Loving Bret Easton Ellis’s work has long meant having to justify your reading pleasure from a yes, but defensive crouch. Yes his prose is flat and derivative, but it carries with it a modern music. Yes his narratives are hollow and his characters are vapid, but sometimes society is hollow and its people are vapid. Yes the outlook of his novels is nihilistic, but it is expressed with moral purpose. Even if this kind of polarization, consistent over the course of a nearly four-decade career, is so rare in literature as to be refreshing, it also stops just short of conferring Ellis with the assurance of enduring literary merit.
Ascribing personal motives to an artist’s work seldom, if ever, reveals anything of consequence about the work. So let’s break the rule immediately and take it from there: the main point of The Shards, Ellis’s first novel since 2010’s Imperial Bedrooms, is that he did not want to go down as a bitter ex-writer. Here’s 500 pages of him reclaiming his rightful place. Have a big serial killer book full of blood and cults and creepy murder vans and the once-in-a-lifetime thrill of watching a master of prose fall back in love with what made him a star.
Los Angeles in fall of 1981, a murderer on the loose. They call him the Trawler. Nobody cares that much. Nobody but a bright teenager named Bret Ellis who will become the “final boy” of the picture: a designated, scarred survivor, there to tell you all about it at some point in the future.
When you strip it down for parts, The Shards is a home invasion story, in events and mood – events, because the plot itself kicks in with a string of home invasions, soon to evolve in one or more killers targeting young people by mounting an offensive in a super clear pattern nobody seems to decode: whoever the Trawler happens to be, here’s how they roll: silent phone calls, pets disappear from the neighborhood, rock band posters show up in the mailbox, personal items are stolen or re-arranged within the house, and then some.
So you have murderers who taunt the police through letters to the paper of record. But those letters, they’re not always printed, and not always read.
Hints are not dropped as much as facts are established: three of Bret’s classmates won’t live to make the pages of their graduation yearbook; latecomer Robert Mallory, a transfer student from Chicago, will contaminate the group’s dynamics and cast his shadow over their future, not a ghost but a haunted house.
Bret first locks eyes with Robert Mallory in the dark of a matinee screening for Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Robert is attractive, alone, maybe looking for someone else. Months down the line, Robert’s enrolled in the small private school Bret attends, coming in with a rehearsed backstory about living in Chicago and not getting along with what remains of his birth family, and he denies he ever saw The Shining, never mind being present at that screening in Los Angeles.
It’s a lie.
One single carefree lie, told without an overt reason to do so, becomes the thread Bret claws at for months to hopefully unravel a tapestry of inhuman fabrications: Bret comes to believe Robert is the monster plowing through the city’s young blood – if not the main villain of the piece, then an accomplice to the killings. Bret would rather be proven right – yes, Robert moved here to mangle every soul in his wake – than admit to one of his many lies by omission.
The reason Bret does remember that fateful movie screening lies within his singular anticipatory focus on the movie itself – down to the loving description of its theatrical trailer – the desire to see it burned right into his brain: but the reason Bret noticed and remembered Robert, is his physical appeal, leaving a mark in the closeted boy’s active inner life.
Their first chance meeting might be artfully staged (you see, it’s all about fear and desire), the novel blares that double siren until the very end, fear / desire || catch / release, a book-length version of the set pieces Brian DePalma had bestowed upon wide audiences in 1980 (Dressed to Kill) and would double down on soon enough (Body Double). Bret knows just why he remembers Robert Mallory; however, he’s preoccupied with hiding his same-sex affairs – plural – because he can’t be anything but straight in school: he can be somebody else once he’s escaped to college, to adulthood, to the elsewhere.
And since Bret also has a reputation as a fabulist, not a straight-out liar yet but someone prone to exaggeration, a blatant embellisher of personal anecdotes who wilts in the face of accountability, someone in the habit of shielding himself from truthfulness by claiming he sees the world differently as a budding writer of fiction.
The boy himself, this “Bret,” is an amiable fifth wheel of a kid whose popularity is linked to his friendship with three students: Debbie, Susan, and Thom; blessed in wealth, looks, and disposition. A teenage insider, Bret’s aware his social advantages are a mere matter of proximity to the people he harbors intricate, mostly private feelings for. Bret dates assertive bombshell Debbie; he admires Susan for her beauty and her late slide into detachment. He does not dare to imagine any kind of future with Thom, not even in the furtive manner he’s accustomed to.
