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On Bret Easton Ellis' The Shards
There is the fear held close and the fear, forever accumulating, at the outer reach. It’s the latter that destabilizes, gaining terrible strength with the passage of years, larger than you’ll ever be. It’s fear as psychic terrain, fear as myth. Too inarguable to conquer, as hardened as a city-state, there to greet you in every waking moment. At last, all you can do is submit. And what of that moment before it comes—before you collapse into what you’ve always known? Before it takes you? The wickedest staging ground for all of this, perhaps, is the most idyllic—the white-hot beaches, the fissure-free roadways, the shopping malls with their perpetual noontime gleam. To be supremely wealthy and afraid among this—to wait for death in a chaise lounge, a Corona clenched in hand, sunglasses tilted down—is to be exposed to a particular kind of American perversity. Privilege is supposed to promise salvation, or at least forestall, long enough, the inevitable. Blood does not belong on pastel shirts or backyard Tiki torches.
It’s the autumn of 1981, and Bret Easton Ellis is uneasy. Bret is the protagonist of The Shards, the author Bret Easton Ellis’ first novel in 13 years, a novel he first began narrating on his podcast. Ellis, though, is not here merely for mirror-games or another autofictive gambit. The Shards is larger than that, breezy yet hulking, a fictive memoir of a world Ellis knows inside and out. It is hard to write about The Shards and the success of this effort—Ellis’ best work, perhaps, outside of the era-defining American Psycho, and a leap forward from Lunar Park, another novel that featured a narrator named Bret Easton Ellis—without first regarding Southern California, the fallen utopia from which real and imagined Ellis sprung. The rich in New York still coil into elevators, share superstructures with strangers, and flee 100 miles east for a weekend poolside. The rich of Los Angeles are not so deprived. Mansions hum with butlers, backyards sprawl, and hushed driveways accommodate as many Porsches and BMWs as needed. They are a genuine leisure class, the work performed out of view, a cabana at the Beverly Hills Hotel always waiting for a sexual escape. Bret, the narrator, looks back from middle age upon his senior year at the Buckley School, the same private school the author attended. He is a novelist, of course, and he underwent the same midlife crisis in his 40s the author spoke about in past interviews. He, too, published a novel, when he was 21, called Less Than Zero about a winter break from college spent at home in Los Angeles. Narrator Bret has decided to write this book, the real story Less Than Zero couldn’t quite tell. He must write about the Trawler.
There are many signatures of the Ellis style in The Shards, the sort that have won him many thousands of fans and repelled some of the cognoscenti, who have never bestowed a literary prize on one of the most significant novelists of the Gen X generation. Just as in American Psycho, there are copious descriptions of clothing and music, of the markers of class. They accumulate and numb, but manage to inform as well as any writerly trick—what are we really, under late capitalism, but an agglomeration of brands? There is the lurid and absurd violence, the blood spatter of the horror films that transfixed Ellis so much in adolescence. As in Less Than Zero, the Californians can seem dazed and detached, their days and nights drowned in coke, booze, and Quaaludes. And there is California itself, which Ellis fled in his teens and eventually returned to for good, after living out the peak of his literary fame in Manhattan. If Joan Didion first understood, or at least popularized, the idea of California as a land of bountiful extremes, where the Summer of Love and the Reagan Revolution could each flourish, Ellis is something of an inheritor, lingering on the Golden State’s other legacy, the serial killer. Zodiac, the original Night Stalker, the Golden State killer—if you were of a certain age, from San Francisco to Los Angeles, you feared the amoral psychopath in the night. No bedroom window could be locked tight enough. Unlike the terrorist, who dealt in death as political spectacle, the serial killer simply longed to kill and went out to satiate a need. In California, he thrived.
