Hip authors tackle sex, drugs, and more sex

by Beacon Staff • September 28, 2005

staff

The 1980s were a period of excess, from the outlandish musical and fashion fads to the "greed is good" mantra that defined the time's economics (or "Reaganomics" if you prefer). Perhaps the best reflection of the decade's decadence in literature came through the raw prose of Ellis. He is best known for chronicling the lives of spoiled Los Angeles teenagers in Less Than Zero, their collegiate counterparts in Rules of Attraction and the Huey Lewis-worshipping Manhattan mass-murderer Patrick Bateman in the controversial American Psycho.

His latest effort, Lunar Park, retains many of the elements that have made his bibliography successful, but in a more mature fashion. The book is simultaneously a meditation on the nature of writing and a satire of suburban, middle-aged life under the guise of a supernatural Stephen King thriller. Although Park does not attain the greatness of his earlier works, it juggles its themes and tones well and has enough bright spots to show that the sun has not set on Ellis' career.

Unlike his other books, however, Park belongs to a unique genre called "metafiction," in which a writer tackles the strange subject of being an author and creating characters. One of the most notable examples of metafiction is Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief. That novel became the Charlie Kaufman-scripted Adaptation, in which the scribe struggled to make a movie from a book about flowers.

Similar to that film, in Ellis' book, the writer (Ellis) is the main character. At first glance, Ellis is not much different from Zero's Julian or Rules' Sean Bateman. Despite a lauded and lucrative career, his addiction to a cornucopia of narcotics brings him closer to obscurity and his grave; in fact, he recounts that he was once clinically dead for three minutes.

He smokes and snorts his way through baggies of coke, crack and heroin on the promo tour for his last book, Glamorama, and finds himself passed out on random lawns and placing groupies in sexually compromising positions with Doberman Pinschers.

How close is this presentation to the actual Ellis? He is so secretive about his personal life that writing Lunar Park will only cloud the already sketchy information about him. Certain truths about Ellis have come out during the promotion of Park: Ellis wrote Zero during a two month crystal meth binge and he also admitted to having a male lover (to whom Park is dedicated). During a recent reading in Newton, Ellis added additional insight into the blurry line between fact and fiction.

I had expected the author to be like Johnny Depp's Willy Wonka-brilliant but detached and socially awkward. Instead, he came off more like another enigmatic cult figure-the singer Morrissey-in that he seemed witty and charismatic but with a smile that could become a frown in a flash with one unsatisfactory comment.

Also, the author did not appear to be under the influence of drugs, unlike the fictional Ellis, who hits the bottom of the downward spiral with both a blank mind and blank pages in front of him after the book tour. In his attempt to get clean, Ellis rekindles his relationship with actress Jayne Dennis who gave birth to his son, Robby, a secret that had been well-concealed. The once-dazzling urbanite finds himself at 40, married with children, a dog and a perfect lawn in the hell of suburbia.

Ellis uses the setting to make some sly commentary about the progress of society. Whereas his characters used to worry about where to score blow or smack, the illegal drugs have been (mostly) replaced by psychiatrist's prescriptions, with the children on the same strict regiment of pills their parents pop. Robby's preteen friends shun physical activity to stare blankly in front of the computer screen playing the latest shoot 'em-up-the better to numb their minds from the disturbing disappearances of their peers.

Missing children are only one of the mysterious events on Elsinore Lane. Some could just be coincidence: Ellis keeps receiving blank e-mails at 2:40 each morning and the living room furniture is constantly rearranged. Others, like Ellis' belief that his son's bird doll is alive and the random appearance of a student masquerading as Patrick Bateman, may be caused by his dependence on Ketel One and Xanax. All of these problems could stem from his deceased father, whose spirit seems to hang over both Ellis and his career. None would be out of place in a Dean Koontz novel.

The main problem with Lunar Park is that it sometimes reads like one of Koontz's trashy horror books, which is far beneath Ellis' talent. When Ellis wants to move the supernatural plot elements forward, he trades in his unique voice for a more utilitarian James Patterson style that overuses italics to tell the reader "Hey, pay attention to this!"

Or, Ellis uses short sentences.

With random paragraph breaks.

When Ellis is in his element (which is usually when characters are getting high or drunk, though not always), Lunar Park flows as easily as his other novels. Although his content is always topical and thought-provoking, his style is what sets him apart from his peers. Ellis has an ability to construct a page-long sentence that is consistently interesting and make name-dropping seem essential instead of indulgent-all with a tone that is darkly hilarious.

