‘American Psycho’ author Bret Easton Ellis’ offers new novel ‘The Shards’: NPR

The cover of Fragments.
The cover of Fragments.

It’s been twelve years since Bret Easton Ellis published a novel. And his last of him, The Fragmentsis a narrative that occurred to him in 1981 – more than four decades ago – when he was a 17-year-old high school student.

Fortunately, the novel is worth the wait. Hermetic, paranoid, lucid, dark – and with brief bursts of sex and violence that have characterized Ellis’ work – The Fragments is a stark reminder that the American Psycho Aauthor is a genre unto itself.

Bret is a 17-year-old senior at Buckley, a prestigious school in Los Angeles. He hangs out with the cool crowd, has an attractive girlfriend, lives mostly alone and in his own world at his wealthy parents’ house and drives a Mercedes 450SL. Bret’s life is one of partying, working on his first novel, having secret sex with men, and dreaming of leaving Los Angeles behind and floating aimlessly through the lives of the rich and popular in the best neighborhoods of Los Angeles.

However, things change when a new student with a mysterious past comes to Buckley. Robert Mallory, who Bret is sure he’s seen before, is handsome and comfortable and extremely charming, but he’s also a bit strange and enigmatic. When Bret learns that Robert has spent six months “in a mental institution,” he becomes convinced that the newcomer is keeping a terrible secret from Bret and his friends. As Bret’s senior year draws to its inevitable end, he becomes obsessed with the Trawler, a serial killer who is abducting and brutally murdering young women in Los Angeles and who seems to grow ever closer to Bret and his friends. Bret struggles to cope with mysterious death – or murder? -of one of his lovers while also becoming entangled with his girlfriend’s father and obsessed with Robert, whose narrative seems to be on a collision course with that of the Trawler.

The Fragments, which runs to just over 600 pages, is about many things. More than a narrative, Ellis weaves in and out of multiple stories: Bret’s relationships and secret homosexuality, his writing and possible work on a screenplay for his girlfriend’s father, the vicious crimes of the Trawler, the Robert Mallory’s effect on Bret’s group of friends, drug use, and more. Despite the multiplicity of interwoven narratives, Ellis masterfully keeps Bret at the center of it all, and the narrator’s voice, not to mention his growing paranoia, is more than enough to keep readers turning pages.

This is a novel that simultaneously occupies a few different spaces. Parts of it read like a crime novel and others like a very dark, sexualized, drug-infused coming-of-age story. But there’s also a lot of humor, a deep, harsh look at privilege and a very personal exploration of the things that haunt us, how distrust affects us, and how sex and growing up and jealousy and fear and Obsessions can shape someone’s life in their prime adolescence. Likewise, the story delves into what Bret sees as the performance of everyday life; the way everything is a narrative, a “pantomime”, a “screenplay”. Finally, and perhaps more evident than anything else, The Fragments is a very personal work of metafiction in which Bret Easton Ellis shares not only a name with its narrator, but also a novel (Less than zero), a plethora of identity marks and obsessions, and a school (the author photo used for this novel is from Ellis’ 1982 Buckley School yearbook).

And the metafiction doesn’t end with the obvious similarities between Ellis and his character. The novel is also very self-aware, and the writing shows it. Perhaps the only element that isn’t consistently enjoyable here is the endless detail: there are constant descriptions of places, the cars everyone drives, what they’re wearing, full recollections of long conversations leading nowhere, the roads Bret travels aimlessly, a mall, etc. Bret talks about writing his novel, explaining that it’s “about me” but that it didn’t have a story, it “didn’t have a narrative exactly, there was just this drifting numb quality” that he was trying to perfect. And perfect he did it. Elsewhere, Bret analyzes a song and finds it “too long,” but also “an abstraction, a poem that could mean anything to anyone.” And that, in the end, is what The Fragments is; this is Ellis’s novel, but it’s also a mirror that invites the reader to look at what makes them tick, a jar full of meanings that readers will extract depending on who they are.

On surface, The Fragments is a relatively simple story about an obsessive young man who learns to navigate the interstitial space between adolescence and adulthood. However, it is also so much more; this is a novel about obsession, the masks everyone wears as they go through life, and how isolation exacerbates paranoia – and one that could only come from Bret Easton Ellis.

Gabino Iglesias is an author, book reviewer and professor who lives in Austin, Texas. Find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.

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