Bret Easton Ellis's Lunar Park is more fun than any novel he's written before, and it's easy to see why it's become one of the hot books of the summer.
A satirical pseudo-autobiography as well as a creepy paranoid thriller, the book glides like a fast dream and keeps you in suspense, even though you won't care a bit about the well-being of any of its endangered characters. Everything still all adds up to less than zero in Ellis's world, and that's the way it's supposed to be.
The book kicks off with a hilarious summary of Ellis's writing career and his emergence as one of three super-hot lit-darlings of the 1980's (along with Tama Janowitz and Jay McInerney). He's bitter and funny as he looks back on all the parties he attended and all the celebrities he met, revealing that he remains just as callow, just as drug-dependent, and just as unenlightened now as he was then. But he recently got married, and trying to be a good stepdad to his movie star wife's 11 year old son and 6 year old daughter. This only seems to create a dark undercurrent of parent-anxiety, and images of Ellis's own dead father start to haunt him.
The book is packed with literary references that refuse to take themselves seriously. The Ellis family lives on Elsinore Lane and shops at the Ophelia Mall, hints so hokey that Ellis can only be inviting reviewers to sneer at them. The punchy sentences Ellis uses to advance the creepy underplot recall Chuck Pahlaniuk, while the use of the author as a character in an implausible criminal plot indicates that Ellis has been reading Paul Auster (the title of the book also echoes Auster's Moon Palace). Meanwhile, the family dynamic, complete with clueless neighbors and sweet corrupted children in an affluent college town, recalls Don DeLillo's White Noise.
Back in the 1980's, when the Ellis/McInerney/Janowitz trio ruled the party photo pages in Vanity Fair and Spy Magazine, nobody ever thought Ellis would emerge as the only serious writer of the three. In fact he seemed the slightest of the trio, and the least original. But McInerney and Janowitz, for all their good haircuts, have clearly stopped experimenting with either form or content. McInerney has tried to position himself as the F. Scott Fitzgerald of his age (supposedly we'll all appreciate Brightness Falls twenty years after he's dead?) while Janowitz has simply stuck to familiar grooves. Ellis, on the other hand, has made a career of twisting his rich party boy persona into one odd tortuous new shape after another, and in 2005 he seems to belong more to this decade than to that one. We don't exactly love his books, because that's not what the Ellis experience is about, but it sure is easy to enjoy this one.
I have read this damn thing many times in sweet escapist joy but this second time in a month I re-read last week, well, it was different the last time around. Across the miles and moils of years, this time the second rush of ending summer seemed more painful than before. I wept. Dean was a rat, and Sal retaliated, and I bummed.
This is not one of my favorite movies in the world.
I know I'm about two years late to the trashing party for this movie, so I don't think I should bother going into much detail. The fact that this film is a disappointment is not news. I'm not sure if I have any original complaints to add, but maybe I can at least vent a little of my personal fury by making a couple of points about this film:
First, the performances were as bad as everybody told me they would be. Nicole Kidman and Jude Law didn't come across as actors so much as dress-up dolls reading lines from a script. Renee Zellweiger managed to have some fun with the role of Ruby, but beyond that every performer was stiff and artificial. I was particularly disappointed in Donald Sutherland, who was supposed to be playing Ada's father, Monroe, but was instead apparently playing Martin Sheen playing Robert E. Lee playing Monroe. Ever hear of method acting, Sutherland? What the hell is your motivation?
Now, who's going to be able to write a review when Kevin Bacon publishes a novel?
I just read Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier for the second time. I'm convinced this book stands very tall amongst all books recently published, and I would eagerly put money down that it will be considered a true literary classic by future generations.