Lunar Park seems to be almost a self-exorcism on Ellis' part, coming to terms with the success of his novels and the demons of his past. It might also be Ellis playing a practical joke on his readers so he can laugh at them as they try to deconstruct the myth from the reality. Either way, it showcases a talented author trying something new and making mistakes with occasional brilliant moments throughout.

Lauren Johnson/Beacon correspondent

Unlike Ellis' characters, Candace Bushnell's do not have time to get high because they are too busy getting higher in society:

"It was, Nico O'Neilly thought, looking out of the window of the town house, a perfect day for taking over the world." And global domination is what Nico and her two best friends, the heroines of Bushnell's recently released Lipstick Jungle, do best-somewhat.

Often revered as the original Carrie Bradshaw (or perhaps reviled, if you are a dutiful boyfriend who has had to endure hours upon end of the HBO television series), Bushnell is responsible for the conception of the "Sex and the City" craze of the late-90's, which was the result of a popular column she penned for the New York Post and later compiled into a novel. Both took readers on a journey through the echelons of Manhattan's elite, which are illuminated by the radiance of diamonds caught beneath 1,000 watt flashbulbs, but in reality, can be as dark as an abandoned warehouse in the meatpacking district.

Now established as the best-selling author of four novels, including Trading Up and Four Blondes, Bushnell has earned her living writing satires of a lifestyle that makes many salivate to think about: success, high society and, most importantly, dirty sex with the filthy rich.

Though the synopsis of Lipstick Jungle reads like anything else Bushnell has ever written-designer-shoe-obsessed women in Manhattan trying to find the meaning of life and love at the same time-several differences set the content of this book apart from her previous works. The usual focus on four heroines has been reduced to three, and instead of belonging to the 30-something set still marked by an air

of innocence and poorly furnished flats in the Garment District, these women have finally hit their 40s and a cash flow of substantial weight.

For the average person, it appears that each woman has reached the pinnacle of her career and can finally start thinking about trading office hours in for family time. But characters O'Neilly, Victory Ford and Wendy Healy are as deeply in love with their craft as they are with any man. And, being the editor-in-chief of a well-respected magazine, an internationally-known fashion designer or the president of a moviemaking corporation is simply not good enough.

There is only one way to go with these women and that is up. Lipstick Jungle is not an invitation into the VIP lounge of Manhattan's exclusive nightclubs, but a climb up the corporate ladder and into the executive offices of its CEOs.

Though the book is laced with Bushnell's typical witty jabs at the upper crust, it is relatively poorly written. More often then not, Bushnell breaks the cardinal rule of creative writing: show, do not tell. Bushnell over explains, disabling readers from coming to their own conclusions, and shortcuts her descriptions to a disappointing extent, often relying on worn-out, unimaginative phrases to the point of being juvenile.

Even more disappointing is the story construction. The sequence of events often has little or no transitions, causing timelines to become confused. From the disjointed flow of the story, one can almost sense that Bushnell was working on a publisher's tight deadline.

If Bushnell's readers picked this book up to be titillated, then they should put it down and read one of her earlier, more satisfying works. While she is still clearly unafraid to use explicit language, there is no steam behind her dirty words. Moreover, for a book that does an awful lot of talking about sex, there is hardly any actual sex at all.

This proves effective, however, because the main focus of the book is not sex or even how to find true love. Though men and relationships are undeniably important, they are not the only aspect that makes the characters' lives worth living.

In Sex and the City, the women learned to have sex like a man. In Lipstick Jungle, the women learn how to do big business as though they had a Y chromosome. And the more confidence they gain through success, the more they realize they are good at it.

Despite the simplistic writing, the characters are highly complex and Bushnell makes no attempt to paint a rose-colored portrait of their lives.

They each become listed among New York's 50 Most Powerful Women, but at the same time struggle to recover from blows in their career and personal lives. Bushnell shows how all relationships have multiple levels and that there really is no such thing as one filled with bliss 100 percent of the time. In the end, the main relationships featured in Lipstick Jungle are the ones the women have with themselves.

So, would men like this book too? Perhaps, but more likely it will become popular among females who can relate to the emotions of the characters and understand that the stereotypes addressed in the novel are still alive and kicking despite an increasing number of real-life women CEOs and even talk of a potential female presidential candidate for 2008.

Yet, as Bushnell demonstrates in Lipstick Jungle, women cannot continue to place all the blame on men for the continued existence of discrimination, but support and encourage each other as they reach the height of their fields.

Though Bushnell's new book is a letdown stylistically, the message in the story itself makes it worth a read. She has shown how far women have come, but how there is still a long way to go.

,"Bryan O'Toole, Lauren Johnson"

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