By Bret Easton Ellis
Knopf, 608 pages, $30
The writer Bret Easton Ellis, whose new novel The Shards was published Tuesday, has distinguished himself in the past decade by being one of a very few marquee literary novelists to push back against speech policing and liberal orthodoxy. It’s an incredible thing to consider that writers—once truth-tellers and rabble-rousers, beats and system-breakers—have been forced into such conformity that we have just a handful willing to dissent; Ellis claims to be mostly joking.
Much of his new notoriety was made by tweeting, though he has slowed down on that lately, and his tweets were hardly groundbreaking, as he freely admits. Even so, he is a hero in some circles. This is an amusing and confounding position for a writer whose alter ego is a serial killer. The publication of a new novel poses a welcome opportunity to ask what it is about Ellis, almost 40 years after the publication of Less Than Zero, that has made him once again the man of the moment, and what, if anything, Patrick Bateman can do for us.
The Shards continues Ellis’s recent experimentation with auto-fiction, a newish category that takes a formal and self-conscious approach to the age-old combination of fiction and autobiography. In the book’s first pages, “Bret,” writing as himself in the present day, tells us that he is finally able to “handle … revealing what happened to me and a few of my friends at the beginning of our senior year at Buckley, in 1981.”
Buckley is a real school, and Ellis went there, but the major plot events are fictional. They concern a senior-year transfer student who might be a serial killer named The Trawler. The gleaming, numb, permissive world of rich kids in 1980s Los Angeles is recognizable from the earlier Less Than Zero, a novel that protagonist Bret is allegedly writing as the action unfolds. And the serial killer is an echo of Patrick Bateman from Ellis’s best-known and best-selling work, American Psycho. Thus, The Shards promises to revisit these two influential books in a newly personal way.
At his best, Ellis writes very good prose, and his most influential works have taken an approach of maximum complicity, exposing the worlds he writes about by operating by their rules. Less Than Zero romanticizes its bored, drugged, glamorous children, as our society does. American Psycho’s extreme, prolonged, disgusting violence demonstrates that everything really is permitted to us—at least in fiction. Both books are closed systems offering their characters—and their readers—only the options available by society’s logic, brilliantly and terribly so. Ellis has been called a satirist, but his work is more intimate and less moralizing than any satire.
You might say he is making a critique through his aesthetic choices. In Less Than Zero, scenes of violence and degradation scroll by on the TV screens or on the side of the freeways, juxtaposed with the kids’ debauched lives. In American Psycho, Bateman’s emptiness and despair speak for themselves, one slash of the axe at a time. But you can’t ever say it too definitively, because the author is right there with Bateman, releasing great gouts of aestheticized blood and enjoying himself—and you, the reader, are enjoying it, too.
The Shards is something of a departure. Writing in the 2018 nonfiction collection White, Ellis mentions a potential novel idea that occurred to him as early as 2013, that would be about “somebody pretending to be somebody he wasn’t, an actor.” This is the Bret of The Shards, a confused high-school kid who is obsessed with his friends, sleeping with men while trying to satisfy a horny teenage girlfriend, and faking everything.
The book ostensibly seeks the truth behind his act, but is complicated, Ellis-style, by unreliable narration and obvious falsehoods that make the author an actor, too. As everyone familiar with Ellis’s work might guess, there is a possibility from the outset that the serial-killing student is either entirely Bret’s fantasy, or is actually Bret himself. The authorial games could be standard postmodern fare, a clichéd meditation on the fragmentation of the self, but the autofiction points toward something newer and more intimate: questions about Ellis’s own identity, his place in the culture, and how we understand him. This is a narrower topic than some of his books, and doesn’t have quite the usual no-way-out construction, but it does elegantly implicate the reader by the end.
It’s counterintuitive to suggest that we might be getting the truth from a book founded on lies, but there is a case for it. Ellis’s serial-killer plot is obviously false from the beginning—the reader knows he didn’t encounter The Trawler in high school, and The Trawler’s violence is too stylized and fun to be disturbing. What’s just as obviously true is that Ellis likes to fantasize about serial killers, and whether Bret is The Trawler or is just obsessed with him, the book asks why. The character who might be The Trawler, according to Bret, is “John Mallory” (a generic, malleable name, like Clay from Less Than Zero), a handsome, effortlessly popular golden boy who supplants the homecoming king in the affections of the homecoming queen. He is also a person with a dark secret who has a whiff of sexual deviance about him. And he contains a third person, too, sometimes glimpsed behind “whirring eyes,” who is always acting. You might say Mallory is in shards, composed of what Bret wishes to be, what he fears he is, and how he deals with the tension. Ellis the adult is a gay man, and as a gay coming-of-age metaphor, this is effective. And as a larger structural metaphor, it links the serial killer, whose prime creative mode is “display” of his works, with self-expression.
Ellis nests all of this in absurdity—we are talking about a serial killer after all; he isn’t that sympathetic—but the style of The Shards supports the interpretation that the self-analytical work is to be taken somewhat seriously. The book weighs in at 594 pages. Bret describes everyone in his high-school friend group at the depth that a teenager obsessed with his friends might find warranted, and simultaneously with the nostalgia of a 58-year-old man who is rediscovering how beautiful they all were back then. The language often seems like a parody of the self-involved teen or the self-involved adult identity-seeker, but it isn’t quite barbed enough to be clearly identified as such; the door is open to sincerity.
And Bret is likable. He cares too much. Ellis makes copious references to numbness and Joan Didion, but the close observer will notice that Bret is always having feelings. He has trouble controlling his breathing, or his “heart is racing,” or he is “so disappointed” or “surprised” or “bolted with excitement.” We learn all about Thom’s parents’ divorce, Debbie’s secret life as a competitive horsewoman, and why Matt is a loner as if these people and their backstories are of extreme urgency—and they are, to Bret. His descriptions of the young men he has sex with are lavish and full of longing. He is a fully formed, suffering character, and his confrontation with Mallory has meaning.
Ultimately the book asks whether Bret is a monster, and in a very funny and slippery way suggests that he isn’t—or at least, that we all are and aren’t, and that the part of us we think is monstrous is probably where the art comes from. I didn’t exactly enjoy reading 594 pages about teenage parties in 1981, but I understood Ellis better by the time it ended, along with his history of cultural dissent and his appeal to a new generation of readers.
Despite the novel’s period setting, it invokes an issue of pressing relevance today, which is the artist’s public performance of himself in an arena that demands likability. And for once, a Bret Easton Ellis novel takes a position: The performance is a given, but the likability has to go. If Ellis formerly needed Patrick Bateman to give full expression to his ideas, today, by his close association of “Bret Easton Ellis” with serial killers, he is defending his right to be unlikable.
This reading is supported by Ellis’s own assertion that his dissent of recent years has been about free speech and not any particular political position. That feint hasn’t protected him from the arguments against him—such speech enacts white privilege or male privilege; it systemically harms vulnerable groups; You can say it, bro, but we’re all going to hate you; and so on. But he is correct that conformity makes bad art, and that artists ought to be concerned about it—a conclusion that remains good, either whole or in shards.