By Bret Easton Ellis
Knopf: 608 pages, $30
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“The Shards,” the seventh novel by Bret Easton Ellis, is a paranoid slasher-thriller epic. It’s additionally an experiment in autofiction, set in the course of the senior yr of 1 “Bret Ellis” at a non-public L.A. prep faculty. And it comes with an additional frisson of literary intrigue. It’s been 13 years since his final novel, throughout which era he’s grown skeptical of each the shape and its waning readership. He made an internet collection and has written a few horrible horror motion pictures. His cranky however freewheeling podcast appeared regularly to change into his foremost focus. Can Ellis now rediscover a number of the previous magic of “Less Than Zero” and “American Psycho”?
Fall 1981. Our hero and his mates on the Buckley School cruise the San Fernando Valley, watch motion pictures, take medicine, hook up. Bret is in a listless relationship with Debbie Schaffer, the daughter of a Hollywood producer, and sleeping with two of his male classmates. He’s began to jot down what is going to change into his first novel, “Less Than Zero.” (There’s sufficient in “The Shards” that in all probability did occur to solid a sort of uncanny doubt over what absolutely didn’t.)
The motion shifts gears with the arrival of Robert Mallory, a mysterious new boy who instantly ingratiates himself with the Bret set. However, Bret is satisfied he’s seen him earlier than and might’t perceive why Robert would lie about it until he has one thing to cover. The coincidence of Robert’s creation with a collection of break-ins and the ugly vandalism of Buckley’s mascot strikes him as trigger for suspicion. Gradually, he involves consider Robert has one thing to do with the “deranged cult” haunting the Valley — and maybe the disappearances of excessive schoolers rumored to have fallen sufferer to a serial killer referred to as the Trawler.
Bret’s paranoia and Robert’s disruptive presence drive the plot from there, and all of it unravels like a sort of ultraviolent YA novel, “Beverly Hills, 90210” meets “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.” Mercifully, Ellis’ writing elevates the fabric above his latest film efforts, notably the tedious “Smiley Face Killers,” which shares a number of the identical themes. Both Ellis and the Bret of “The Shards” are Joan Didion followers, and her chilly, measured prose is a transparent affect. “People were missing. Children were missing. Parents were missing. Those left behind filed desultory missing-persons reports, then moved on themselves.” This line from “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” may simply be the epigraph to “The Shards.”
The unease that saturates Didion’s most well-known work additionally permeates Ellis’ novel, from the primary day of college, when “everything seemed in slow motion, fragmented, haunted, vibrating with low-level anxiety,” to the dread that overwhelms Bret at homecoming. And the flatness of have an effect on that outlined the protagonists of “Less Than Zero,” impressed partly by Didion’s “Play It As It Lays,” as soon as once more guides Ellis’ characterization. Bret’s mates Thom and Susan and Debbie and Ryan are all rendered in the identical two-dimensional fashion: To these cardboard cutouts in Wayfarers, “everything was cool, everything was chill, everything was a mild wow.” Ellis’ paratactic sentences compound the impression that life for them is only one factor after one other. When a buddy dies, “It sucks.”
This is definitely sort of an issue for “The Shards,” Ellis’ longest novel. It’s one factor if characters are performatively vacant or vacuous — “American Psycho” and “Glamorama” are lengthy too, however in these books it’s a joke that nobody can maintain the characters straight. Without the satirical thrives, there’s typically little to carry onto because the schooldays and coke events and intercourse scenes drift by. Though the vibe is properly sustained, it feels at instances like a miniseries that ought to have been a film.
In reality, it was a miniseries of kinds; “The Shards” was initially serialized on Ellis’ podcast, the place it arguably labored higher. He’s a terrific reader of his personal work, and the podcast format let him lean into the e-book’s true-crime pastiche. The occasional editorial intrusions appeared much less misplaced there too — significantly his gripes with the so-called woke agenda. In 1981, he avers, there have been no faculty shooters, nobody was on meds, nobody was a snowflake, safety at LAX was lax and there was nonetheless a Tower Records on Ventura Boulevard.
Perhaps probably the most pointed intrusion of Bret the Contrarian is a sequence during which he finds himself sexually entrapped by Debbie’s father, Terry Schaffer. Though it additionally serves a plot perform, it appears to have been included principally to permit Bret to disavow his personal sufferer standing, as if to say “not me too:” “You did this to yourself, I thought … yes, I was technically ‘underage’ but no one had hurt me, I hadn’t been assaulted, I let it happen.”
How significantly to take such provocations will likely be on the reader’s discretion. Are these the views of “Bret” or of Ellis?
Fiction and actuality in his work have all the time been fungible. As early as “Less Than Zero,” an interview with the then-20-year-old Ellis on this paper famous, regardless of his protestations, the “distinct parallels” between the lives of his characters and their creator. His second novel, “The Rules of Attraction,” was set in a school clearly modeled on Bennington, the place he was finding out when it was printed. Ellis has claimed variously that Patrick Bateman in “American Psycho” relies on himself and on his father.
Over time, the books have acquired the qualities of a palimpsest, with layers seen beneath the floor to the observant (or obsessed). “Bret” first turned the protagonist in “Lunar Park,” a “mock memoir” that riffed on his bad-boy literary status earlier than morphing right into a haunted home story and meditation on his father’s dying. The “Less Than Zero” sequel, “Imperial Bedrooms,” opened with the revelation that the primary e-book’s narrator had been ventriloquized by a special “author,” a determine “who floated through our lives and didn’t seem to care how flatly he perceived everyone.” Might we learn the Bret of “The Shards,” so preoccupied with “numbness as a feeling,” because the writer of this “Less than Zero”? It’s a thought.
Careful readers and followers will discover a lot to play with within the sandbox of “The Shards.” Robert Mallory shares a primary identify with Ellis’ real-life father. What may this imply, provided that Robert Ellis was, because the writer has instructed, an abusive presence in his adolescence? Is it vital when Bret picks up the cellphone to Terry Schaffer and errors him for his dad? Or that the fictional Terry dies across the identical time as Bret’s actual father? As we learn, meanings flip like tarot playing cards.
The query of Ellis’ sincerity is — rightly, fortunately — insoluble. “I’ve found out that many followers of the Official and Verified @BretEastonEllis enjoy it mainly because they think it is a parody account,” he as soon as tweeted. His work isn’t programmed to reply questions on intention or what’s actually occurring. Ellis is and has all the time been within the enterprise of temper: literature as playlist, as locker-room fantasy, as script remedy. That can work properly in 200-page zingers like “Less Than Zero” or “Imperial Bedrooms.” At 600-pages-plus, “The Shards” is a more durable promote, nevertheless sun-drenched and blood-soaked it might be. If you’re within the semiotics of Ultravox or the quickest path to Malibu, you’re in for a good time. But “The Shards” lacks the delirious absurdism and the tight management of Ellis at his greatest. For all its porno doominess, it typically elicits little greater than a light wow.
Arrowsmith relies in New York and writes about books, movies and music.