Saturday, November 04, 2006

Lunar Park

It's been a strange, unsettling week, laid low by a stomach bug for much of it, and so finding a little time on the couch to read "Lunar Park" by Brett Easton Ellis. It's a book that deserves a proper long essay - the sort Mary McCarthy used to write - but I'll stick to a few paragraphs. One of the reviews says its "John Cheever meets Stephen King" and that's very true, for in one sense, whereas "American Psycho" was a horrific story, "Lunar Park" is partly a horror story - set around Halloween with all the necessary acroutements - a house, missing children, demonic toys. It's always been difficult to see the similarities between Brett and his contemporary at college, Donna Tartt, but here it's explicit for the first time. This is not a subverting genre book, more a book that uses genre - here horror, as Tartt used the mystery - to set the narrative for the wider point. I guess Ellis has always liked edifice - think the Huey Lewis and the News chapters of "American Psycho" - but here, more explicitly than ever before, its clear thats how an essentially autobiographical writer creates a "veil" between him and his material. Here there are almost seven veils, and in dancing with them, Ellis doesn't always pull it off. The self-narration - by a character called Brett Easton Ellis - is one barrier - in that when the ghostly activity increases there is none of the foward tension you'd get in a better King, because he's already told you about it, highlighted what goes next. As a reader, I think this is the book's main failing, that it doesn't take the "horror" seriously enough to make it truly work. There are two many things going on, and though he does a valiant job of pulling them all together - or apart - by the end, there's a lot of words before you get there. But that's the only negative really - after all, if you wanted to read a horror story about a writer you'd be far better with Stephen King's exceptional "The Dark Half". For Ellis is here writing about himself, yes, but also his dead father - and also about fathers and sons in general, his own in the novel "Robbie", the missing boys... typically, the grand satires that have previously played out around Wall Street and the fashion industry are here diluted, but still potent in dealing with American suburbia - surely, when you think about it, his real subject all along? I remember when he visited Manchester asking the question whether - in the wake of the novels that were then current ("Cold Mountain" et al) American writers were leaving the cities and the city's concerns. This was before 9/11 - he shrugged and didn't want to answer for anyone else - but he was probably already writing or thinking of writing "Lunar Park." That "tour" actually occurs in the hilarious, appalling, brilliant, self indulgent (your choice) first chapter, a potted and somewhat accurate autobiography of Ellis "the writer." I learnt a couple of things - that my favourite book of his "The Informers" was actually written before the others - and that "American Psycho" was actually about his father. That is this book's subject, and its painful and playful, with some astonishing writing - and occasionally, some banality. Unlike his other novels, this one has a definite heart. In the past it has been the intensity of Ellis's dark satirical vision which has astounded - but you'd have had to be a fool (or one of his early reviewers!) not to be impressed by how consistently and relentlessly that satire was written down. Here, the book's sometimes much sloppier - but books are quite sloppy these days, aren't they? - and there's a pulsing, human heart. There is still the darkness of his earlier work, and occasionally the dazzling pyrotechnics of his prose, but its more subdued. In one sense, he's just another writer now. There are echoes of Paul Auster's trickery here, and surely the "children's crusade" of Michael Cunningham's recent "Specimen Days" is mining the same "loss" as Ellis's missing boys. Yet, we can go back to Jay Mcinerney's debut "Bright Lights, Big City" to find a fascination in newspaper articles about lost children. America is a land where the missing appear on the morning milk cartons. Its hard to know whether "Lunar Park" will appeal to his normal fans - now older - and those who've stayed away to date, will probably remain distant, but they should take a look. American fiction is losing some of its "can do everything" feeling - and becoming more interesting as a result.

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