Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99.
Subscribe for Full Access

There was a football game that afternoon at Buckley and though I can remember who I masturbated about on that early October day (I wrote it down—I kept lists, a jack-off journal) I can’t remember what team the Griffins were playing though I knew Susan would be in the stands, mildly cheering Thom on as quarterback, and I took a chance and assumed Robert Mallory wouldn’t be attending the game.

Robert Mallory is the mysterious newcomer to the Buckley School in Sherman Oaks, where Bret, the autofictional narrator of Bret Easton Ellis’s new novel The Shards, is a senior. The chance he has taken is to wait for Robert to leave campus in his black Porsche, so that Bret can tail him undetected, as he’s driving not his usual car (a Mercedes 450SL) but a Jaguar that belongs to his mother, who is away on a series of European cruises with Bret’s father for the duration of the book.

Bret suspects that Robert, a model-handsome cipher, might be . . . a psychopathic killer? Bret is an aspiring writer attuned to a sense of menace on the edges of reality. It’s not all in his mind. Someone has “desecrated” a statue of the Buckley mascot. There’s a serial killer on the loose, nicknamed “the Trawler,” who has committed a string of murders whose details compose themselves into a hazy narrative that Bret follows and his classmates ignore. And a cult has been leaving shambolic traces around town (candles, entrails, pentagrams), its members somehow not having gotten the memo that the hippie thing is finished, done for, kaput.

It’s the fall of 1981, the start of a sleek new era. Emotive and long-haired stadium rock is out; synthesizers, hair gel, and neon are in. Earth tones have been replaced by black and white vertical stripes. Doric columns, plinths with nothing on them, and mirrors in weird hard-edged shapes are purchasable from Z Gallerie. A minimally rendered palm tree has become a standard leitmotif—and not just in the temperate zones like Los Angeles, where The Shards takes place (and boy does it ever). The Eighties palm tree, as desktop objet or wall art, is a mood: sun-bleached and flat.

The U.K. single of Kim Wilde’s “Kids in America” has been released, and there’s a video of Wilde mouthing the words. She looks exhausted, possibly hungover, and extremely hot. “It was so simple,” seventeen-year-old Bret says, “a synthesizer, a smoke machine, Kim Wilde’s blank blue-tinged face staring straight at us.” He has encountered the video in a nightclub on a deserted stretch of Melrose, a place that is void of décor, just gray carpet and thin lines of neon; sparse groupings of people doing bumps of coke, watching videos, seated on the floor. For Bret, Wilde’s demeanor is revelatory. She’s

a girl who could handle anything with her cool indifference: she didn’t get excited by the excitement of the song. . . . She was offering an invitation but she didn’t care if you came or not, because she could always find somebody else.

Young Bret goes on to connect this aesthetic of numbness—numbness as an ethos and a come-on—to his classmate Susan Reynolds, who has spent years developing and perfecting her own version of blank detachment.

More important than these stark aesthetic shifts, and not disconnected from them: it is finally once again cool to be rich. American wealth might not have been so stratospheric, or so conspicuous, since the Twenties, a decade whose excesses were interrupted by the Depression, the war, then thirty years of state social projects and civil unrest. Now Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher are in power. MTV has debuted. The Preppy Handbook has launched (and for those whose look is more edgy, there’s Fiorucci). Judith Krantz’s Scruples is in miniseries.

If the Twenties and the Eighties form a parallel, so do F. Scott Fitzgerald and Bret Easton Ellis. Both detail worlds populated by “careless people,” heavy drinking, fast cars. In The Great Gatsby and in Less than Zero, we find presiding messages of empire at either end of its stretch: the eyes of Dr. Eckleburg staring down from the dissolving night as Nick speeds toward the bright lights of New York, and a billboard over Sunset Boulevard that beckons Clay to “Disappear Here.”

