Sex, Drugs, Murder, and the Return of Bret Easton Ellis

REVIEW: ‘The Shards’ by Bret Easton Ellis

March 5, 2023

"Someone once asked me why I haven’t written a memoir, a proper memoir," Bret Easton Ellis recently told UnHerd. "But I have written my memoir, over nine volumes of them—my novels. All have a narrator of the same sort of age as I was, and they are all a reflection of whatever pain, confusion, distress I was going through at the time."

Ellis’s early novels, most notably Less Than Zero (1985) and American Psycho (1991), reveal a young man unsure of himself and his future, struggling to find his place in a world he sees as vapid and amoral. In The Shards—his first novel in more than a decade—that young man has reached his midlife crisis. This fictionalized autobiography finds Ellis preoccupied with lost adolescence. It’s a twisting, hallucinatory voyage through 1980s Los Angeles that reads like an unhinged fusion of Donnie Darko and The Secret History, tinged with enough nostalgia to appease the Stranger Things generation.

The Shards follows a 17-year-old Ellis through his senior year at the elite Buckley School, where he’s shirking his studies to write what will become Less Than Zero. At first, his life seems simple, like something taken from a decadent John Hughes script. He spends his time frequenting restaurants, movie theaters, and coke-fueled house parties with his wealthy classmates, all the while grappling with his hidden homosexuality. But when Robert Mallory, a mysterious and alluring new student, suddenly arrives at Buckley, Ellis’s seemingly tranquil life begins to unravel. A serial killer, dubbed "The Trawler" by the press, is closing in on his neighborhood, and a cult redolent of the Manson Family is lurking on the fringes of the city. As Ellis’s suspicions of Mallory grow, his relationships begin to descend into madness.

Ellis is hardly breaking new ground here. He’s dabbled in autofiction before in Lunar Park (2005), where he cast himself as the protagonist of a ghost story that clumsily paid homage to Stephen King. Here, his diversions into horror feel more organic, and his detached, coolly voyeuristic writing style creates a compelling aura of suspense when terror strikes his characters. Take the following as an example:

The screams weren’t celebratory or joyous but shocked and anguished and loud enough to burst through the walls of Debbie’s room and over the music we were listening to. Billie started barking furiously and dashed to the door and pawed at it, whimpering, desperately looking over at Debbie, who was kneeling by her record collection and then stood up, frozen, confused, looking at the door behind which the screams were coming from …

Though The Shards reaches almost 600 pages, Ellis builds a sinister mood that holds firm until its cinematic climax. But the novel provides little justification for its length. Ellis’s style is needlessly detailed, and pages are dedicated to numbingly fastidious descriptions of locations, rote actions, and minor events. In American Psycho, this technique served an effective satirical purpose; by obsessively describing outfits, menus, and home stereo systems, Ellis lampooned a culture that sought fulfillment in materialism. The Shards has no such grand commentary to offer in its more granular passages, and, consequently, they simply feel mundane. At many points in the novel, Ellis drives across Los Angeles. Invariably, he describes his entire route, cataloging every turn: "I took Avenue of the Stars and would make a left onto Santa Monica and then drive South Beverly Glen until it hit Bel Air Road where I’d swing right onto Bellagio." Initially, these sections are evocative, but they quickly become tedious, much like his fixation on the male physique or his endless references to pop music.

But despite its excesses, The Shards remains an engrossing novel rooted in the same deeply human themes that have distinguished Ellis’s most successful works. As in Less Than Zero, its characters are frightened, not simply by the murderer who may be among them, but by the prospect of revealing their anxieties to others and entering adulthood alone. Their interactions are defined by an air of "numbness and disaffection, a general rejection of seventies kitsch," and in their superficial milieu, "everything [is] clean with sharp angles."

All of Ellis’s hallmarks animate the novel’s relationships: intense scenes of loveless sex that walk the line between realism and pornography, equally lurid blasts of violence, and deliberately banal dialogue. Beneath his usual extremity, however, is a newfound maturity—a more sophisticated understanding of the causes of youthful alienation and the importance of cultivating meaningful connections. In our turbulent social moment, where isolation has become an epidemic and communities have eroded, there’s a contemporary relevance to Ellis’s emotionally troubled past. By channeling his own experiences into his fearful, insecure characters, he provides insights befitting of the challenges facing Americans today.

Though bloated, The Shards is also eminently entertaining to read. There’s an agreeably dark sense of humor to Ellis’s voice that surfaces throughout, but it never diminishes the suspense or cheapens the mystery. He subverts high school clichés—the pompous jock, the blissfully unaware stoner, the impossibly beautiful couple destined to be crowned king and queen at senior prom—with a playful wink, contorting them into deranged, drugged-out shapes. Ellis clearly enjoyed writing such a personal book, and that enthusiasm is infectious. As twisted as the story can become, it’s difficult to not be captivated by its total self-assurance. The Shards may be brutal, but it's also tremendous fun.

The Shards: A Novel
by Bret Easton Ellis
Knopf, 608 pp., $30

Guy Denton is a research assistant at the American Enterprise Institute.

Published under: Book reviews