One reason this opinion may seem surprising to some is that Cold Mountain was a #1 bestseller, and contains many elements of "genre fiction": a steamy love story, a picturesque travelogue, a few morose battle scenes from the Civil War. The book was even subjected to the indignity of having Nicole Kidman and Jude Law dress up as its characters in a big Hollywood film (I have not seen this film yet, and I've been warned to just steer clear). There are echoes of Melville and Kerouac, but the book is clearly not the type of thing I usually go wild over. There's nothing postmodern or alternative about it ... and yet the fact remains that you could stack twenty DeLillo and Bukowski novels into a skyscraper and I'd still choose this book over the whole stack.
Okay, I'll admit it. I like this book a lot, and the second reading blew me away even more than the first. I've been accustomed to saying Raymond Carver is the greatest living writer (which is supposed to be funny since Raymond Carver died of cancer in 1988), but the next time somebody asks me this question -- who knows, I may just spit out Charles Frazier's name. Here are the reasons why:
First, his talent for characterization leaves me awestruck. When I write fiction, I struggle to never create boring, stereotypical characters. This can be an uphill battle, but apparently not for Frazier. He simply turns out one vivid, complex portrait after another. A near-feral teenage girl with a prodigal gift for farming; a thoroughly immoral preacher who loses a wrestling match to a catfish; a witchy goat lady; a drunk who builds his own fiddle; a retarded boy who follows the fiddler around. Who are these people and how did they get so real?
Second, the book's simple "country-style" narrative structure conceals some deft touches. I can pinpoint the exact moment when Cold Mountain won me over. It's around page 58, when a preacher (not the incompetent one mentioned above, but the noble and high-minded father of the book's heroine) leaves the big city of Charleston to take up the call in an abandoned parish in the mountains, and has to adjust to a much less sophisticated clientele:
"The houses were dark inside, even on a bright day. Those with shutters kept them pulled to. Those with curtains kept them drawn ... Monroe would rattle on at great length, introducing himself and explaining his view of the church's mission and talking theology and urging attendance at prayer meetings and services. All the while the men would sit in straight chairs looking at the fire. Many of them went unshod and they stuck their feet out before them with no shame whatsoever. For all you could tell by their bearing. They looked at the fire and said not a word and moved not one muscle in their faces as response to anything Monroe said."
We think we know where the author is going with this, but two pages later we are suddenly exposed to the other side of the story, and discover that the mountain folks, far from being quietly resistant to their new preacher, are actively engaged in hilarity at his expense, playing tricks on him and whispering behind his back. They don't like his superior attitude, and they're insulted by his use of the term "mission", since they themselves have contributed to charitable organizations that send Christian missions to Asia and Africa, and do not appreciate being thought of as requiring missionairies themselves.
This is the kind of feat few writers are capable of. Skateboarders call it a "360", and it's no less impressive in a novel taking place in 1864 North Carolina. The preacher and his neighbors eventually come to good terms, and the compassion and warmth the author presents in these scenes point to the moral and political message of the entire book. North Carolina was not highly committed to the Civil War, and the folks in this book are simply victims of the war in every sense. Caught between a slave-holding South and an industrial North, the people of the mountains are simply trampled. Their homes are invaded and overrun, their economies are destroyed, and anarchy rules the land. They can't defend themselves, but they can retain their pride, and more than anything else that's the message this book teaches.
You've probably noticed that I like this book. I should mention again that I haven't seen the movie yet, but I have rented the DVD, so I may post some opinions on it shortly.
Most "new" concepts are not really new. They come and go in various incarnations, ever growing in our mass consciousness, until they reach the critical mass known as "everyone is talking about it." Two such concepts are metafiction in literature and its TV/film equivalent, "breaking the fourth wall".
The fourth wall is the space between the audience and the actors on a stage, the first three walls being stage left, the background, and stage right. When an actor in a play addresses the audience directly, this is called "breaking the fourth wall." It is not generally done in traditional plays or movies because it would interrupt the "reality" of the story, but we can all think of exceptions to the rule.