In The Shards, Bret’s admiration for blank Susan is total, but not sexual. Bret is gay, but not out among his friends, and he’s secretly in love with Susan’s boyfriend, Thom-the-quarterback, whose sex appeal, if sliced into, would have the same wholesome consistency all the way through. Bret is also in love with Ryan Vaughn, a jock in a Trans Am, with whom Bret indulges in a weekend of athletic but tender sex and jacuzziing at Bret’s family residence, “the empty house on Mulholland,” where a maid, Rosa, leaves prepared foods in the Corona-stocked fridge. A dog has to be let out occasionally, but there is no chaperone and no limit, no interference to the pursuit of pleasure. (Here I might add that the wealth and surfaces of Ellis’s world are foreign to me—his Eighties are not my Eighties—but I don’t read for relatability. And strangely, unapologetic novelists from the upper echelons, Rachel Cusk and Edward St Aubyn are two other examples, tend to be especially good at writing about class, I mean their own class, because they have nothing to prove, or to obscure, while most writers, I’d wager, descend from some brackish combination of social levels and do not have one consistent class identity from which to draw when building their fictional worlds. They have instead a set of contradictions and anxieties they might try to smooth out rather than explain.)

The Ryan thing doesn’t continue because Ryan is determined to walk the line, be straight. Compared to Bret, to Thom and Susan, and to Debbie Schaffer, with whom Bret is faking a romantic relationship, Ryan is merely middle class, less free. Bret’s other secret lover is a stoner named Matt Kellner, who disappears early in the book, then turns up dead, probably murdered. Bret seems to be the only one who cares. Matt’s mother, who presents as a vivid confection of Joan Didion and Janet Malcolm, chain-smoking in a gazebo, elegant and sedated and tough, treats Bret’s angst over the unexplained death of her son as a neurosis he might want to look into. Busy being kids in America, Bret’s classmates don’t notice Matt’s disappearance, and barely register his death; they’re more concerned with homecoming, and the disruption posed by Susan’s sudden disinterest in being homecoming queen, a refusal that throws everyone off. There are roles, a surface to maintain, and if a single stakeholder bolts, the whole thing might collapse.

Bret, too, is a stakeholder. And so, page by page, he alternates between this high school drama (is Susan cheating on Thom with Robert Mallory?) and a horror story (was Matt tortured before he was killed?). He’s caught between addressing his fears and taking another quaalude to calm himself enough to be what his “costume”—his term for the school uniform—promises: a handsome senior and the boyfriend of Debbie, whose attentions have gained him entrée into an elite echelon, even if his status in that realm is like that of an imposter.

Bret himself can’t yet pull off the numbness he idealizes in Susan, but he tells the reader that he went on to capture it in his novel Less than Zero. The narrator of this book, you see, is the “real” Bret Ellis, the guy who wrote all the other books. This conceit, which Ellis also employed in his novel Lunar Park, largely works. It is both a ruse and not a ruse. The Shards has an ominous pulse, but when you step back, everything is funny, if not as deeply hilarious as American Psycho, a work of spooky prescience and enduring genius that immediately overshadowed the more socially acceptable literature published in its midst. Part of his power, as a stylist, resides in the fact that Bret does not care what anyone thinks of him. If he recently drew upon this well of insouciance to insert himself in culture wars, I am relieved to see him return to fiction, a far more interesting and worthy container for such a power, the power not to care, the power to dedicate a book, as he has here, to “no one.”

The length of The Shards, at six hundred pages, suggests seriousness, but as Bret said to me, shrugging, “It’s a hangout novel.” You’re meant to get to know these people, check in with what they’re up to, maybe draw loose connections to Ellis’s other books, other versions of his alter ego. Debbie seems a lot like Blair from Less than Zero. And there’s a black Porsche in that book as well, from which Julian, a hustler with a drug debt, emerges. The windows of that other Porsche are tinted, obscuring whoever is inside. We’re meant to regard the unseen interior as harboring malevolence. And the same might go for the narrator of The Shards, who isn’t exactly forthcoming about his role in the carnage of the book’s plot. He, too, is a black car with tinted windows.

Halfway through The Shards, Bret mentions that he paid ninety-nine dollars for a class of ’82 Buckley yearbook on It’s clear the real Bret did the same. He depicts Buckley, his actual alma mater, with the attention of a true believer. He and the other seniors are building a float for homecoming, inspired by the movie poster for John Carpenter’s Escape from New York (a film that Bret has seen with Ryan, stroking Ryan’s inner thigh during the movie). The concept proves challenging to pull off, and the seniors are still working on it long after the juniors have finished their own float, a simple replica of a Junior Mints box, “its white and pine-green tassels lightly taunting us across the field with its Warholian simplicity.” Reading this line, I was certain the green-and-white float is a charged object that hovers not just on the field, but in the psychic structure of the author describing it.

