More Than "Less Than Zero": Escaping Into Bret Eason Ellis's "The Shards"
When Bret Easton Ellis wrote Less Than Zero (1985), he depicted a glamourous, repellant group of cold, disattached, L.A. collegiate youth whose parent's wealth had cheated them of their concept of consequence and value, opting to decay into chemical indulgence rather than graduate to adulthood. 38 years later, we learn the coming-of-age debut was, in fact, the second chapter of an even more complex story.
In his latest novel The Shards, Ellis weaves an intricate web for this same clique enduring high school, constructing higher stakes for their innocence lost; where we learn drugs, nihilism, or neglect weren’t the problem, but indicators, or results, of larger forces eclipsing their idyllic California sun.
The novel, which Ellis first released as an audio book on his Patreon in 2020 to bypass the confines of a publisher, will be best relished with restraint and surrender. Choose to be the disarmed reader, not the internet sleuth who must deduce which forgotten Southern California serial killer The Trawler was based on, or if he existed, or if any of this is true. Instead, approach The Shards as if Lunar Park was written by a teenage Ellis, pre- Less Than Zero; when he still had hopes, dreams, and a boilerplate morality begging to be shattered.
Revisiting The Shards in its new novel form was an elevated, even hybrid experience— the way Ellis’s voice returned to narrate, this time from inside my skull, as I devoured his door-stopping 600-page meta-diary. It even whisked me back to that fall of 2020 when I was first seduced by the opening chapter, no turning back; in that dismal year when many of us retreated into fiercer shades of darkness in order to cope.
Many years ago I realized that a book, a novel, is a dream that asks itself to be written in the same way we fall in love with someone: the dream becomes impossible to resist, there’s nothing you can do about it, you finally give in and succumb even if your instincts tell you to run the other way because this could be, in the end, a dangerous game—someone will get hurt.
Our introduction to The Shards in 2020 was perfectly timed. Our culture had become so obsessed with true crime that streaming services like Netflix essentially became the Murder Channel, full of sensationalist come-hither gore twists and heightened emotional manipulation; particularly ghoulish when presented alongside the cheekiness of The Great British Bake-Off. It’s as if Ellis acknowledged how cannibalistic true-crime had become on our psyches, the way he dressed up The Shards in true-crime’s blood-soaked clothing to trick us into back into the real world where fiction remains the greatest escape.
When Bret the writer writes Bret the character, he re-acquaints us with someone we were convinced we had pinned our whole lives, only to remind us that we never really knew him at all; creating an immediate intimacy for a narrative where no one is who they seem. Rather than jaded or guarded, there’s a refreshing vulnerability preserved in vintage Bret, allowing the inherently corrupt nature of adulthood to seep in alongside a more vaporous evil that’s infiltrated his circle; a fire he becomes so obsessed with, so enraptured by, he begins to resemble it’s secretive, evasive flickering. But this Bret is often remorseful: “Sorry for weirding you out,” he says to Robert Mallory, a “friend” adopted by his tight-knit crowd who he’s 100% convinced is the Trawler but can’t find any way to 100% prove it.
And while The Shards contrasts rich kids against a serial killer who may or may not be one of their friends, or a member of a Mansonite-cult descending into their country clubs, Ellis’s portrayal of youth is not fantastical— it's sadly universal; where no matter what side of the tracks you grew up on, we often become adults the day our trust in adults is breached.
If Bret can’t prove Robert Mallory is the Trawler, rest assured there’s alternate threats of a different shade; his girlfriend Debbie’s father Terry Schaffer, the not-entirely-in-the-closet film producer who lusts after Bret, spinning a predatorial industry web to entrap him, luring him with the elusive approval of Bret’s film script, where the finder’s fee is Bret’s dignity. Instead of confirming Bret’s sexuality, this event interrupts him secretly navigating his own gay awakening, confusing and therefore delaying his coming to terms with it.
I was never really the same after 1981… before I tripped into fear and paranoia and began to understand how the adult world actually operated compared to my adolescent fantasies of how I supposed it worked.
As the shadows elongate, Bret plays junior detective under the cover of these veils, no stone unturned. Yet, he guards his own demons in tandem. The search for unadulterated truth while justifying the preservation of your own secrets is the teenage experience caustically distilled, and also mirrors the very essence of noir. Ellis fertilizes this minefield of emotion with both care and abandon, encouraging Bret the character to adhere to golden rules so rigidly that his tantrums are just as potent when they’re inevitably broken.
And when he’s finally faced with who Robert Mallory really is at the end, it’s a standoff that morphs into stalemate; with mutual blood spilled from their young bodies, it’s as if Bret is offered a glimpse into the mirror, where there are no lessons learned, no morality left to uphold. Commencing with this haunted, off the record erudition, for Bret, college will not offer any higher education.
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