I’m currently reading ‘Lunar Park’ by Bret Easton Ellis, a book in which the protagonist is a fictionalised version of Ellis himself. I’ve read and watched ‘American Psycho’, and my knowledge of Bret Easton Ellis ends there. Lunar Park appears at first to be autobiographical, but it’s soon apparent that Ellis the narrator is an exaggerated portrayal of Ellis the author. Both Ellises are famous and successful novelists with the same bibliography. Narrator Ellis has extreme drug problems, an illegitimate child, and a self-obsessed and sulky attitude.
Given the caricatured nature of Ellis the narrator, I’ve assumed that there are lots of details in the novel that are also exaggerated or falsified. The narrator is married to Jayne Dennis, a Hollywood superstar actress who has starred in blockbuster films with Keanu Reeves. Now, I’m pretty sure that Dennis is a fictional character, but now I’m wondering about how prepared one should be to read ‘Lunar Park’. Should I read Bret Easton Ellis’ Wikipedia profile to find out whether he did indeed have massive drug problems after the publication of ‘Less Than Zero’? Should I find out who were his celebrity friends? Should I Google Jayne Dennis to determine whether she’s fictional – and if she doesn’t exist, should I try to determine whether the name is an alias for another Hollywood actress? Would my understanding of the novel be lessened if I hadn’t read ‘American Psycho’, and should I have read ‘Less Than Zero’ before starting this book?
Some fiction clearly signals whether there’s required reading. Series or sequels are usually numbered to indicate where to begin. But some novels and films are more difficult to judge. A couple of nights ago I watched Wim Wenders’ ‘The American Friend’, an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s ‘Ripley’s Game’. The book is the third in Highsmith’s series of novels featuring Tom Ripley, and you could certainly argue that the series is richer if read in strict order. But with Wenders’ title change, and the lack of cohesion across the various filmed versions of the novels, the required reading (or watching) for ‘The American Friend’ is far from clear. Without prior knowledge of the character, perhaps it’s possible to get through the whole film without realising that Tom Ripley is a serial killer, given that in this particular story his motives are quite ambiguous.
Should works like ‘Lunar Park’ and ‘The American Friend’ come with a required reading list, or a set of instructions? What’s the correct or default way to approach them?
Talking of instructions for fiction, I’m interested in non-linear fiction, books that require you to determine some kind of unique path through the work. Nabokov’s ‘Pale Fire’ is a good example: a quarter of the book comprises a fictional work called ‘Pale Fire’, a poem in four cantos. The remainder is an essay on the poem, and yet both of these together make up Nabokov’s ‘Pale Fire’. To read the book you have to decide whether you’ll read first the poem and then the notes in standard linear fashion, or whether you’ll dot between lines of the poem and notes relating to those lines. I’d argue that the latter is the ‘correct’ way to uncover the plot, but it’s up each individual reader to decide. The introduction to Milorad Pavic’s ‘Dictionary of the Khazars’ instructs the reader to refer to dip in and out of the fictionalised encyclopedia entries to piece together the story. Almost every page of Mark Z. Danielewski’s ‘House of Leaves’ requires the reader to decide for themselves how to progress through the fragmented text.
I’m not really trying to reach any conclusions, but there does seem to be a lot to be said about non-linear narratives and prerequisites when approaching fiction. As a side note, it strikes me that while there are good examples of books and, more and more, videogames with non-linear narratives, there are no non-linear films that I can think of, apart from perhaps Mike Figgis’ ‘Timecode’, at a pinch. Maybe someone should attempt to create a choose-your-own-adventure film to be ‘read’ via DVD chapter selections. Or has this been tried already?