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The Anti-Nostalgia of Bret Easton Ellis

The Anti-Nostalgia of Bret Easton Ellis

A review of 'The Shards'

By the time I discovered American Psycho, it was already a period piece. The film adaptation that made Christian Bale a movie star had found its way to one screen of the half-dozen local suburban multiplexes in the spring of 2000, and I had wormed my way in as any dutiful high school sophomore would. Considering my knowledge of New York City was limited to a weeklong middle school class trip, I didn’t really get it. But I had to read the 1991 novel on which it was based. The thrill of the taboo was just too much.

I haven’t revisited American Psycho since I read it that spring because most of it is seared into my memory–the broad daylight murder of a preschooler in Central Park, death by rats and deliberately placed cheese. It was all too much for a high schooler to process without an adult to place the book in the proper context. Still, reading it was a vital experience that helped me figure out my own moral compass. It taught me the sickening reality of violence all too often exploited or glossed over in my post-Columbine, Nintendo-entrenched adolescence all the while sowing doubt about the cultural authority of the megachurch South in which I lived with its youth groups and lurid tales of contraband pop culture. 

Twenty-three years later, Ellis has engaged in some looking back of his own in The Shards, his first novel not set in an uneasy present. Combining the coming-of-age tale and slasher thriller within the context of his trademark visceral moralism, the book also taps into the recent autofiction trend in which authors construct a highly dramatized recounting of their lives. The novel finds Ellis reconstructing the seemingly halcyon days of 80s Los Angeles and its children of privilege. However, as a Bret Easton Ellis book, The Shards is not content being a comeback for one of contemporary fiction’s most controversial writers after a decades-long sojourn into podcasting and screenwriting; it has to dissect the excesses of our cultural moment in ways that have increasingly seemed unattainable in a post-truth world that finds Wall Street now as synonymous with identity politics as conspicuous consumption.

Considering that the Ellis of the 21st century is most famous for coining the phrase “Generation Wuss” in Vanity Fair to describe the overly medicated narcissism of millennials and their successors, writing a novel with a teenage version of himself as the main character could have come off as merely a massive troll. However, since Ellis began his career as the wunderkind kid who published his debut, Less Than Zero, before he graduated from college, he has remained one of American literature's most vicious cultural critics. In the ensuing four decades, Ellis has engaged in his own long march through our country’s institutions, taking moral relativism to its logical conclusions whether mired in the worlds of Hollywood and the Upper East Side or both ends of the ivory tower in novels like The Rules of Attraction and Lunar Park

At the peak of his career, Ellis worked in what he has long deemed the time of Empire which—as he wrote in a 2011 The Daily Beast article about Charlie Sheen—was shrouded in celebrity mystique and magnetism, the product of a unified culture industry with no threat of social media faux-candor ripping it apart at the seams. However, Ellis now faces the problem of a culture defined by nostalgia for Empire, a time when the remix passes for newness and the gentle throwback embrace of the Stranger Things nation provides just enough comfort to drown out the utter despair. By installing himself as the narrator of The Shards, Ellis places himself in the role of the revisionist. As the detached prophet in his Less Than Zero days, he found himself in a position to decry the vapidness of his soul-sick world. Now, he aims to diagnose exactly what went wrong at the moment it began to crumble.

The latch-key kid son of a prominent real estate developer living in “the empty house on Mulholland,” the Bret of The Shards spends his days as a listless student at Buckley Academy, a cookie-cutter prep school for the spawn of L.A.’s indistinguishable power brokers. His girlfriend is the daughter of a venerated semi-closeted movie producer. His football captain best friend is dating the homecoming queen as the onset of senior year begins. But the city has long been under the thumb of a serial killer called The Trawler whose M.O. involves unholy amalgamations of teenagers and parts of their pets. When a new student named Robert Mallory inserts himself into the group, The Trawler’s activities ramp up as Bret realizes those around him are willfully oblivious to the underbelly of their L.A. upbringings. Left alone while his parents are on a European tour, Bret begins grasping at the pieces of the Trawler’s master plan while navigating his own slipping sanity. 

Much of what makes The Shards so effective is Ellis’s gift for paralleling the mood of 80s L.A. with the repressed anxieties that pervade the Golden State today. Set the summer after the release of Kubrick’s The Shining, the novel investigates the city at a time when the Hollywood that serves as the lifeblood for him and his classmates was nearing its end—the fruitful artistry of directors with the means to achieve their visions breaking under the weight of the blockbuster’s sheer earning power. 

Ellis never makes the argument that 70s Hollywood had a moral high ground, but he adds a much-needed sense of mourning to the period that spawned the age of intellectual property and franchise potential. The culture-making city that Bret came of age in had become a thing of the past. It spent the previous decade dealing with the bubble-piercing force of the Manson murders and was ready to move on even if the violence was escalating. “Who cared anyway? It was all bullshit. It felt so cleansing to look at things from this angle,” Ellis writes. “And I wanted to write like this as well: numbness as a feeling, numbness as a motivation, numbness as a reason to exist, numbness as ecstasy.” 

Yet, as The Shards makes clear, Ellis does care. It’s a facet of his work that only the most astute critics seem to get.  In fact, such numbness has long pushed him past the breaking point of most authors too caught up in literary trends and reputation to get at such uncomfortable truths. 

As the de facto leader of the 80s literary Brat Pack, Ellis was always driven to interrogate the posturing while also performing it. In the process, he also became a pioneer of thwarting identity politics. His reputation as an alpha male misogynist that met him in the wake of American Psycho stalled when he unassumingly came out in the early aughts. It returned when he was banned from the GLAAD awards in 2013 for dismissing LGBTQ+ activism as “the reign of the gay magical elves” and wrote White–his 2019 essay collection that served as a rejoinder to the activist class.

But he’s doubled down on his position even in the leaner years of late, an unwavering dedication most obvious in The Shards’s own pointed #MeToo moment that refuses to succumb to the norms of social media self-care. Such may be why he’s also come out the other side with an HBO deal for a miniseries based on the book in collaboration with Dream Scenario’s Kristoffer Borgli and Call Me By Your Name’s Luca Guadagnino. 

At this moment, Ellis faces a numb culture in which pretending to care is the ultimate posture. Such may be why his mining of the past through the private lens of a closeted teen carries more weight than the barrage of “speak your truth” tomes clogging up BookTok. In The Shards, Bret’s dalliance with The Trawler serves as an apt metaphor for the end of childhood. But the adult Ellis is trying to feel his way through the end of culture. Thankfully, he may be the one writer able to correct the course. 

The Shards is now available in hardcover and paperback.