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11 January 2023

Bret Easton Ellis’s death wish

The Shards, the author’s first novel in 13 years, is an Eighties-set autofiction thriller that plays on our cultural addiction to violence.

By Anna Leszkiewicz

An old cover of Rolling Stone magazine shows a young, handsome man with dark curls and dark eyes against a blank wall. The image’s severe quality and the man’s menacing stare suggest it might be a mugshot. But this is an archive photo of the Doors’ frontman, Jim Morrison. The coverline reads: “He’s hot, he’s sexy and he’s dead.”

A teenager flicks through this issue in Bret Easton Ellis’s The Shards, barely glancing across the table at photos in the LA Times of the latest young victim of a serial killer. It’s September 1981 – a time, in Ellis’s depiction, when the city was still feeding on the corpse of the previous decade. The Doors’ “Riders on the Storm” sits alongside Ultravox’s “Vienna” and Blondie’s “Dreaming” as the soundtrack to house parties, where unattended teenagers have their choice of Quaaludes or cocaine. Bedraggled members of a “hippy” cult are breaking in to people’s homes across the city and leaving explosives, while a series of spectacularly gruesome murders are being carried out by “the Trawler”, who stalks his victims for months beforehand and sends lurid letters to the press in the aftermath.

[See also: Our fatal addiction to narrative]

Seemingly unconcerned by this violence, five beautiful 17-year-olds – prom queen Susan Reynolds, quarterback Thom Wright, closeted Bret Easton Ellis, his convenient girlfriend Deborah Schaffer, and the mysterious, cinematically good-looking new kid, Robert Mallory – are beginning their senior year at their prestigious prep school. They’re hot, they’re sexy – might they soon be dead?

This LA noir is Ellis’s first novel in 13 years. It begins with a narrator called Bret Easton Ellis – presented as the same person as the real, famous author of American Psycho – reflecting on the unspecified, violent events of the autumn of 1981, poring over his high-school yearbook and the three faces consigned to the “In Memoriam” section. When he first tried to start this book, Bret reveals, he had only made a handful of notes before he began moaning and retching. He collapsed, experiencing “an anxiety attack so severe that it sent me to the emergency room at Cedars-Sinai”. A midlife crisis followed, in which he saw half a dozen therapists until he found one “not afraid of the things I was telling him”. (One suspects Ellis writes these melodramatic, metafictional flourishes with his tongue in his cheek. In his 2019 essay collection, White, he railed against the “epidemic of self-victimisation – defining yourself in essence by way of a bad thing, a trauma”.) This work, then, is the origin story of Ellis’s “aesthetic” of “numbness”, and his “prince-of-darkness literary persona”: “I never moved through life again unaffected by the trauma this caused.”

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In Less than Zero and American Psycho, Ellis captured the nihilism and hedonism of the Eighties through short, discrete sequences of taut, spare prose. In the Nineties and Noughties, his novels grew increasingly self-conscious and the plots more elaborate, dabbling in genre pastiche, or written in a mode we might now see as pseudo-autofictional. The Shards is his first novel to return to the Eighties setting of his first three books with the distance of hindsight; and his second written in the past tense. It was first released, unedited, in 2021 on Ellis’s podcast – these episodes were thankfully free of his thoughts on cancel culture and “Generation Wuss”. The podcast format – responsible for a boom in true-crime storytelling – was an apt choice for a novel interested in the golden age of serial killing. The Shards combines the paranoid mood of Ellis’s early fiction with the structure of a thriller, resulting in a work that is inevitably conventional, but playful with it.

It is also his longest work of fiction – 600 pages, spanning about six weeks in 1981. It’s undoubtedly overlong – baggy and frequently repetitive, even as it remains compulsive. But the length allows Ellis to indulge in a more expansive, reflective style. Bret recalls each day of this period in detail, drip-feeding information until the bloody climax. The narration has copious portentous asides: “because of what happened later I will always remember that moment”; “that night [was] a kind of macabre prologue to what ultimately happened to us in the fall of 1981”; “on that cold day at the beach club the narrative sped up and I began to see more clearly what was about to subsume us”. (Rarely is a period of time unaccompanied by an ominous determiner.) In The Shards, Ellis’s favourite words are “I remember”, “I noticed” and “I realised” – occurring hundreds of times, as does “suddenly”. Where earlier works deployed cinematic jump-cuts between scenes, here Ellis keeps us close to Bret as events unfold, prolonging the suspense – we feel the hand on the doorknob, the surprise as the doorknob turns, the shock at what lies behind the door.

[See also: The secret lives of Katherine Mansfield]

This is the skilled handling of familiar yet effective tools. The young Bret of the novel is a devoted reader of Stephen King, and The Shards pays homage to him. There are notes of true crime, such as Michelle McNamara’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, and the epic scale of Ellis’s twisty story of hyper-privileged students caught up in cultish violence echoes his friend Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. Though it lacks the lacerating wit of American Psycho, many of Ellis’s hallmarks are here – an atmosphere of dread; numb characters; sexual fantasies laced with sadism – and when the violence comes, it is cartoonishly grotesque. By placing Bret at the heart of the bloodshed, making him complicit in it, Ellis winks at past critiques of his work (American Psycho was called a “how-to” guide to violence against women).

In a letter to the reader placed before the title page – presumably partly there to distinguish the author from Bret Easton Ellis the fictionalised character – Ellis writes that The Shards emerged from a sense that writers and serial killers both “create a story, a narrative”. Both reduce people in their orbit into characters onto which they can project their fantasies. Shared impulses between the Trawler and Bret play out: obsession, surveillance, alienation, repressed rage and desire breaking through the surface.

While Bret’s friends seem discomforted by his obsessive interest in the murders, Bret is appalled by their indifference. Now, our culture is grimly fixated on the serial killings of the Seventies and Eighties, recycling their horrors in endless podcasts, films, shows and books (Jeffrey Dahmer’s Wikipedia page was the site’s most-visited in 2022). The original format and framing of The Shards – a podcast serial disguised as a true story – suggests Ellis is all too aware of the grip these murders have on our collective psyche. But questions of whether this addiction gratifies sublimated sexual desires or conceals a deeper, chilling apathy towards victims are left unexplored, and he never fully grapples with the consequences of a culture in thrall to the hot, the sexy and the dead.

Instead, Ellis establishes a mood of sustained dread, lust and guilt, through a plot that performs the seductions and dangers of narrative – and the lure of violence in story. After witnessing a minor physical assault, Bret sits alone, “calmly elated”. “This was something I could write about,” Ellis writes, “an incident I could place into the narrative of the novel I was working on, and I began to think of ways to embellish it – paint it darker, give it an eerier vibe, push evil.” Bret knows what the reader really wants: “a deeper wound inflicted upon the girl, more blood”.

The Shards
By Bret Easton Ellis
Swift Press, 608pp, £25

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[See also: The Passenger: The phantom world of Cormac McCarthy]

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This article appears in the 11 Jan 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Burning down the House of Windsor