Monday, 6 January 2020

Book review: Lunar Park, Bret Easton Ellis (2005)

The metafictional devices tumble over each other with such urgent profusion in this hybrid thriller – both literary fiction and speculative fiction – that you become almost dizzy in the event. There is something Shakespearian about it, and the references to ‘Hamlet’ that are embedded, with deliberate gaucheness, in the text, ensure that you know Ellis is aware of his own power.

What I was reminded of most strongly – apart from the nods to ‘Citizen Kane’ (1941), Jurassic Park (1993), ‘Ghost Busters’ (1984), and Haruki Murakami’s novels (‘A Wild Sheep Chase’ would come out in Japanese in 1983, and in translation in 1989) – was a science fiction film that was released a few years after the Iran coup d’etat.

I won’t name it, so as not to spoil this book, but the resemblances were striking and the list I have made should go some way toward indicating what sort of a novel the brilliant and talented Ellis has created in ‘Lunar Park’. The father-son motif that dominates the book is redolent with secondary meanings in the light of this awareness.

The book is also about the sorts of things that usually animate literary fiction: families and relationships. But what you get reading this book is such a cornucopia of suggestion and nuance that it is virtually impossible, in a review, to do justice to the complexity of the enterprise. In the end all you can really do as a reviewer is to say: “Read the book, you’ll love it.”

Qua speculative fiction, however, how does this novel fare? Does it anticipate the future in a vibrant way? Does it give us hints of what the world would look like in 20 years’ time? The use of the internet in the story to further the narrative and to give movement to the plot is well-handled but there is no mention of social media although the main character’s son, named Robby, is central. Nevertheless, Ellis’ reliance on the World Wide Web as a plot device is interesting.

I bought this book on sale at the Co-op Bookshop, where I used to buy a lot of books when I worked on a university campus. The pages on the bottom of the volume have a red line marked across their profile, indicating that this was part of a bunch of books remaindered, an outcome that reminds me, as so many things do, how good literature is often neglected. In Ellis’ case the success of his early fiction seems to have eclipsed what came later even though, as this review shows, the later stuff is as good as the earlier stuff, if not better. 

The way Ellis plays in this novel with the trope of the artist functions as a useful gloss on both celebrity and more broadly on popular culture and the public sphere; these things are interrelated. A notable story that functions initially as news can later function as inspiration for art. And, conversely, a work of art devised as entertainment can function as inspiration for, say, a crime or some other event that enters the public sphere in another way. Ellis navigates these realms with competence and cunning, and produces something that transcends the realm of what is commonly produced. This is a masterpiece.

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