eA ach episode of Bret Easton Ellis Long-running podcast It begins with a monologue—sometimes a review, sometimes a somewhat provocative essay—mocking the culture’s supposed neo-puritans. Its September 2020 opening looked different. For 20 years, Ellis said, he had been haunted by a book he longed to write but was afraid to start: a memoir of sorts, detailing “what happened to me, and a few of my friends, one year after the end of high school.” His recent false start—a few jagged pages written with trembling hands, half-numbed by tequila—spurred “an anxiety attack so severe it sent me to the emergency room.”
Ellis’ delivery was so subtle that it took a few moments to register the lack of form. This was not a podcast monologue. It was the opening for his first new novel in 13 years, The Shards.
The beginning of courage, which dramatized the novel’s creativity, set the tone for that rare cultural phenomenon: a real literary event. Others before Ellis have attempted to retool serial narratives for the Internet age. Nothing has sounded quite as exciting as Ellis’ year-and-hour-by-hour performance in The Shards.
Now, amended and tightened, The Shards arrive in print, and any lingering uncertainty whose brilliance lies more in recitation than in writing can be dispensed with. The Shards isn’t just Ellis’ strongest novel since the ’90s, it’s a full-spectrum triumph, merging and subverting everything he’s done before and giving us, if we follow the book’s inventive and self-delightful conception, nothing short of an Ellis origin story.
Ellis tells and stars. The setting is the Los Angeles of his youth, in the fall of 1981. Brett and his close-knit, exclusive group of friends are entering their final year at Buckley High. School life has become stifling. Brett feels he is “fulfilling a well-rehearsed role while my escape is discovered”. Before growing up working on a novel that we know will change his life, less than zerohe is already patronizing the glacial detachment for which he will be famous.
Around Ellis’ mature teens, the culture is also changing. The eagles are out, the cool Viennese ultravox has entered. The hippies were no longer a counter-cultural force, but rather a rough, intimidating cult banished to the fringes of the city. Even the violence changes.
The 1970s was shaped by the radical underground. The eighties will be the age of the butcher. On the fringes of Buckley’s bubble, new fears are beginning to encroach: a sharp rise in home invasions, the disappearance of several young women, and a series of sadistic murders at the hands of someone calling himself The Trawler.
The seniors at Buckley High are a wonderful, outrageously privileged crowd. They cruise to school in BMWs, measure each other up from behind Wayfarers, and sustain a perpetual buzz of cocaine and Quaaludes. They are also clearly uncensored. Ellis’ parents are away on vacation for months, leaving him alone in a place he never refers to as home, only “the empty house on Mulholland”.
With the arrival of a new student, the balance and exclusivity of the friendship group is broken. Sweet and charismatic Robert Mallory is instantly divisive. Brett’s friends find him “electrifying”, but Brett has spotted a manipulator under the handsome mask – a malevolent, sociopathic presence. Brett thinks Mallory may be the trawler himself.
Superficially, The Shards sticks to Ellis’ established aesthetic. The dialogue is deadpan, and the atmosphere is paranoid and implicitly hostile. sex is graphic and unfamiliar; Violence is scary and sexual. But in the shadow of coldness and carnage, a new, gentler quality can be discovered. Where Ellis’ last work of fiction is, 2010 Imperial bedroomsOverly drippy and claustrophobic, The Shards is dreamlike and expansive, with longer sentences and a slower tempo.
Homosexuality, always an undercurrent in Ellis’ imagination, comes to the fore. Brett is gay but hasn’t come out yet – a case of loneliness and promiscuous arousal. The careful manner in which he must seek out other “secret agents”, the simultaneous joy and inadequacy of his relationships with the passionate boys make up some of the book’s most poignant passages.
With the Trawler ship closing in, and Brett’s paranoid, paranoid obsession with Mallory’s crescendo, layers of secrecy and desire become the means by which Ellis explores his longtime central theme: the shadow self, the violent inner Other we hold back. Brett’s characters—the “concrete participant” who hides his inner self, the aspiring writer inclined to consult, the painful, lust-ridden teenager searching for connection in a world “not built for me or my needs or desires”—stop being meaningfully cohesive.
As the book and its characters move toward a shattered state of “transcendental understanding,” we are aware of the subtlety and subtlety of its structure beyond the text. The closing violence is its climax and genesis. From the splattering of blood and dismemberment, Ellis’ style of “numbness as ecstasy” was born, “the Prince of Darkness’s literary figure”. Or so Ellis would have us believe. For all its autobiographical misrepresentation, The Shards is still a novel, and Ellis is still the arch-cynic of narcissism that gave us American Psycho and glamorama. We suspect Ellis would scoff at the strained fidelity of the trauma narrative, just as Ellis today routinely demeans a victim-preoccupied society. This is the brilliance of The Shards. In the Hall of Shattered Mirrors, you find Ellis everywhere. But the corpse at our feet is culture, dismembered.