The Jason Cowley Column

October 2005 / www.waterstones.co.uk

The new Brett Easton Ellis novel, Lunar Park, is an outlandish combination of fact, fiction and memoir, featuring an unreliable narrator called ... well, Brett Easton Ellis. The novel is a confession: a middle aged, married writer and recreational drug user famed for his spectacular early success and violent imagination, and whose fiction strained to satirize the vacuous consumption of the 1980s while at the same time celebrating it, reflects on the excesses, irresponsibilities and mistakes of a life as a celebrity writer. Characters real and imagined return from his past to engage and challenge him. The entire enterprise is rather hysterical. In one scene, Ellis is even stalked by his most notorious creation, Patrick Bateman, the murderous anti-hero of American Psycho (19991), a violent, sometimes-hilarious novel that became a Hollywood film starring Christian Slater in the role of the amoral, style-obsessed serial killer.

From the earliest beginnings of the form novelists have been fascinated with the mechanics of writing fiction, with questions of artifice, self-referentiality and the suspension of disbelief. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy (1759) by Laurence Sterne is an early prototype of what much later would become known as the post-modern novel - it is the work of fiction that repeatedly, insistently, draws attention to its own construction and artificiality. The post-modern novels of the 1960s and 1970s - the novels of, say, John Barth, Italo Calvino and John Fowles - were unstinting in their attention-seeking desire to interrupt the flow of their own stories so as to remind readers that they were reading a work of imagination - someone else’s imagination (although I have always believed that reading is itself an act of profound imagination; as a reader you try above all else to “see” what is being described).

But the novelist is not all-powerful, not even as powerful as he likes to believe himself to be. In truth, the reader is more powerful. If you do not believe what you are reading, if you are weary of being tricked and teased, you have the ultimate power of response. You can simply stop reading. You can close the book. Throw it away. Move on to something else, something less intrusive and arch. “This story I am telling is all imagination,” Fowles writes in The French Lieutenant’s Woman. “These characters I create never existed outside my own mind.” To which one is tempted to reply: “Good for you, John, good for you” - and then close the book.

As a reader, I am generally irritated by these kinds of meta-fictional devices, even if, I concede, I have a special affection for the essayistic voice of Milan Kundera. It is hard to think of a more knowing or ironic writer than Kundera, and yet his best novels - Life is Elsewhere (1973), The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1980), Ignorance (2002) - have an unforgettable originality of voice and style. Kundera never allows you to forget that you are reading fiction, a mere story, but somehow, because he writes so well and his intelligence is so acute, you go along with him on his journey all the same.

One of the most enduring of all meta-fictional tricks is for the novelist to give himself a part in one of his own stories, as Easton Ellis does so audaciously in Lunar Park. Sometimes these appearances are merely Hitchockian: the novelist is glimpsed hurrying across a road, or heard briefly in conversation, before withdrawing altogether. One thinks, here, particularly of Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy (1987), three separate but interconnecting novellas, in which one of the protagonists, a man called Quinn, receives a mysterious phone call from someone asking if he is none other than Paul Auster.

“Is this Paul Auster?” asked the voice. “I would like to speak to Mr Paul Auster.”

“There’s no one here by that name.”

“Paul Auster. Of the Auster Detective Agency.”

“I’m sorry,” said Quinn. “You must have the wrong number.”

Later, Quinn assumes the identity of the missing Auster, and becomes a kind of metaphysical detective, investigating the very mystery of himself: who he is, and why he happens to be in New York at that moment in time. Other novelists are more insistent in seeking to dissolve the boundaries between the creator and created, between the real and imagined. Michel Houellebecq, for instance, delights in naming his central characters Michel, as he does in Atomised (1998), Platform (2001) and, again, in his latest novel, The Possibility of an Island. These fictional Michels invariably share much of the same biography and most of the same prejudices as their creator - and they all speak in the same voice. It is unmistakably the voice of Michel Houellebecq himself: scabrous, jaded, sardonic, sex-fixated.

More self-preoccupied even than Houellebecq is Philip Roth, who has written an entire series of novels - most recently, The Plot Against America (2004) - in which you encounter a character called Philip Roth, who may or may not be the famous American novelist of the same name.

The best of the Roth novels is, I think, Operation Shylock (1993), in which you encounter not one but two Philip Roths. The first is a celebrated writer in late middle age. He lives in America and is recovering from a breakdown, a complete psychological disintegration and collapse. The second Roth is an imposter and anti-Zionist who has based himself in Israel. His self-appointed mission is demented; it is nothing less than a desire to lead the Jews out of Israel. At one point, early in the novel, the two Roths speak on the phone and, later, they meet in Israel. The American Roth recognises something of himself in the imposter - “His face was the face I remembered seeing in the mirror during the months when I was breaking down. His glasses were off and I saw in his eyes my own dreadful panic of the summer before, my eyes at their most fearful when I could think of nothing else but how to kill myself.”

Does the second, Israel-returned Roth actually exist? Or is he merely a creation of the disturbed imagination of the American Roth? Whatever he is, the entire novel is a fascinating, and often very funny, investigation into the question of personal identity, and of how we are all multiple, forced to inhabit different and often conflicting roles as we work our way through the hours, days and weeks of our lives.

My favourite appearance by a novelist in one of his own works is made by Martin Amis in Money (1984). The novel is narrated by John Self. He is a drunk, a junkie, a low-level pornographer and a director of adverts who is struggling to raise funds for his first feature film, as you do. He addresses the reader in a bragging, street-smart, low life demotic. Early in the book, he sees Martin Amis out walking in the street and observes how the writer’s face is “cramped and incredulous - also knowing, with a smirk of collusion in his bent smile. He gives me the creeps.” Self shouts out to Amis, to his own creator: “Know me again would you?” Then gives him the V-sign.

Later, the two men meet again, this time in a pub. Amis is drinking a glass of wine and reading a book. Self asks the writer if he has sold a million yet.

“Be serious,” Amis replies.

So, demands Self, what exactly have you sold?

It’s a fair enough question to ask a writer as competitive and successful as Martin Amis, and the writer’s reply is evasive, as it might be, but also a little dismissive, which angers Self. In this instance, I am in sympathy with him. For what else would you ask Martin Amis if you ever met him in a pub? How about - can you lend me ten thousand pounds, please?

Yes, that would do, for a start.