Bret Easton Ellis’s Lunar Park is currently riding high in the American and British fiction bestseller lists. Ellis’s novel is named after the place where the main action happens. There is - I’ve checked - no town of that name in New York State, any more than there is a Stepford in Connecticut, or an Ambridge in Mummersetshire. The hero-narrator of Lunar Park is “Bret Easton Ellis”. A real person of that name wrote the novel set in the fictional place.
As novelists insert themselves and the events of their lives more and more into the pages of their fiction and memoirists fictionalise their own role, the boundaries between truth and make-believe are blurring. In a long authorial preface to Lunar Park, Bret (let’s say “Bret”) confesses to gargantuan excess after the runaway success of his precociously early supersellers, Less than Zero and American Psycho had shot him to bestsellerdom, millionairedom and the ranks of front-page celebrity. So far, so true.
The young “Bret” embarked on a bender of conspicuous consumption, fashion trashing, and self-indulgence: “I was doing Ray-Ban ads at 22. I was posing for the covers of English magazines on the tennis court, on a throne, on the deck of my condo in a purple robe. I threw lavish parties - sometimes complete with strippers - in my condo on a whim (’Because it’s Thursday!’ one invitation read). I crashed a borrowed Ferrari in Southampton and its owner just smiled (for some reason I was naked). I attended three fairly exclusive orgies…I dined at the White House in the summer of 1986, the guest of Jeb and George W. Bush, both of whom were fans.”
The Bushes are real (too real for some of us). I doubt that they were ever fans of Less than Zero (1985) - even in the hot days of their youth. And if the Bush boys were fans of Ellis’s “black candy”, it would be wise to keep it secret from the religious right, which has voted one brother into presidency and the other into governorship.
Briefly for “Bret” it was “top of the world, ma!” But, inevitably, under the glare and temptations of celebrity, he took to heroin, cocaine and vile sexual practices. He ended up lying in a squalid hotel bedroom for seven days “watching porn DVDs with the sound off and snorting maybe 40 bags of heroin, a blue plastic bucket that I vomited in continually by my bed”.
His descent to the blue bucket was, “Bret” divulges, fuelled by the death in August 1992 of his father, Robert Martin Ellis, a couple of months after the publication of American Psycho. The portrait of Ellis Snr offered in Lunar Park is one that most sons would keep in the attic. He was a real-estate crook, and “careless, abusive, alcoholic, vain, angry, paranoid”. Chapter and verse are supplied for these paternal shortcomings.
Bret’s dad was, apparently, the inspiration for Patrick Bateman - the sociopath hero of American Psycho. In Lunar Park, Mr Ellis Sr’s dead body “was found naked by the 22-year-old girlfriend on the bathroom floor of his empty house in Newport Beach”. He left, among many squandered millions, a wardrobe of over-sized Armani suits. When “Bret” (who, like Bateman, is partial to Armani) took the clothes to the tailor to be altered he recounts: “I was revolted to discover that most of the inseams in the crotch were stained with blood, which we later found out was the result of a botched penile implant he underwent in Minneapolis.”
Robert Martin Ellis was real. He was, I believe, a realtor. He did indeed die in August 1992. Lunar Park is dedicated to his memory. Whether it was with a surgically enhanced penis that he went to the crematorium fire, or the unsullied member with which he engendered young Bret, literary history may never know.
“Bret Easton Ellis” - he of the novel - suspects Robby, his love child by the woman who later became his wife, Jayne Dennis, was engendered by Keanu Reeves, “who had been a friend of mine when he was initially cast in Less than Zero, [before being] replaced by Andrew McCarthy”. So suspicious was “Bret” of the actor that he launched a paternity case in which his lawyer asserted in court that Dennis’s child “bears a striking resemblance to a certain Mr Keanu Reeves”. Litigation was subsequently dropped, “Bret” and Dennis were reconciled, married, and went to live in Lunar Park with Robby and a daughter born in wedlock.
Reeves is, of course, real. And he enjoys, one understands, friendly relations with the real Ellis. Before becoming a superstar Reeves was, initially, cast as the lead in Less than Zero and replaced by the equally real Andrew McCarthy. Jayne Dennis (although she has a website) is not real. Nor is the dubiously sired Robby Ellis. They are figments of the fictional Lunar Park. Ellis is not married. He has no child. In August this year Ellis told The New York Times that he was bisexual, and that his best friend and lover for six years, Michael Wade Kaplan, had died in January 2004, aged 30. That is not the history of “Bret” in Lunar Park.
The main narrative of Lunar Park chronicles the disintegration of the Ellis-Dennis marriage. Patrick Bateman, the murderous, paternally inspired, serial killer of American Psycho, comes to life off the page and haunts his creator. Bateman is not real. His author is. But perhaps not entirely, in Lunar Park.
Adjoining the fiction list adorned with Lunar Park, Rik Mayall’s memoir, immodestly entitled Bigger than Hitler, Better than Christ, is doing well in the non-fiction bestseller list. But are they all that different in genre?
