Bret Easton Ellis' The Shards | Between facts and fiction
Published in January 2023, The Shards is Bret Easton Ellis’ sixth novel, and the first in 13 years. As the author says in his ominous confession, it all started more than four decades ago.
-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.’
The Shards crosses genres, being at the same time an autofictional, horror, thriller and coming-of-age tale. It began its life as an audiobook through the author’s podcast on Patreon, released between September 2020 and September 2021. In April 2023, it was announced as an HBO TV series adaption to be directed by Italian filmmaker Luca Guadagnino, best-known for Call Me by Your Name, Suspiria and Bones and All.
The shards of a paradisaical world
Los Angeles, summer of 1981: Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Steven King‘s novel The Shining has just come out, rich teens are wearing Wayfarer sunglasses and driving expensive cars. Bret and his cool friends – Thom, the football star; his numb and beautiful girlfriend Susan; and Debbie, Bret’s girlfriend and daughter of a Hollywood producer – spend their time across parties, cocaine bumps, movie nights, clubs, drinks and sex. As Bret recalls it, “the summer of 1981 had been a dream – I liked calling it paradisaical“.
Yet, this superficially glamorous world is bound to change in autumn, when the mysterious Robert Mallory arrives at Buckley and enters their lives. He is handsome, rich and charismatic; as such, he quickly becomes a part of their tightly knit circle of friends. Yet, Bret is convinced there is something wrong with him and he is hiding something. When he discovers that the newcomer was once admitted to a psychiatric facility, his suspicions grow. Simultaneously – and coincidentally, or maybe not – with Robert’s advent, a serial killer nicknamed the Trawler starts abducting and killing teens in LA. Fuelled by his imagination as a budding writer and isolation, since his parents are both emotionally and physically absent, Bret begins to believe there is a strong connection between Robert and the Trawler.
The blurred line between facts and fiction
The Shards’ main character is called Bret – and the name is not the only thing the author shares with his book’s protagonist and narrator. 17-year-old Bret goes to Buckley School in LA, wants to be a writer and has begun writing Less Than Zero, his debut novel (1985): the similarities between the two are endless and obvious. Readers start thus wondering if the Bret in The Shards is the same Bret who wrote it. And the entire novel constantly plays with and blurs the boundaries between facts and fiction, reality and imagination, making readers think that what is written could have happened. Or maybe not. Being often high on Valium, weed or cocaine, the narrator is unreliable: he is a writer, a liar whose story cannot be trusted. “You hear things that aren’t really there”, Robert accuses him.
As Bret repeatedly admits throughout the novel, he leads a double life. On one hand, he plays the role of what he calls “the tangible participant” and acts as everyone wants him to: in places, he is a happy, privileged and straight young man who cares about his girlfriend and loves hanging out with his popular friends. He simply tries to fit in. On the other hand, he secretly sleeps with two male classmates, he is paranoid and apathetic, he feels lonely and only wants to flee from his college life, where nothing seems to matter. The novel follows his façade gradually falling into pieces, triggered by Robert and Trawler’s murders.
Obsessions and nostalgia
As pointed out in The New York Times, fans of Ellis’s work will see touches of his controversial novels, such as Less Than Zero and American Psycho (1991): “murder, music, cocaine, Valium, obscene wealth, an unraveling narrator, brand names, palm trees, blood, stalkers, dogs, cults, disaffected teenagers, negligent parents”.
As in his first book, Ellis’s latest work centres on a group of uber-privileged and detached LA teenagers. And as in American Psycho, it presents several repetitions and lists of brand names, streets, films, songs, and shopping centres. While some might get bored of all these long descriptions (The Shards is Ellis’s longest novel, being almost 600 pages), “this is in service to an obsessive dedication to immersing us fully in Bret’s world of pain and alienation. Like the characters, the reader is first numbed, later satisfied, finally a little drunk with it all.”(Financial Times)
Dealing with gruesome violence, obsessions and fears, the language is sly, cruel, brutal and gripping, which perfectly portrays the world and the passage from adolescence to adulthood Bret and his friends are experiencing. While the narrator spirals into paranoia and isolation, Thom discovers that Susan is cheating on him with Robert, and Debbie finds out her boyfriend had sex with her father, Terry, who “was also gay – not openly but discreetly”.
Shards are what one finds after something fragile has been smashed. As the title of Ellis’s novel suggests, this is precisely what he gathers and recollects forty years later, with a twisted touch of nostalgia.