“The home invasions that we knew of and read about in the spring and into the summer and early fall of 1980 seemed totally random: since no specific type was attacked—gender and age seemed irrelevant, it was girls and it was boys—there was really nowhere to hide, no way to protect yourself against this person who was committing the home invasions, everyone was vulnerable,” Bret says of the Trawler, who becomes known for breaking into homes and kidnapping pet before horrifically mutilating the animals and their owners. Dogs, cats, horses, and human beings all come in for slaughter. The thrust of the novel will be Bret’s strong suspicion, and later conviction, that the Trawler is in fact a new student who shows up at Buckley named Robert Mallory. Robert is enigmatic, incredibly handsome, and quickly infiltrates Bret’s closely cultivated friend circle which has allowed him, despite his inner turmoil, to exist at the top of Buckley’s social hierarchy. Bret is equally repelled and attracted to Robert, and it’s here, perhaps, where The Shards departs most from Ellis’ previous works, which have been self-explorations layered in the plausible deniability that the novel form offers. Patrick Bateman, Ellis would say many years later, embodied some of the alienation he felt in 1980s New York, when he was squired from bacchanal to bacchanal but forever felt alone. Ellis, who is openly gay, never hid from sexuality in his novels, but it’s in The Shards where a man who is otherwise deeply skeptical of identity politics comes to explore, in gutting detail, the despair of the closeted teen in the late twentieth century.
To belong, Bret simply cannot be gay. He can have sex with men, but that’s another matter entirely. In his senior year, he’s dating one of the most sexually appealing girls in his class, Debbie Schaffer, a “slutty teen boy fantasy” whose breasts were “full and high and she took every opportunity to show off her cleavage.” Debbie constantly begs 17-year-old Bret for sex and he obliges, committed to playing the part of doting, available boyfriend. Debbie is another inordinately wealthy, vapid Buckley teen, the daughter of a successful movie producer, Terry, who is known to cheat on his wife with other men. But Bret tolerates Debbie, in part, to remain linked with his two best friends, the power couple of Buckley: Thom Wright and Susan Reynolds. Susan is beautiful and rich too, but also more refined, and it’s the eventual unraveling of Bret’s friendship with Susan that lends the novel a certain pathos that is not typically associated with an Ellis work. (There’s plenty of room for metafictive play with Susan, whose numbed demeanor Bret claims was an inspiration for all his subsequent fiction.) Thom, meanwhile, is a football star, a young Adonis, something of the unreachable male ideal and an object of Bret’s desire. The emergence of Robert Mallory disrupts the comity of senior year. Not only does Bret begin to suspect Robert, who lives with his aunt in Century City and once spent time in a mental institution, is the Trawler, but he also must look on as Robert slowly seduces Susan, breaking her away from Thom and everyone else.
“For a very brief moment I was on the verge of admitting something to her—a truth, my real feelings. But then I realized with an acid awareness that I didn’t want to complicate the year because everything had been set up, the narrative was in play, we were already enacting our roles; there was nowhere else to go—and I wanted to keep hiding the real Bret,” Bret says as he verges, early on, into a kind of confessional with Debbie. He’s been sleeping with a boy at school, Ryan, and eventually he’ll enter into another affair with a stoner named Matt Kellner, taking day trips to have sex in Matt’s pool house. Bret refers repeatedly to himself as the “tangible participant,” the well-constructed drone that can hide, well enough, who he is until he graduates. He’s determined to be successful. “I wasn’t the gay best friend you could confide everything to for Susan and Debbie, and yet in reality I actually was, but they didn’t know this,” Bret reflects. “And I might have been exactly that if I’d played things differently or if we were in another world. Here, in this situation, in the confines of Buckley, I was, in so many ways, an impostor.” When Matt later becomes a victim of the Trawler, his body brutally gored, Bret is even more determined to prove it’s Robert doing the killing in plain sight. Like American Psycho, which raises the question of whether any of the violence is real or a product of Patrick Bateman’s fevered imagination, we are bound to an increasingly paranoid Bret, who is either fitting all the pieces together or letting a sinister delusion take hold.
