Jun 08, 2023

The Shards by Bret Easton Ellis review

Ellis's first novel in 13 years brilliantly fictionalises the secrets and desires of his high school years and the birth of his dark literary persona

Each episode of Bret Easton Ellis's long-running podcast begins with a monologue – sometimes a review, sometimes a mildly provocative essay, pillorying the culture's supposed new puritans. His opening in September 2020 felt different. For 20 years, Ellis said, he’d been haunted by a book he longed to write but was terrified to begin: a memoir of sorts, detailing "what happened to me, and a few of my friends, one year at the end of high school". His last false start – a few rough pages written with "trembling hands", half-numbed by tequila – triggered "an anxiety attack so severe that it sent me to the emergency room".

Ellis's delivery was so perfectly pitched that it took a few moments to register the blurring of form. This wasn't a podcast monologue; it was the opening to his first new novel in 13 years, The Shards.

The bravura beginning, dramatising the novel's creation, set the tone for that rarest of cultural phenomena: a genuine literary event. Others before Ellis have attempted to retool the serial narrative for the internet age. Nothing has felt quite as thrilling as Ellis's year-long, hour-by-hour performance of The Shards.

Now, tweaked and tightened, The Shards arrives in print form, and any lingering uncertainty that its brilliance lay more in the recitation than the writing can be dispensed with. The Shards isn't just Ellis's strongest novel since the 90s, it's a full-spectrum triumph, incorporating and subverting everything he's done before and giving us, if we follow the book's ingenious, gleefully self-aware conceit, nothing less than the Ellis origin story.

Ellis both narrates and stars. The setting is the LA of his youth, in the autumn of 1981. "Bret" and his close-knit, exclusive group of friends are entering their final year at Buckley High. School life has become stifling. Bret feels he is "performing a well-rehearsed part while I figured out my escape". Precociously at work on the novel we know will change his life, Less Than Zero, he's already nurturing the icy detachment for which he will become famous.

Around Ellis's maturing teenagers, the culture is changing too. The Eagles are out, the chilly synths of Ultravox's Vienna are in. Hippies are no longer a countercultural force, just a ragged, creepy cult banished to the margins of the city. Even violence is mutating.

The 70s were shaped by the radical underground; the 80s will be the era of the serial killer. At the edges of the Buckley bubble, new fears are encroaching: a spike in home invasions, the disappearance of several young women, and a series of sadistic murders by someone calling himself The Trawler.

Buckley High's seniors are an impossibly cool, obscenely privileged crowd. They cruise to school in BMWs, size each other up from behind their Wayfarers, sustain a perpetual cocaine-and-Quaaludes buzz. They are also conspicuously unsupervised. Ellis's parents are away on a months-long vacation, leaving him alone in a place he never refers to as home, only "the empty house on Mulholland".

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With the arrival of a new student, the balance and exclusivity of the friendship group is disrupted. Suave and charismatic, Robert Mallory is immediately divisive. Bret's friends find him "electrifying", but Bret detects a manipulator beneath the handsome mask – a malevolent, sociopathic presence. Mallory, Bret comes to believe, may even be The Trawler himself.

Superficially, The Shards cleaves to Ellis's well-established aesthetic. The dialogue is deadpan, the atmosphere paranoid and tacitly hostile. Sex is graphic and anhedonic; violence is lurid and sexualised. But beneath the coldness and carnage, a new, gentler quality is detectable. Where Ellis's last work of fiction, 2010's Imperial Bedrooms, was hyper-distilled and suffocatingly grim, The Shards is dreamlike and expansive, with longer sentences and a slower pace.

Homoerotic desire, always an undercurrent in Ellis's fiction, now comes to the fore. Bret is gay but not yet out – a state of being at once lonely and illicitly thrilling. The cautious way he must seek out other "secret agents", the simultaneous joy and inadequacy of his hook-ups with horny, emotionally vacant boys, comprise some of the book's most disarmingly poignant passages.

As The Trawler edges closer, and Bret's part-lustful, part-paranoid obsession with Mallory crescendos, these layers of secrecy and desire become the means by which Ellis explores what has long been his central theme: the shadow self, the violent inner other we suppress. Bret's personas – the "tangible participant" that masks his inner self, the aspiring writer with a tendency to confabulate, and the aching, lust-filled teen looking for connection in a world that "wasn't built for me or my needs or desires" – cease to meaningfully cohere.

As the book and its characters move towards a shattering state of "exalted understanding", we realise the precision and subtlety of its metatextual structure. The concluding violence is both climax and origination. Out of the blood-spatter and dismemberment, Ellis's "numbness as ecstasy" style, his "prince of darkness literary persona", is born. Or so Ellis would have us believe. For all its autobiographical misdirection, The Shards is still a novel, and Ellis is still the arch satirist of narcissism who gave us American Psycho and Glamorama. That Ellis, we suspect, would sneer at the strained sincerity of a trauma narrative, just as the liberal-baiting, anti-woke Ellis of today routinely scorns a society preoccupied with victimhood. Such is the brilliance of The Shards. In its hall of shattered mirrors, Ellis is everywhere. But the corpse at our feet is the culture, dismembered.

Sam Byers's latest novel is Come Join Our Disease (Faber). The Shards by Bret Easton Ellis is published by Swift (£25). To support The Guardian and Observer, order your copy at 20p from every Guardian Bookshop order will support the Guardian and Observer's charity appeal 2022. Delivery charges may apply.

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