The Shards, by Bret Easton Ellis (Knopf, 608 pp., $30)
The conceit of Bret Easton Ellis’s new novel The Shards is that Ellis himself, as the narrator of the book, sees a former classmate on a street corner and is caught in a traumatic recollection of long-suppressed memories of a series of scary, violent incidents from his senior year of high school, in 1981.
Los Angeles at that time, in Ellis’s recounting, is being terrorized by a serial killer known as “The Trawler.” The Trawler targeted teenagers with an elaborate and escalating game of stalking and harassment. He would enter their homes at will and rearrange furniture, leave rock posters in their mailboxes, call and hang up repeatedly, steal their pets, and finally kidnap the victim, who would be kept alive somewhere and tortured horribly. Then the Trawler would kill the victim, mutilate the corpse, decorate it with remnants of the victim’s pet, and finally stage it publicly, in a lavish Grand Guignol display.
As a rich, spoiled, and neglected Los Angeles teenager attending the tony Buckley School, popping quaaludes and smoking endless bowls of pot, having sex with his classmates, and taking long solitary drives in any of a garage full of luxury cars, the narrator and main character “Bret” becomes fascinated by The Trawler as the victims slowly pile up. Bret becomes convinced that a new boy at school named Robert Mallory, with whom he is equally fascinated and repulsed, has something to do with The Trawler’s depredations.
The Shards was originally published in 2020 as a serialized audiobook that Ellis read over the course of a year on his Patreon site. This unusual format partly explains the narrative’s episodic, sometimes repetitive nature, and it also explains the jangled and oddly decoupaged flow of events. Time and situations float by in a barbituated haze, with the jagged edges of unpleasantries such as violent assault, cultic animal sacrifice in a country club bathroom, and jaded sexual encounters between teenage boys smoothed out and buffed to match the grain and tenor of shopping mall balustrades, plates of pasta salad, and homecoming parade floats.
Much of the book feels like a self-conscious return to the setting of Less Than Zero, Ellis’s first novel, which Bret is composing in The Shards. As in Less Than Zero, Bret and his cohort inhabit a world where parents are either totally absent (in his case), drunken sexual predators (in his girlfriend’s), or utterly detached (in the case of his murdered boyfriend). The book is consumed by a culture of post-disco pop music just at the dawn of MTV, which debuted in August 1981, right when the main narrative begins. As in Less Than Zero, the narrator and his friends live in a whirl of music, freeways, porn, drugs, and boredom punctuated by horror.
The murder-mystery element of The Shards raises the novel from nostalgia-trip pastiche to hallucinatory, surreal art. The bulk of the novel concerns the romantic interplay among a group of teenagers, and Bret’s own confused sexual identity as the boyfriend of one of the Buckley School’s most desirable girls who nevertheless is a closeted homosexual. Ellis goes into bizarre detail about the troubled relationship between Thom and Susan, the most popular couple in school, and Susan’s reluctance to serve as homecoming queen, which Bret regards as scandalous:
And then I suddenly got angry. “It’s only one more year, Susan, right?” I actually spat this out at her. “Where did that attitude disappear to? You told me it’s only one more year. Why don’t you stop being such a bitch to Thom and suck it up like everyone else does and just do Homecoming. I mean, Jesus, how hard can it be, sitting in a fucking float?”
But all this banal high school drama takes place shortly after the hideous murder of Matt Kellner, the kids’ classmate, and Bret’s secret lover. Matt Kellner disappeared and was found floating dead in his parents’ pool, heavily bruised, with sections of meat removed from his limbs, and his cat’s head sitting at the edge of the pool, “its eyes gouged out, its ears sliced off, and its tongue pulled so far from its mouth that it draped obscenely across the tile surrounding the pool.”
Bret’s fixation on handsome, disturbed Robert Mallory as potentially The Trawler drives the narrative—and as the book spirals toward its bizarre conclusion, it comes more and more to resemble Ellis’s most notorious work, American Psycho, whose main character Patrick Bateman is one of the twentieth century’s best-known unreliable narrators. As in American Psycho, violence and gore punctuate a setting dominated by Homeric catalogues of expensive consumer goods—brands of shirts, the best hotels, cars—so that the horrible and the normal are imbricated and inextricable.
Bret Easton Ellis exploded onto the literary scene in 1985, when he was still a senior in college. Less Than Zero marks one of the last times that the publication of a novel was newsworthy, and Ellis’s sudden celebrity elevated him into the time-honored role of young literary lion in American popular culture—only he was performing in one of its last iterations. Like Hemingway or Mailer earlier in the century of American cultural dominance, Ellis offered a new definition of masculine ego, but his was epicene, bisexual, and ironic, evidently transfixed, as America now was, by the effluvia of consumerism. His later experiments in literary trickery, including the relentlessly bizarre and brilliant Lunar Park, were less flamboyant and defining than his first book, but they established him as a superb ironist and meta-fictive memoirist in the model of Philip Roth. Decades after the publication of Less Than Zero, in an America now even more besotted with cheap luxury, with extreme plastic surgery that has become not just cosmetic but legally dispositive, and with the triumph of a transhumanist future, it is hard to deny that Ellis’s oeuvre has been predictive, if not formative.
The Shards discomfits the reader with its figure-ground play—opening and closing the ironic distance between the narrator and the author—and its shuttling between what we are told is happening and its unlikeliness even within the parameters of an extraordinarily strange story. The book strings us along with the promise of resolution but delivers us emptyhanded into a kind of aporia reminiscent of the high modernism of Nabokov, or perhaps Hitchcock. The Shards is an effective reminder that even in the age of hyper-powerful AI bots, literary fiction offers us a unique glimpse of the ghost that, still, runs the machine.
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