I read Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho without being aware of any of the controversy surrounding its release. My reaction to it was similar to how I felt about J G Ballard’s Crash: an incredible writerly achievement, but not a book I was ever likely to re-read, not just because of the extreme subject matter, but because neither book had enough story to justify its length. (I think Ballard happily admits Crash was a short story extended to novel length, as a sort of balance to the novel-squashed-into-a-short-story approach of his “condensed novels” from The Atrocity Exhibition.) Of the two, I enjoyed American Psycho slightly more, as there were brief hints of real human despair in the isolation of its protagonist, despite the fact he was a monstrous serial killer. It also had its funny moments, which can’t exactly be said of Crash.
Having said this, I’ve read most of what Ballard has written, and am slowly filling in the gaps, but I wasn’t tempted by any of Ellis’s other novels till his latest, Lunar Park, which returns to horror territory. Lunar Park reads very much like a Stephen King novel. The main difference is that instead of (as with King) the narrator being an “average Joe” family man who just happens to be a writer and who gets mixed up with supernatural events, Ellis’s protagonist is more the rock-star type of celebrity author whose lifestyle few of his readers, I suspect, will be able to identify with. In fact I found the narrator’s pampered lifestyle something of a put-off near the start of the book, and it was only because the narrator was so personable, so open about his many failings, that kept me going. He was often quite funny, too.
In a neat link with Crash, where the protagonist was called Ballard, Ellis’s protagonist in Lunar Park is called Bret Easton Ellis, and seems to have lived a life similar to that of his creator. He has, for instance, written a much talked-about book called American Psycho. The opening chapter, summarising his life so far, could well be a satirised version of Ellis’s own rise to fame — I’ve no idea of the details of Ellis’s life. It certainly acts as a good start to the novel, with enough of a whiff of metafiction to pacify the genrephobic among its readers.
In the novel, Ellis (the narrator) has just been shocked into acknowledging the total emptiness of his drug-addled life by the lonely death of his estranged father. Trying to quickly patch in some stability and meaning, he marries an ex-girlfriend Hollywood actress with whom he fathered (or didn’t) a son he previously refused to acknowledge. Fatherhood, however, is not a role he’s prepared for. Three months into the marriage, he has barely connected with his son, is in serious “couples counselling” with his wife, and the family dog thinks — knows — he’s a fraud. Odd things start to happen. He’s been receiving a series of blank, anonymous emails from the bank where his father’s ashes are locked away in a deposit box (against his father’s wishes). The house where he lives seems to be spontaneously changing colour, and the furniture is rearranging itself. Worst of all, he meets several people who seem overly reminiscent of characters from his own fiction, one of whom may be Patrick Bateman, the serial killer from American Psycho. Kids have been disappearing in the neighbourhood.
This first half of the novel is entertaining, mainly because of the dry comedy in the narrator’s estrangement from his family, and the sheer weirdness of the over-medicated, sterilised & psychoanalysed lives of the wealthy suburbanites and their unfortunate children. It’s as the novel starts to descend more firmly into genre territory, as the genuinely weird events become more and more obviously supernatural, that the book loses its charm. The easy flow of humour gives way and Ellis (the author) loses his style. At moments of horror the flow breaks down completely and we get nothing but single-sentence paragraphs for pages at a time:
It was tall and had a vaguely human form, and though it was skeletal it had eyes.
Rapidly my father’s face was illuminated in the skull.
And then another replaced it.
I was stunned into rigidity. (p 401)
The simple statement of fact can be quite chilling when applied to moments of supernatural horror — Sheridan LeFanu uses it brilliantly in some of his fiction (“his throat was cut across like another mouth, wide open, laughing at her; she seen no more, but dropped in a dead faint in the bed” from Ghost Stories of the Tiled House) — but when it’s the only device, when we get no dynamics or contrast with passages of greater length, the constant thud of short sentences becomes a rhythmic jolt breaking you out of the dream-state the book ought to be working to keep you in. On top of this, the actual details of the novel’s various hauntings are so varied that there isn’t any focal point, nothing the reader can build their own expectations and anxieties on. You don’t feel, as you do with Lovecraft, that there’s a unifying idea behind it all (even though it turns out there is).
It’s a shame, because the start of the book was really enjoyable, and the ending managed to achieve a satisfying emotional resolution — but this was largely thanks to the story of what happens to the narrator’s son, which, although it is only a subplot compared to the main supernatural events, is far more affecting and interesting, and would have made a better book on its own. (Something akin to a reverse of Ballard’s novella Running Wild, perhaps.)