THE SHARDS, by Bret Easton Ellis
Los Angeles, 1981 — the affluent Westside canyons. Kim Carnes’s “Bette Davis Eyes” is on the radio, “The Shining” has just come out in theaters and Wayfarer sunglasses adorn all the young faces. Bret, the 17-year-old protagonist of Bret Easton Ellis’s sprawling new novel, “The Shards,” has been left alone at his parents’ house on Mulholland Drive for months at the start of his senior year. Bret is a budding writer. He is gay, and closeted.
At the elite Buckley School, Bret runs with a popular crowd: Thom and Susan, the football star and his reluctant homecoming queen girlfriend; and Bret’s girlfriend, Debbie, the daughter of a wealthy film producer. In this surface world Bret presents himself as what he calls “the tangible participant,” i.e., straight, fake, not paranoid. But in private, he is sleeping with two boys in his class and becoming increasingly obsessed with an L.A. serial killer nicknamed the Trawler — a fishing reference that reflects the gruesome abductions and murders of young women across the city.
Enter Robert Mallory, the impossibly handsome (and possibly evil) new student at Buckley, who threatens to disrupt Bret’s social circle. As Bret’s suspicion of Mallory grows — fueled by the young writer’s imagination and isolation, as well as the murder of a classmate (which may or may not be related to the Trawler) — his ability to play “the tangible participant” disintegrates.
Ellis is a true literary craftsman, and the novel’s imagery is lush and gorgeous. Fans of his earlier fiction (“Less Than Zero,” “American Psycho,” “Lunar Park”) will enjoy many of his signature strokes: murder, music, cocaine, Valium, obscene wealth, an unraveling narrator, brand names, palm trees, blood, stalkers, dogs, cults, disaffected teenagers, negligent parents.
But there is an exciting new vulnerability in Ellis’s latest book, inviting the reader more profoundly into the emotional realm of the protagonist than he has with his previous characters (many of whom betray no signs of emotional vulnerability). Where “Less Than Zero,” his 1985 debut set in a similar Los Angeles milieu,is ambivalent, and 2005’s “Lunar Park” is coy in its autofictional flirtation, “The Shards”feels earnest, at least emotionally. This is also Ellis’s sexiest book, and one senses for the writer a new freedom in the dimensions of love, eros and sensitivity.
The novel is almost 600 pages long, and the narration loops back on itself in a way that not only builds suspense, but also creates a visceral sensation of the slowness of time for a 17-year-old who feels trapped in a life that is not his own. And yet, the length and repetitions can be so taxing that the reader wonders if the book could have been shorter and still achieved the same psychedelic, collage-like effect. For all the narrative investment it demands, the novel’s climax and denouement ultimately fall flat.
As for the title, we are left to draw our own conclusions about its meaning. There are shards of forensic evidence, the often circumstantial clues that Bret pieces together. There are the shards of recollection, the end of a young man’s innocence. “I remember this being one of my first moments nearing adulthood,” Bret says, “when I realized how powerful memory was — or at least it was the first time it hurt the most.” And there are the shards of a fractured psyche: the attempts to piece together multiple selves. Ultimately, the lines between self-distortion, external perception and recollection are porous; and what is closeted is always projected, however splintered, out into the light.
Melissa Broder is the author of three novels, including the forthcoming “Death Valley”; the essay collection “So Sad Today”; and four books of poetry, including “Superdoom.”
THE SHARDS | By Bret Easton Ellis | 594 pp. | Alfred A. Knopf | $30