(MENAFN – The conversation)
Midway through Bret Easton Ellis’ first novel in 13 years, The Fragments, 17-year-old narrator, Bret (a fictionalized version of the author) proposes to a producer, Terry Schaffer.
This Bret, who is working on his debut novel The real Bret published in 1985 – less than zero – describes the scenario he developed.
To some extent, this tone, which the narrator invents practically on the spot, mirrors the plot of Less Than Zero (which, despite some biographical overlap, Ellis has always considered a work of fiction).
With a few tweaks, the scenario could also serve as a summary of The Shards. The crucial difference is that this new novel – unlike Ellis’ debut – dissolves the lines between reality and fiction, reality and fantasy.
Review: The Shards – Bret Easton Ellis (Swift Press)
Literary imagination in overdrive
The story is set in the fall of 1981 and revolves around a group of wealthy students enrolled at Buckley College, an upscale elementary school in Los Angeles.
Bret, who is gay but closeted, dates Debbie Schaffer (who has justified doubts about her boyfriend’s friendship with Ryan Vaughn and Matt Kellner), and is friends with two teenage sweethearts, Susan Reynolds and Thom Wright.
The “real” Bret Easton Ellis as a high schooler, pictured in his yearbook from Buckley School, Sherman Oaks California. Author provided
The Bret who is writing this novel then introduces two other characters – a student named Robert Mallory and a serial killer called The Trawler – into the mix.
Not long after, Matt goes missing. The fictional Bret’s writer imagination goes into overdrive. She suspects that Robert is responsible and that it is The Trawler. Things quickly spiral out of control.
As Ellis fans will anticipate, his latest is filled with pop culture references (Buckley’s clique are big New Wave fans), sex and drugs, and acts of grotesque violence rendered in tonally neutral prose. Some cultural commentary, too, on the alleged dangers of political correctness. She thinks: Joan Didion meets Brian de Palma.
When it comes to content, The Shards, with its cast of hedonistic, disaffected teenagers, lines up with three of Ellis’ previous Los Angeles novels: Less Than Zero, 1987’s The Rules of Attraction, and the sequel to his debut, The imperial bedrooms of 2010.
In terms of length, however, The Shards, which is 600 pages long, is closest to Ellis’ New York novels: 1991’s American Psycho (which I believe is the most important novel of the 1990s) and 1998’s Glamorama (easily, for me, the best novel of the 90s).
But what about the shape? To answer that question, we should turn to what once seemed like a relative outlier in Ellis’ fictional work, the 2005 amusement park. This is from the first chapter:
In an autofiction move that foreshadows the central conceit of The Shards, the narrator of Lunar Park – a fictional version of Ellis in middle age – is discussing a memoir he didn’t write. This Ellis says that he “had even given it a title without having written a single usable sentence: Where I Gont II Would Not Go Back.”
Ellis’ interest in the creative treatment of current events emerges in these excerpts, as does his willingness to draw inspiration from his youth.
Bret Easton Ellis’ debut novel Less Than Zero was a 1987 film.
Read more: The case of American Psycho: Why this controversial book (sold here shrink-wrapped) still matters
The ‘pretend enclave’ of the novel
Now consider what Ellis says about the most recognizable of literary forms: the novel. This is from White, the collection of contrarian essays he published in 2019. Pay attention to his descriptions of Lunar Park and Imperial Bedrooms:
Ellis’ dissatisfaction with the novel is palpable. “For the past five years I had no desire to write a novel and had convinced myself that I didn’t want to be bound by a form that no longer interested me.”
But why, given his apparent lack of interest in form, did Ellis bother to write another novel? This is the explanation he gives in the “foreword” to The Shards, which, to reuse Ellis, reads like a broad Los Angeles noir wrapped up like an ostensibly honest memoir:
The Bret speaking here is a fictional and older version of the novel’s narrator. He is reflecting on the traumatic events of The Shards:
(I should note that there is also a preface to the “preface”, where the “real” Bret – the one who writes the novel in our hands, as opposed to the book within the book – thanks the reader for sticking with him during the years .)
It seems that, try as he might, Bret Easton Ellis – fictional or real – simply can’t tear himself away from the novel.
He admits it in White, as he recalls his experiences in the 80s and 90s. to the enthusiasm with which books were once received, both negatively and positively.
Read more: How autofiction turns the personal into the political
Explore analog and digital worlds
To his credit, Ellis, who is quite cranky these days, appreciates that things are different now. As he argues blank:
For better or for worse, according to Ellis’ calculations, there is no turning back. Here are the steps he took:
Ellis knows better now. The Shards, which began as a year-long, hour-by-hour performance hosted on ellis’ podcast, is proof that there are points of correlation between the analog and digital realms, which also defines related – of all things – to the concept of Empire:
This helps us understand The Shards, which is the best and most ambitious novel Ellis has published since Glamorama. Forget what Ellis said about being done with the novel. The ultimate he of him, unfolding, as the narrator puts it, through the “deep arc of empire,” confirms that Ellis remains true to form and to the opportunities he affords him.
The Shards is a bold attempt to understand how analog and digital interact. This explains the novel’s countless obsessive descriptions of antiquated forms of analog technology: the cassette tape, the betamax, and most significantly, the typewriter. It also explains Ellis’s mastery of gender manipulation (the digital age, as we know, is one in which once-stable systems of classification tend to collapse).
With his latest, Ellis is, in essence, attempting to reshape and – to lull from the Trawler – remake the (analog) novel in our contemporary (digital) age. I think it succeeds. Others may disagree. Either way, The Shards is a timely reminder that this is a writer willing to take risks.
Whatever you think of the other Brets around, it’s good to have this version of Bret Easton Ellis back.