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'Lunar Park': Author tries for empathy, but his self-loathing gets in the way



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``Lunar Park'' by Bret Easton Ellis; Alfred A. Knopf ($24.95)

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Bret Easton Ellis has apparently decided that a good novel should be more than one long sneer. So in the closing chapter of ``Lunar Park,'' he tries to make us think that he's changing and becoming sensitive, as he muses on the nature of love, his personal mistakes long-past and the relationship between fathers and sons.

But one chapter can't erase more than a decade's worth of books that condescend and condemn his characters - from the drugged-out, rich youths of Less Than Zero'' to the narcissistic serial killer ofAmerican Psycho.''

In short, Ellis has made a career of writing about people he hates, all the while posing as a moralist, arguing that he is making a larger comment on social corruption.

It's perhaps fitting, then, that Ellis has decided to write about himself in Lunar Park.'' It's the ultimate act of self-loathing. In an unusual opening called "The Beginnings," Ellis introduces the main character inLunar Park,'' a fictional Ellis who has shot to literary fame with Less Than Zero'' and has descended into ignominy withAmerican Psycho.'' The author claims that too many people thought he, too, was as psychotic as Bateman, his main character. Then he reveals that he actually based Bateman on his deceased father. (One can only imagine what his father might say to such a revelation.)

From there, the fictional Ellis becomes trapped in a loveless marriage to a famous model and moves to an upscale suburb, where he ingests mass quantities of alcohol and drugs and works part time as a lecturer at a nearby college.

In between the boozing and pathetic efforts to reach out to his two children, the fictional Ellis tries to seduce one of his female students.

But soon our antihero becomes trapped in a Stephen King horror tale; his daughter's doll becomes a real-life demon. The doll's name is Terby, and that name spelled backward is "ybret" (or why bret?). Indeed, why? Such pseudo-profundities litter ``Lunar Park.''

Most of the rest of the book details the utter corruption of life in the suburbs, where fathers, mothers and teachers pressure their children into impossible situations, such as reading ``Lord of the Flies'' at age 6.

But the closing chapter takes an abrupt turn. Author Ellis tries to make us feel empathy for fictional Ellis. It turns out that our antihero has realized the emptiness of his life, has parted with his wife and has taken up residence in New York with a gay lover.

So the reader is left wondering: Has Ellis been playing a game about his relationships with women? Is he gay? Or is he bisexual, as he has hinted on many occasions? After reading ``Lunar Park,'' you still won't know for sure. And you probably won't care.

The real problem with ``Lunar Park'' is simple. Ellis has not been able to create a fictional character for whom the reader can have empathy. That's what happens when you focus on loathing and self-loathing in fiction. It's ultimately empty. It's less than zero.

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(c) 2005, The Dallas Morning News. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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