“Many years ago I realized that a book, a novel, is a dream that asks itself to be written in the same way we fall in love with someone.” That’s the opening of “The Shards,” Bret Easton Ellis’s first novel in over a decade. And just as in dreams, one is never sure what is real and what’s imagined.
A generation ago, Ellis was the most controversial of the era’s “literary brat pack,” a wunderkind who published his first novel in 1985 at age 21 and whose gory “American Psycho” ended up being canceled by its original publisher. When the book did come out, it was greeted with moral offense. “The Shards” is also filled with gore and a lot of teenage sex as well — and is being universally hailed by both left- and right-wing outlets. It’s as if Ellis’s fiction has acquired immunity from criticism. Has society become benumbed, or do novels just not register on our collective consciousness in a time of smartphones, Netflix, and a billion other demands on our attention?
Either way, the near-universal acclaim presents a puzzle to a reader who loves L.A. noir but is continually left cold by Ellis’s fiction. “The Shards” returns to the hedonistic early ’80s Los Angeles milieu of his debut “Less Than Zero,” drugs, bisexuality, and anomie intact — plus a serial-killer mystery and many, many more pages.
Our protagonist “Bret” recognizes a girl on the street he hasn’t seen in 40 years, and from there, the story tumbles out, nearly 600 pages of it, encapsulating a fraught few weeks in 1981, the beginning of Bret’s senior year at the Buckley School, a time in which “The Trawler” is stalking Los Angeles and circling closer to Bret and his circle.
There’s a new kid in town, Robert Mallory, whom Bret swears he’s seen around town before one afternoon in a nearly empty movie theater in Los Angeles. Bret quickly comes to suspect something is very wrong with Robert. The link, if any, between the new student and the graphic, horrifyingly stylized murders drives the plot, such as it is.
“The Shards” is told in fictional autobiographical mode, narrated by an Ellis alter-ego, “Bret.” (Ellis has long played with the idea of “two Brets.”) Bret is also a writer, working on the book that would become “Less Than Zero,” written by Ellis while attending high school at the exclusive Buckley School in Los Angeles. Bret also attends Buckley and is writing a movie script for his girlfriend’s producer father, who seems to be mostly interested in Bret’s body.
Everyone has a beautiful body here: The only fat on display is in the text itself, padded with evasive exchanges of free-floating paranoia: I didn’t say that. I didn’t mean that. What do you mean by that? Ad nauseam.
Ellis’s trademark druggy, anesthetic aesthetic remains unchanged. Ellis is a fan of the famed California writer Joan Didion, and many see her influence in his cool, languid style. An admiring reviewer from The New York Times reviewer referred to “The Shards” as “lush,” but it’s more the opposite, with run-on sentences that are Faulknerian — or do I mean annoying? — in their determined stream-of-consciousness.
While Bret projects himself as calm thanks to his lovingly documented intake of drugs, his friends are constantly asking if he’s “okay.” So is Bret an unreliable narrator? One possible clue is “The Shards’” epigraph, a quote from “1984”: “If you want to keep a secret you must also hide it from yourself.”
Bret refers to himself as “the tangible participant,” a part he watches himself perform day to day. Bret attends class or doesn’t, has minutely described sexual experiences with various male classmates, returns to “the empty house on Mulholland,” and goes to parties where many, many clove cigarettes are smoked.
It’s a dreamy half-life measured out in cocaine and Quaaludes with the phantasmagoria of The Trawler as a sinister backdrop. He listens to cassettes in his car, a Mercedes 450SL, which is not even the snazziest car in the school parking lot, though he borrows his mother’s Jaguar when stalking Robert.
Bret is obsessed with protecting his friends against “the psychopath” that had entered their lives senior year, though no one else is all that worried about Robert, or when pets go missing, or even when one of their own circle disappears. Ellis keeps the cast manageable: Debbie is Bret’s deluded girlfriend, Susan is the beautiful cool homecoming queen, Matt is the stoner, Thom is team quarterback, Ryan is the most handsome. Adults are thin on the ground — a school principal here, a sinister assistant there, a few drunken mothers and aunts scattered across patios. Kids live in pool houses separate from the main house.
Someone put together a “mixtape” on Spotify of the 144 songs mentioned in “The Shards.” The relatively well-known New Wave choices suggest Ellis is using recognizable signifiers to do the heavy lifting of setting mood and place. From music to cars to sunglasses, the references here are determinedly generic, willfully shallow, and purposefully distancing.
In the midst of the Grand Guignol horrors, scenes about constructing the homecoming float are perversely interesting and grounded in a more convincing reality. There’s a colorful description of serial killer “burnout,” an image of that peculiar cohort “crisscrossing each other on the freeways and through the canyons and boulevards” in “a time before video surveillance and cellphones and DNA profiling, where serial killers were allowed to be cavalier and bountiful.” But soon, we’re back inside Bret’s bubble, his closed, frantic life playing on a loop.
More such asides would have made the book more engaging because Ellis is an iconoclastic thinker. No one’s idea of a conservative, Ellis’s 2019 politically incorrect non-fiction essay collection “White” claimed the left had become “a rage machine” and details his run-ins with the censorious GLAAD, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (Ellis calls them the “Gay Police”) whose demand for political conformity was betrayed by their histrionic response to some of Ellis’s dark-humored tweets.
Yet “The Shards” remains defiantly idea-free, and even its nods toward the serial killer and murder mystery genres prove half-hearted as the story comes full circle, ending with yet another pop-cultural reference in the form of Blondie’s classic song “Dreaming.” That dream-like detachment underlines the unreality of “The Shard’s” previous 592 pages, a nightmare space in which awful things happen and nothing matters.