All of this happens without the backdrop of parents or cellphones. Ellis conjures a world that, temporally at least, is not so distant from our own but may as well be an alien continent for today’s children, young adults, and their frenzied parents. Bret’s parents are traveling abroad, leaving him alone in his enormous house on Mulholland Drive. Bret, and his Buckley friends, mostly do whatever it is they want to do. Parents have their own lives to lead, their own parties to throw. Politics, too, is simply irrelevant—it’s not fashionable to care. “I didn’t care that Ronald Reagan had been elected president that November—this meant absolutely nothing to me at seventeen and politics have stayed that way for the rest of my life,” Bret notes. The assassination attempt on Reagan doesn’t “register” either. “It was empty excitement. I knew the details but didn’t attach anything to them: feelings or meaning.” There isn’t a great amount of striving among these rich, and there’s something, from a 2020s perspective, that is strangely appealing about a time when even private schools weren’t fought over; Bret remarks, at one point, anyone could get into Buckley if they coughed up the cash, and college destinations were barely discussed. The idea of a television celebrity trying to bribe her children into USC (“the University of Spoiled Children”) was laughable. Did it really matter where they went at all, when most colleges weren’t so exclusive or even that expensive? Politics and education weren’t the status markers they’d evolve into decades hence. Self-righteousness was not quite a social currency. Like now, the wealthy disappeared into themselves, but they were more nakedly consumptive, more willing to revel in their good fortune.
Ellis, or at least Bret, is open about his desire in fiction to make numbness an aesthetic, and there’s enough of that in The Shards. But the facade, this time, cannot hold—at least not for 17-year-old Bret, who is petrified and eventually revolted by how his equally privileged peers are able to separate themselves from the murder of a classmate. Matt Kellner’s death simply doesn’t resonate. A cult of unhinged hippies, connected or not to the Trawler, is menacing Los Angeles, and few beyond Bret seem to notice. California dread, simply, has come for him, or his friends are better at masking their terror. The propulsive force of the novel, on one hand, derives from a simple question: is Robert Mallory a serial killer? Hauntingly, and then savagely, that gets resolved. But The Shards would work just as well if blood was never spilled. The potential for carnage is enough and that, of course, is where true horror lies—in the anticipation of what should or must come. There are, too, the more prosaic predators of the adult world. Bret hopes to have Debbie’s father, the movie producer Terry, read his screenplay. Terry feigns interest, inviting Bret to lunch. Soon, he is beckoning Bret to a hotel cabana, the 39-year-old married father making it clear Bret must have sex with him before he seriously considers the screenplay. Bret complies. “You did this to yourself, I thought. You ended up here. No one forced you. No one held a gun to your head. You wanted to come.”
Ellis, according to fellow Bennington alum David Lipsky, once declared as an undergraduate that “everything’s been tried already” in fiction. “The domestic comedy that you like has been tried. The stream-of-consciousness novel has been tried. The Pynchon phantasmagoria has been tried. There’s one thing that hasn’t been done yet and that’s sensationalism, and that’s what I’m going to do.” Indeed, the bulk of Ellis’ early career and the notoriety he achieved came through the harnessing of not just of numbness but sensationalism, taking gruesomeness to its natural limit on the page and running headlong into coke-filled clubs and dorm rooms. The Shards can no longer shock or scandalize; novels lack that centrality to the culture and the internet can proffer any approximation of decadence you choose. The novel’s utility, then, is in what the 58-year-old Ellis can in fact achieve through a meditation that has been decades in the making. It is in the grandness and horror of human experience, the memories that can be stretched, enhanced, and contorted into a narrative. It is in the blending of fact and lie to make something greater, closer to what reality, in its darkest contours, might be. “Despite my familiarity with the events, the book frightened me, as love does, as dreams do,” Bret reflects at middle-age, on the book about 1981 and the Trawler and forbidden love that he had ostensibly written. If there can be this love, there must also be fear. A heartbeat comes fast either way.
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