentrated on either the exploration of celebrity or a fictitious forgiveness of his father or a psychological horror story, any one of these potential versions would have worked. But Lunar Park by design seems to pull at too many different directions to realise any of them to its full potential. The creature haunting Ellis’ house and Bateman’s supposed ghost are both characters which are interesting enough to star in their own stories, but here neither get enough page time to be engaging. Perhaps the closet parallel is Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3: Harry Osborn, the Sandman, and Venom are all great, but stuff them in the same bloated movie and audiences won’t form a connection to any of the necessarily under-baked rivalries they developed with Peter Parker, however personal they may have been.
Ellis, for the first time in his career, often delves dangerously close to cliché and overt symbolism on numerous occasions so that by the novel’s end we seem one page away from being told that this was all a dream and the fictional Bret’s family only existed in his head while the ‘real’ author was bound up in a mental asylum for re-enacting Bateman’s infamous murders, or something.
Ellis may retain his ability to weave panic-attack and anxiety-inducing yarns with the calculated skill of a linguistic sociopath, but Lunar Park to often readers like a messy crime scene from an ambitious imitator than the real thing. Stuffed with horror movie tropes handled in a mature and professional manner but broken up by ruminations on what it means to be a writer, a father and a son, Lunar Park as it stands is an enjoyable Halloween story, though one which nevertheless is barely worth a second visit to figure out what the hell was going on.