My neighbors across the street were putting in a swimming pool. I watched as the hole grew and a dark shape formed in the grass. Is there anything more emblematic of the Southern California lifestyle? David Hockney, in his paintings, celebrated the color, the light, and the sexual yearning embodied by the private pool, and Joan Didion wrote that “a pool is water, made available and useful, and is, as such, infinitely soothing to the western eye.”
Reading The Shards, the dark and disturbing new novel by Bret Easton Ellis, it occurred to me that the hole across the street could just as easily be a mass grave. The tension between the shimmering illusion of luxury, affluence, and privilege—empire, Ellis would call it—and the potential for evil, for real darkness, that underpins our world pulses through the book. There is nothing infinitely soothing in these pages; rather, The Shards is a compulsive exercise in escalating dread and paranoia broken by moments of shocking violence and explicit sex.
It is also very, very good.
The novel opens with an ominous confession: “The last time I thought about this book, this particular dream, and telling this version of the story—the one you’re reading now, the one you just began—was almost twenty years ago, when I thought I could handle revealing what happened to me and a few of my friends at the beginning of our senior year at Buckley, in 1981.”
Ellis, or Bret, is both the narrator and the central character of The Shards. It’s meta- if not exactly autofiction, a recapitulation of the author’s history through an imagined lens. He and his friends are the beautiful people at the private high school from which Ellis really graduated. These friends include Thom and Susan, “casually beautiful, all-American” and “the most popular people not only in our class but in the overall Buckley student body.” Thom is the star athlete, Susan “the prototype of the cool SoCal girl” who wears Wayfarers to class. Bret’s girlfriend, Debbie, is “a kind of slutty teen boy fantasy,” but his fantasies run more toward Thom and their classmate Ryan than they do to her. The friends spend their time doing what privileged children of wealthy Angelenos do: driving fancy cars, taking fancy drugs, planning to go to fancy colleges. They are entering the world of adults, and for Bret, this includes a sexual awakening.
The arrival of a new student, Robert Mallory, changes everything. Robert is handsome and charming and quickly ingratiates himself with Bret’s circle. But Bret suspects something is wrong with Robert, a suspicion confirmed, for Bret, by the discovery that he was once admitted to a psychiatric facility. In addition, Robert’s appearance coincides with the emergence of a gruesome serial killer, a psychopath called the Trawler, with whom Bret becomes obsessed. Are there connections between Robert and the Trawler? What started as a kind of gay version of Clueless slowly morphs into a paranoid and unnerving novel reminiscent of Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon.
The plot is filled with many twists, reversals, and surprising revelations, and I would be doing The Shards a disservice to reveal them here.
Ellis has explored this sort of territory before. His 1991 novel, American Psycho, is arguably the greatest portrait of a serial murderer in literature, and 2005’s Lunar Park reinvented the haunted house story as a demented literary memoir. The Shards builds on these two novels and announces Ellis as a master of literary horror, in the ranks of writers such as Paul Tremblay and Stephen King.
The novel also functions as a prequel to Less Than Zero, which made Ellis a literary superstar when he was 21 years old. In The Shards, Bret is already working on it; in one scene, he is asked to describe the book to a studio executive. “I didn’t know exactly how to describe Less Than Zero,” the character reflects. “And I didn’t want to: it was about me but there was no story, there were scenes but it didn’t have a narrative exactly, there was just this drifting numb quality that I was trying to perfect.” That flat, unaffected language, that numbness, becomes an incantation, a weirdly compelling mantra of Porsches and palm trees, cocaine and Coronas, lust and panic attacks. Ellis doesn’t get enough credit for his prose, but he is a great stylist whose sentences crackle with energy and off-kilter detail like those of Hemingway and Annie Ernaux.
For all its psycho killer elements, there is a great sense of play in this novel, of a famous writer poking at his own celebrity and infamy, while reveling in remembering his adolescence. Ellis brings Los Angeles in the 1980s to life with music references—Gang of Four, Joe Jackson, Ultravox—and landmarks, including the trendy West Hollywood restaurant Trumps, that no longer exist.
In some ways, the book works as recovered-memory therapy, with Ellis interrogating the ways an author processes his own past, wondering whether his “writer’s intuition and sense of drama” have embellished events, fearing he is an unreliable narrator even to himself. At a certain point, he visits the pool house where he and a now-dead classmate used to meet for sex: “And I just stood there in the fading afternoon light, realizing at seventeen that I was already staring into my past—that the past had a meaning that would always define you. I remember this being one of my first moments nearing adulthood, when I realized how powerful memory was—or at least it was the first time it hurt the most.”
Ultimately, The Shards is a fraught and emotional head trip of a book that will scare the shit out of you—but also a novel filled with loss and love and the wreckage caused by growing up too fast. In it, the author Bret Easton Ellis hopes to bring some redemption to his character, the author Bret Easton Ellis. As he acknowledges, he hopes that readers will discover that “the man who wrote American Psycho was actually, some people were surprised to find out, just an amiable mess, maybe even likable…”•