In 2005, the artist Mike Kelley exhibited a sprawling project called Day Is Done, consisting of sculptures and videos re-created from yearbook photos of extracurricular activities. In an earlier work, he’d built replicas of every school he’d ever gone to. The rooms whose layouts he could not recall were to be regarded, according to his own project statement, as sites of abuse, evidence of trauma hidden by repressed memory syndrome. If Bret, by comparison, presents a surface without holes, he inserts under that surface an analog to Kelley’s trauma: the promise of evil. Mike Kelley and Bret Ellis are different creatures, and yet linked in their use of the yearbook as a kind of primary document, and in their treatment of school as the institutional foundation for the most private dream and for its verso, the nightmare. And they are both utterly committed to the idea that pop culture operates on the mind with the same force as so-called personal experience. “Personal and mass-cultural experiences are treated as equally true; I’m postulating the equivalence of art and memory,” Kelley wrote of Day Is Done. Ellis is activating an identical precept, if he would not put it so stiffly. The Shards is soaked through with this equivalence. If it’s loosely built as a thriller, its rigor lies elsewhere, in its cavalcade of songs and wallpaper and restaurants and clubs, of movies and rock posters and historically shaped attitudes.

But there’s a scene late in the book, in Debbie’s bedroom, which is furnished with a pink chair, a pink phone, horse trophies, a Go-Go’s poster, and then again, an X poster from their album Los Angeles, and for a single moment in the cavalcade I thought: Hold up. Does Bret just want to have that burning X in our minds, even if Debbie’s pink room wouldn’t contain such an artifact? The girls in the book are like grown women, blasé and refined and without angst. They are practically Republicans, like their parents. And so the X poster stuck out. But suddenly I remembered, as if that poster had knocked something loose in the stream of my own history, that I had known a girl who was just like this, just like Debbie Schaffer, and my own memory reconfirmed the verisimilitude of this fiction.

I had met this Debbie whose name wasn’t Debbie at Berkeley. She was from Los Angeles, and she was like all the girls in this novel, who do their coke discreetly and have the purchasing power of trophy wives and don’t get excited by the excitement in the song. She had not gone to Buckley, but another private school—Westlake, I think. She drove a Porsche 911 and was rich and beautiful and had an edge, was able to traverse her pedigree and slum without seeming to. She invited me to L.A., the first time I’d been, and her L.A. was just like the L.A. in The Shards. Her parents lived in a house so big they occupied separate wings and communicated only through a housekeeper. The father owned a chic restaurant as a lark, a place to entertain. I ate there with her and her L.A. friends. Later we went from club to club and no one carded us, just as no one gets carded in The Shards. She and her friends moved with frictionless ease and this was exotic to me but something was wrong. I see, in my mind’s eye, a Frankie Goes to Hollywood T-shirt. The glow of teeth under black lights. I feel this bad vibe being punted from person to person like a ball, a thing that must not touch the floor.

One of the people with us that night was the boyfriend of my friend, whom I also knew from Berkeley. He was a nice guy, but from her same elite world, a place I sensed was not so nice. A few years later, he shot and killed someone with a twelve-gauge shotgun at point-blank range. It was apparently an accident. The person who died was the new boyfriend of my friend, the one who was like the girls in The Shards. Her old boyfriend, the one I knew, the one who fired the gun, walked free. A lawyer who had represented O. J. Simpson got him off. Later, there was a story about a sleazy PI named Anthony Pellicano that circled back to this killing, but never mind; what I’m trying to say is, separate from Bret’s considerable powers as a fabulist, and separate from the way in which his universe always and curiously bends toward gore, I sense that he is not actually making things up.

More from

| View All Issues |

August 2023

“An unexpectedly excellent magazine that stands out amid a homogenized media landscape.” —the New York Times
Subscribe now