So, just in case you haven’t heard: Bret Easton Ellis has written a new novel, called Lunar Park, chronicling the doped-up, dragged-down life of a writer named—get this!—Bret Easton Ellis. Such audacity! Such wretched self-obsession! Cringing at such familiar meta-conceits is a hip blood sport these days, as evidenced by the recent tirades in, among other places, The New York Times Book Review (“the portrait of a narcissist who is, in the end, terminally bored with himself”) and the Los Angeles Times (“another chapter in the book of Ellis’ egomania”). Few things, this line of thinking goes, are as literarily self-destructive as self-indulgence. No writerly sin is less forgivable.
To which I humbly say: Screw that. A fan of Less Than Zero and American Psycho, I was unapologetically thrilled to crack open Lunar Park, hoping it would prove to be gleefully egomaniacal—the sort of feral, swaggering, relentlessly self-indulgent book that America does so well but, sadly, has become self-consciously ashamed of in this overly self-conscious era. Ultimately, I too found myself disappointed, though not because the book was too self-indulgent. On the contrary: The sucker wasn’t self-indulgent enough.
Far from being a display of unhinged vanity, the book simmers on every page with a reluctance to truly exploit this vanity with abandon. The great indulgent works—from Whitman’s hyperlyrical “Song of Myself” to Bellow’s “freestyle” The Adventures of Augie March to the more recent pyrotechnics of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest—share a dazzling, uninhibited cockiness. In this spirit, Ellis opens his novel with a shrewd 30-page analysis of his alter ego’s celebrity in which you can’t help but cheer him on as he hoists the bazookas up on each shoulder. But instead of firing them mercilessly, he collapses under the weight, and the prose and horror-story plot grow increasingly ramshackle and overstuffed, as if burdened by a persistent need to apologize for their own existence and the instincts behind them.
What a shame. Somewhere along the lines we seem to have forgotten that all books are (overtly or covertly) portraits of narcissists brought to us on a tidal wave of writerly megalomania. We are almost obscenely eager to pretend that it isn’t self-indulgence—sitting alone, lost in your mind, folding reality into your own origami diorama—that produces literature in the first place. Especially frustrating is how the works canonized and dangled frothily about as examples of a bygone era of novelistic greatness—Roth, Bellow, et al.—are often recklessly decadent explorations of the self. It’s like we’ve become embarrassed to admit what we truly enjoy and why we enjoy it.
For all the clichéd jokes about writers and their egos, we still feel the collegiate desire to equate the act of writing (as opposed to the writing itself) with something holy and pure—an impulse closer to that of the selfless humanitarian aid worker than the self-centered rock star. Which is ludicrous. Writers are rock stars—playing on a stage in their minds to a sold-out show of themselves, hoping to make enough noise that others have no choice but to listen and, ideally, start singing along in vague recognition. In so many Great American Novels, this urge is precisely what we admire: that the writer had the gumption to universalize the personal, to publicly and articulately act the way the rest of us do in front of the mirror.
But rather than admire that gift, we’ve learned to greet it with embarrassment: receiving memoirs, or memoir-fictions like Lunar Park, with reflexive, defensive dismissal, a cavalcade of caveats. But such paralysis has gotten very old. There’s no question that too much indulgence—in cumbersome language, in endless italics, in postgraduate pretension—can turn a book into a toxic mess. But so can the fear of indulging, which the literary community, such as it is, seems insistent on perpetuating. We’re a hungry country, and we always have been. Why should we have to hide our appetites?