The blurb of Mayall’s “electrifying autobiography” offers a CV strangely reminiscent of “Bret” reminiscing about his shenanigans with the two sprigs of the Bush dynasty at the White House: “Rik Mayall invented alternative comedy with The Young Ones, he brought down the Thatcher administration with The New Statesman and he changed the global culture with his masterpiece Bottom. Not only was his number one single “Living Doll” the saviour of rock ‘n’ roll but he also rescued the British film industry with the vast revenues created by his legendary movie Drop Dead Fred. In 1998, he survived an assassination attempt and spent five days in a coma before he literally came back from the dead.”
It is not recorded whether he had a blue bucket by his bed. Rik Mayall made his name as “Rick” in The Young Ones. Cliff Richard might disagree about it being Rik’s “Living Doll” that made rock history. Fans might disagree that either Cliff or “Rik” did much for their music.
Recounting episodes from his early career, “Rik” confides a relationship with a Tony and Mrs Blair: “I will never openly discuss the love that Cherie and I have made because of the damage that it will do not only to Tony and Cherie themselves but also to the British people. It’s not as though I’m going to reveal in print that Cherie and I have been on/off lovers for a long time now, or passionate pillow-biting adulterees as I like to think of us. And, believe me, she can bite a lot of pillow with a mouth like that.”
Cherie Blair is real. She has a generously sized mouth. She did not have it off with “Rik”, any more than the Bush brothers snorted coke in the George Washington bedroom with “Bret”. When one thinks about this authorial audacity, it is breathtaking. But perhaps one rarely pauses to think about it?
In the above accounts I have borrowed W.G. Sebald’s convention in his novel (or is it?) The Rings of Saturn, in which he distinguishes, by use of inverted commas, between Max Sebald (the author) and “W.G. Sebald”, the narrator-wanderer, ruminating about life as he ambles round East Anglia.
The author obtruding “himself” into the fictional action, like Alfred Hitchcock’s hallmark cameos in his movies, is no new device. If you go back to one of the fathers of the English novel, Tobias Smollett, one discovers him doing it. But among the first authors to go the whole hog with the author/hero amalgam was, J.G. Ballard, in Crash (1973), a violent fantasia about the sexual pathology of automobile accidents. Any resemblance between “James Ballard”, the hero narrator of Crash and J.G. Ballard, the author of Crash, is - as novels routinely protest - “accidental”. But every reader will feel that what Ballard is doing with “Ballard” somehow goes against the rules of the game - as if a player picked up the football, threw it into the goal, and waited to be embraced by his team-mates. It’s unsettling.
Ballard meant to unsettle. He explained what he was doing in Crash in a 1995 preface to the novel: “I feel that the balance between fiction and reality has changed significantly in the past decades. Increasingly their roles are reversed. We live in a world ruled by fictions of every kind - mass merchandising, advertising, the pre-empting of any original response to experience by the television screen. We live inside an enormous novel.”
Ellis’s epigraph to Lunar Park makes a similar point: “The occupational hazard of making a spectacle of yourself, over the long haul, is that at some point you buy a ticket too.” If, that is, you live inside enormous celebrity, you become the spectator of your own spectacle. Or, as the pungent idiom puts it, you start believing your own shit, and living it.
Genre-bending need not be solemn. Jonathan Safran Foer creates delicious comedy out of the device in Everything is Illuminated - the young writer’s triumphantly award-winning, bestselling, first novel. It is, of course, most definitely a novel - as any shelf in Waterstone’s (where it still sells like hot cakes) will testify.
Foer’s story is simple. “Jonathan”, a young Jewish boy (him, that is) in New York discovers a photograph. His grandfather Safran, Jonathan learns, was enabled to escape certain death in the Soviet Union in the second world war by a heroic Russian woman. He undertakes a pilgrimage to the former Soviet Union to find out more. He is meanwhile writing a novel about his family’s history, from the 18th century onwards, parts of which make up this novel. Another strand of Everything is Illuminated is the journal of his linguistically challenged translator, Alex (who will also, as the novel unfolds, discover unsettling things about his grandfather).
Young Foer, in propria persona (or perhaps not), is the pivot around which the novel revolves. This is how Alex describes the young American (Alex’s author as well as his client), on his arrival in the Ukraine: “I was very flabbergasted by his appearance. This is an American? I thought. And also, this is a Jew? He was severely short. He wore spectacles and had diminutive hairs which were not split anywhere, but rested on his head like a Shapka…He did not appear like either the Americans I had witnessed in magazines, with yellow hairs and muscles, or the Jews from history books, with no hairs and prominent bones.”
Author photographs confirm that this is, linguistic lapses aside, an accurate description of Foer. There is no authorial photograph of Alex, of course, because he is not real. He and “Jonathan”, who are in some sense collaborating on the narrative, conspire to change “He was severely short” to “Like me, he was not tall.” It is not changed in the text of Everything is Illuminated.
The film of Everything is Illuminated is soon to be released. Alas, the part of Foer is not played by Foer, but by Elijah Wood. The publicity pics suggest that he is neither severely short nor has diminutive hairs. But where do realism and fantasist part ways? Make your own mind up.
by Bret Easton Ellis
Picador £16.99, 360 pages
BIGGER THAN HITLER, BETTER THAN CHRIST
by Rik Mayall
HarperCollins £18.99, 352 pages
by J.G. Ballard
Vintage £5.99, 224 pages
EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED
by Jonathan Safran Foer
Penguin £7.99, 288 pages
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