But every character on display is believable and sympathetic in simple, tangible ways Bret Easton Ellis’s fiction never made a production of. He never allowed this smallness. Here, individual disappointments are left on the page for you to stare at. Debbie is learning to ignore the daily grotesque of her household, and Thom has seen too much of his parents’ acrimonious divorce: personal tumult such as a golden teenage couple’s decline into enmity can and will overpower the far more urgent reality of serial murderers on the loose and missing kids their own age.
For the inevitable disarray the Trawler will bring upon this group, it must first pierce the light, comfortable life they all enjoy – idle time at the Galleria, catered parties, the overall look of 1981, very much a leftover from the previous decade. Any extravagant detour, be it a car chase or a break-in, functions as a stop in a sentimental tour of landmarks past. Have a lunchtime visit to Los Angeles eatery Trumps, closed in 1992: “the name of the restaurant was written in small pink handwritten neon, a playful touch hinting that Trumps didn’t take itself so seriously; Trumps was about LA and artifice and a new kind of freewheeling California Cuisine – it was supposed to be fun.”
Every Ellis book casts the same spell over the reader: his acclaimed voice not bound to any subject but the resolute bounce that comes from laying a meticulous ground game of sound, visuals, and repetition. Glamorama‘s narrator fortifies himself by repeating, the better you look the more you see, comically blind to what keeps happening on his watch. The Shards weaves many of these strands together, from the simple needle drop – It means nothing to me – to the casual remark – when you talk to me you’re really talking to yourself – to the visual and linguistic cut to “the empty house on Mulholland” as an establishing shot of the safe place the narrator returns to, over and over, still a dot in the Los Angeles sprawl.
It should be noted, most of the novel is a sprawl of unsupervised minors doing whatever, no cell phones, no surveillance cameras, bottomless pocket money for cheap entertainment, no curfew, absent parents and neighbors – a conservative school atmosphere doesn’t alter the fabric much, since, as seniors, the main cast is given considerable leeway.
The Shards might be the first published work of Ellis to come into the world as an action, not as an artful reaction to a cultural shift, a big-picture something undefined up in the air for anyone to take a stab at. Remember how American Psycho was sparked by the fashion and grooming patterns of straight men Ellis befriended in the mid-to late-1980s, and to some extent he might have tried to be, past-tense. And, fine as the prose in White can get, that essay collection starts as a non-fiction prologue to this one, only to turn into a litany of why Ellis became a polarizing character and his attempts to provide context to some of the controversies leaving a sour light over his career.
This one’s a giant earnest book of regret for wasted opportunities, decayed relationships, loss of intimacy, and apparent ease of living long gone by.
Which leaves us with him. “Bret.”
Bret is a kid. He’s an avid consumer of media, devoted to grindhouse pornography and mainstream escapist fare, tempted by the notion of making it as a screenwriter despite the limited allure movie stars hold on him when they pass him by at a private party. Avid reader, film buff, Stephen King fan, Joan Didion super-fan: just a kid.
Future Bret will write about the sins of young people, real or imaginary, but you would be forgiven if you felt Bret Easton Ellis was never just a kid, just a teen. Not like The Shards‘s Bret is allowed to be.
You can wonder if Ellis ever allowed himself a moment of quiet – and how much harder mid-life might have hit him for the act of renouncing his youth as part of the bargain, becoming a wunderkind, a precocious, ultra-successful novelist whose jaded enchanted aura came from the union of form and awareness of his contemporaries’ fears, fixations, and misdeeds. Having been elevated to the ranks of generational prodigy with his first published book at twenty-one, still in college, Ellis might have been professionally young, but not young as a person is.
Within the world of this novel, what we will come to know as the signature Bret Easton Ellis surface manner – the “numb burned-out cool” name-checked in Lunar Park‘s blaze of a first section – is a deliberate protective measure devised by a writer to distance himself from the horror he has known, a formal trick to establish strong parameters not even the author can afford to breach in the privacy of his own studio. The lengths a man goes to secure his perimeter after all else failed.
Early on, Ellis casts young “Bret” as the boy who cries wolf, destined not to be believed – how sweet to portray one’s self as a sharp teenager with a taste for deceptive intrigue, right before it all goes to hell: by the time he comes around to calling himself “a man who stayed a child,” in the last pages of his most powerful, authentic work, the punch lands, there’s nothing but love and sorrow there.
The Shards works as a reclamation of things lost in a fire of your own making.
Bret Easton Ellis
2023, Alfred A. Knopf
608 pp., $30.00
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