Remember Laurel and Hardy, when Stan Laurel did something exceptionally silly, and Oliver Hardy turned his head slowly toward us and looked directly into the camera, as if to say, "Do you believe this? See what I have to put up with?" Then there was the duet between Bob Hope and Bing Crosby in the movie Road to Morocco, when Hope speaks directly to Paramount Studios, beseeching them to keep making more "road movies" so he can keep his job. More recently, a wonderful take-off on Bob and Bing's road songs was featured in an episode of Fox television's animated series, Family Guy, with Brian the Dog and baby Stewie trading song verses and wisecracks. This brings us to the Fox Network and Garry Shandling.
If more writers could write like Richard Hell, I'd be a happier man.
Hell doesn't write very much, or very often. He'll give us one new book of poetry or a slim paperback novel every few years. Godlike, his first novel since 1997's superb Go Now, is an absolute pleasure and a perfect distillation of this unique author's talents.
Godlike purports to be the scribblings of a middle-aged poet named Paul Vaughn who sits in a mental hospital reminiscing about a younger poet named R. T. Wode, but it becomes quickly apparent that Hell is basing the story on the real-life relationship between two 19th Century French poets, Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud. He tells the tale with a light, glancing touch. Imagine if Jim Jarmusch made a movie about Verlaine and Rimbaud, and you get the idea. The Vaughn/Verlaine character also resembles Richard Hell himself, and the story is updated to Lower East Side New York City circa 1971.
But enough about the plot, because when Hell writes I only care about the sentences. I couldn't get through half a page without pausing for a big smile or a grateful sigh of recognition. Hell's writing is pointed, sharp, like a junkyard of broken glass. Surprising connections abound, celebrating random oddness, reaching for beauty or truth:
To give offense was his mission, his meaning ... People say James Dean was the same way, mean and arrogant and competitive. And I remember having this revelation watching Bette Davis on-screen one time. That everything that was magnificent about her in the movie would be impossibly obnoxious in the same room with you ...
Nixon the opposite of Dylan, right? Does that make them creators of each other? What would you do with that? Was there anywhere to go with that? Dylan's name looked like Dylan too ... They both have hanging noses and tense mouths. Richard Nixon -- cross-eyed, his tight downturned lips where the spit leaks out at the corners. What if you switched their names?
Why are soap containers so beautiful? The packaging, I mean. Brillo, Ivory, Tide, Comet. It can't be a coincidence. But the thing I really love to see, that gladdens my heart, is a thick stand of empty two-liter generic soda bottles pressed against each other on the floor. The soft gleanings, the complexity of the light, the humility, the blue labels, the uniform bottle shape in the random blob of the clustering ...
Snot is white blood cells that've died fighting germs.
Some writers are dull at heart, and mask their dullness with literary complexity and intellectual obscurity. I don't like writers like that. Hell is my kind of writer; his sentences are rational, direct, clear as water. It's the ideas behind the words that stand surreal and gather poetic mystery.
Like Paul Verlaine himself, Richard Hell suffuses his writings with images of filth and depravity but expresses, through it all, a surprisingly affirmative and affectionate view of life. As the pages of Godlike progress, we know that Vaughn will have to shoot Wode (without seriously injuring him), that Vaughn will go to prison and that Wode will disappear, reemerge and die. After this all plays out, Vaughn tells us the difference between Wode and himself, which is the difference between Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine:
He looked at emotions as a scientist, but there are things I know more about than he did. I know that love is real."
I think this is also the difference between hundreds of mediocre writers and Richard Hell, a great modern transgressive poet and author who writes about nothing but the joy of our world, and of life.
I respect John Irving a lot, but I have to admit a sense of doom upon learning that this book is 848 pages long. I guess 848-page books make great weapons, and if you bring one on a long airplane ride there is little chance of finishing it too early. Other than that, I really can't see why good novelists are so often attracted to the super-long format. I'd like to hear where you stand on this: do you prefer massively thick books, or not? And what are the chances of you picking up this latest Irving tome, once it's out?