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Ellis masquerades as Ellis, and it is not a pretty sight

Lunar Park
By Bret Easton Ellis
Knopf, 307 pp., $24.95

The best way to introduce the unique charms of Bret Easton Ellis's new novel, ''Lunar Park," is simply to let the book speak for itself.

In the following scene, Ellis (also the protagonist of the book) has come home to discover that his wife's dog, Victor, is in the process of being possessed by a demon that takes the form of a doll named Terby.

Warning: The squeamish might want to skip ahead.

''The dog licked my hand as I crouched down to soothe him.

''The sound of his tongue lapping the dry skin of my hand was suddenly overtaken by wet noises coming from behind the dog.

''Victor vomited without lifting his head.

''I slowly stood upright and walked around to his backside, where the wet noises were coming from.

''When I lifted the dog's tail I tried leaping out of my mind."

The image that follows is so revolting that (as I have kindly been informed) it is not suitable for a family newspaper. It is something more along the lines of what a troubled 6-year-old might dream up. Rest assured: Our man Ellis discovers the Terby doll right where you'd expect.

I'm sorry to bring all this up, but there is really no other way to convey how wretched the novel is, how desperate and cynical and poorly written.

Ellis has made a career out of lazy nihilism and gratuitous viscera, and ''Lunar Park" marks the apotheosis of that career. It is by far the worst novel he has ever written. It may be the worst novel I've ever read. I don't make any of these claims lightly. Ellis earns them, sentence by sentence and page by page. The book is a faux autobiography, in which Ellis, a dissolute celebrity author who still snorts coke through rolled-up 20s, tries to reinvent himself as a sober suburban dad to his son.

There are rare, lovely moments when Ellis (the author) appears up to the task. ''My son was eleven," he writes, ''and had a Prada wallet and a Stussy camouflage eye patch and a Lacoste sweatband clung to his wrist and he had wanted to start an astronomy club but due to lack of interest among his peers it never materialized and his favorite songs had the world flying in the title, and all of this saddened me."

But these are quickly obscured by a tangle of horror-movie cliches: the ghost of Ellis senior, boys gone missing, the possessed doll cited above, even a lame recycling of the smirking serial killer Patrick Bateman, last seen in the 1991 Ellis gorefest ''American Psycho."

Ellis (the narrator and the author) is too busy scripting slasher scenes to bother with the sort of quiet, human moments that might allow the reader to view his characters as people. They're cartoons. And it doesn't matter how many times you stab a cartoon -- the reader isn't going to experience the danger as real.

The few glimpses of domestic life are even more strained. Having failed to infuse his cast with anything approaching an internal life, Ellis makes them pout and flail like soap opera divas.

We see no evidence that he likes his actress wife, Jayne, let alone loves her. Yet toward the end of the book, he muses, ''(What happened to the way she used to" reach orgasm swiftly with me, and ''the nights I had watched her face as she slept?)." This is the Ellis school of emotional veracity: a corny parenthetical dropped in like a footnote.

As for the prose, again, I defer to Ellis himself. He writes of Jayne, ''Her face softened and for the first time this morning she smiled genuinely, without forcing it, without any affectation. It was spontaneous and unrehearsed."

If you're keeping track at home, that's five reiterations of the same information.

Elsewhere, we are treated to gems such as ''My hand was a white-knuckled fist clenched around the .38" and ''We waited for what felt like eternity." Ellis announces that a ghost-detecting machine ''resumed beeping again." At this point, I began to wonder if the book wasn't some sort of elaborate prank.

Do they no longer employ copy editors at Knopf? But then, why should they bother? People will buy this book, regardless of the juvenile writing and absurd plot twists.

They will do so because Ellis is (by writerly standards, anyway) famous. And because he writes lurid, entirely unchallenging books that prey on the worst impulses of the American spirit: our histrionic self-victimizing, our celebrity obsession, our casual misogyny and lust for mayhem.

The success of his oeuvre stands as a testament to the declining standards of intellectual depth and compassion in America. They are the literary equivalent of the tabloid stories that are now a staple of the mainstream media.

The most tragic aspect of this mess is that Ellis (the narrator) constantly insists he's a changed man.

Of his ''American Psycho" heyday he writes, ''Exploring that kind of violence had been 'interesting' and 'exciting' and it was all 'metaphorical' anyway -- at least to me at that moment in my life, when I was young ... and had not yet grasped my own mortality, a time when physical pain and real suffering held no meaning for me."

Fifty pages later Ellis describes the murder of his mistress in the following language: ''There were ropes and body parts positioned in front of mirrors; the head and the hands were missing, and the walls were splashed with blood; there was evidence that a blowtorch had been used at one point, and the bones in both arms had been broken before the skin had been peeled off{hellip}."

So much for the apologia.

This is the Ellis formula: Unable to evince any genuine emotion within his characters, he reduces them to snuff-film victims in the hopes this might arouse some feeling for them in the reader. It is a shameless exploitation, a pornography of violence more sickening than the various necrophiliac TV dramas that clog prime time.

At the end of this deeply fraudulent book, the author returns to Los Angeles, the stomping grounds of his ballyhooed debut, ''Less Than Zero."

''Who was going to believe in the monsters I had encountered and the things I had seen?" he asks. ''Who was going to buy the pitch I was making in order to save myself?"

I think we all know the answer to that one: Hollywood.

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