In The Shards, author Bret Easton Ellis, known best for his contentious novel American Psycho, delivers a heady blend of fact and fiction, horror and lust. Set during Bret’s senior year at The Buckley School in 1981, the story follows his elite circle of friends as they go about “the pantomime” of numbed camaraderie and muted deceit.
Meanwhile, a serial killer known as the Trawler plagues the streets of Los Angeles, seemingly drawing closer just as a new boy appears in their midst. Stunning, charismatic, and mentally unsound, Robert Mallory penetrates the valves of a once functioning organism, altering the group’s lives forever.
Written retrospectively, unlike some of Ellis’ previous work, the text carries an air of potent nostalgia. That’s because The Shards references the pre-digital age, a time that fostered secrets, omissions, the suppression of facts, and the use of disguises — both public and private.
And so, both climactic and chilling, the novel creates a foreboding aura. It’s aided by the braiding of hindsight and stupor, the flickering between the present and the past, that makes for a rather complex tale. Present-day Bret and his seventeen-year-old counterpart continually overlap, treating the narrative to equal parts rebuke and disorientation.
As the narrator of the tragedy, Bret is aware of the identity of the silhouettes we evade, but the images never remain blurred for long, teasing without causing grievance. Down every page, Bret leaves a trail of breadcrumbs, both inciting and sustaining the grabby sweep of our curiosity.
It’s not surprising, then, that over the course of this pursuit, Ellis showcases an adept, effortless command of narrative pace. His ability to maintain suspense over six hundred pages is, for lack of a better word, tantalizing. Though stretched-out and roughened in places, this impression remains intact partly because of the physicality of Ellis’ memory.
By recalling the touches, tastes, scents, lusts, and violent impulses that steered him at seventeen, the setting unfolds into a diorama inviting a cinematic gaze. And its ambiance, overlaid with sedatives, quickly turns the mind foggy.
This contrasts with both the physical and mental reflexes demanded, and quickly numbed, by the reality of the group’s precarious circumstances. No moment is left unstirred for too long, so that — along with Bret — we’re startled by the gruesome truths spat out by the city’s twilit lull.
Consequently, there’s a sense of stumbling around in a dream, of being jarred by its various disconnections and symbiotic realities. Much like in Less Than Zero, both the novel’s characters and backdrop succumb to steely numbness, malaise, and ennui; the difference being that here, Ellis indicates the roots of his preoccupation with erotic passivity.
Aside from provoking the body and its aggrieved states, this sensuality heightens the plot’s underlying malice. That’s not to say that The Shards delivers its narrative impeccably. That’s a rare feat, and one not to be divined from a work this sprawling. Its sheer length stalls momentum at times, particularly when the prose trips itself up to accommodate circuitous conversations, “This was a conversation one had in a dream, I thought.”
But even such heavy-handed repetition feels intentional. These chats mirror life; its monotonies, banalities, and discrepancies. Not only do they feed into the work’s stifling paralysis, but they serve to further splinter the narrative, suggesting greater intricacy, and even a measure of unreliability from the narrator. They also add immense tension, turning every scene into shadowplay.
Paired with incredible gore, this alienation produces a kind of disassociative madness that can be felt through the page. The cascade of pop culture references spikes it, creating white noise that might feel foreign to younger readers, but ultimately adds to the obscurity of the world Bret is depicting.
It emerges as one made up of a series of narratives; feigned, digressing, and heavily manipulated. And as they unfold, Bret instigates a game of cat and mouse with a purported psychopath. This shapes his reality into something akin to a jigsaw puzzle, with the self as a misaligned piece squeezed airlessly into its center; introducing a good measure of caustic tension.
In an effort to conceal his sexual orientation, as well as his growing disgust with the world of entitlement and duplicity, Bret throws himself into “the pantomime” enacted by his friends, playing the role of “the tangible participant” to the detriment of his senses; particularly when paranoia and distrust begin their search for actionable defenses.
Most memorable is his depiction of obsession, paranoia, apprehension, and dread. Such sensations swell into a droning hum, which ushers the pawns of the story’s unappeasable game, leaving no psyche undamaged.
While the characters anesthetize their panic with drugs, the reader remains unnerved, particularly when victims turn catatonic in the face of mutilation. And so, with its remarkable sense of time and place, The Shards thickens into a shocking, vicious, relentless, softly heartbreaking, and ultimately wistful read.
Publication date: January 17, 2023 (Knopf Publishing Group)