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Remembrance of Empires Past

While The Shards is his first novel since Imperial Bedrooms in 2010, don´t take that to mean that Bret Easton Ellis hasn´t been working hard these past thirteen years. He´s created and hosted hundreds of episodes on his podcast. His first work of nonfiction, White, a book-length essay on American politics and culture, was published in 2019. He´s been working, writing, and hustling numerous scripts for Hollywood, with some of Ellis´ screenplays being made into feature-length films--such as The Canyons (2013) starring Lindsay Lohan and James Deen, directed by Paul Schrader; to 2020´s horror film Smiley Face Killers, currently streaming on Amazon.

During an interview to promote his new book, Ellis said that the idea for The Shards had been gestating for nearly 40 years, right around the time he was writing the pages that would eventually become his debut in 1985, Less Than Zero, which he published while still a student at Bennington College in Vermont, where he was hanging out, going to class, and doing all sorts of sordid things with fellow classmates Donna Tartt and Jonathan Lethem.* *(For a deep dive into these college years with these writers, please check out Lili Anolik´s exceptional podcast series, "Once Upon a Bennington College").

This new book is sprawling, nearly 600 pages in hardcover, and yet I frequently had a hard time putting it aside to go to do anything else. It´s revisits elements of Less Than Zero (the privileged and disaffected youth), as well as American Psycho (how capitalism could be synonymous with violence and consumerism), but that would be an incomplete comparison. The Shards contains far more layers, and Ellis has produced his most ambitious literary project to date.

On its surface, the book is mostly set in early ´80s Los Angeles, following a number of teenagers during their final year at an elite prep high school. Ellis recreates the period with an uncanny attention to the soundtrack, the malls, the cinemas. Politics don´t enter into the bubble of these wealthy youths, tooling around West Hollywood and Century City in their Porches and Mercedes. Their futures are secure, as everyone knows their role in the pantomime: there´s the homecoming queen, the jock, even the stoner kid.

And then there´s Bret. In The Shards, he´s 17, dating Debbie, but also in the closet about his sexual experimentation with a couple of his classmates. When he´s not drinking beers, smoking weed, or taking quaaludes, he´s trying to work on his first novel, and eager to escape California and to Bennington College so he can stop pretending. Bret is also a fifty-something successful writer, haunted by the events that took place in the fall of 1981, back when he is in high school. Crossing back and forth between different time periods, between teenage-Bret and present-day-Bret, The Shards initially feels saturated with regret, until it turns into a palpable and sinister dread. Gruesome violence, in the form of a dangerous cult known as the Riders of the Afterlife, and later a serial killer known only as the Trawler, are closing in from the edges. The empire these teenagers are so casually floating through is threatened, and everyone seems oblivious to it. Except Bret, of course, though his Cassandra-like pleas are dismissed as being the results of his over-active imagination.

The blurring of biographical details with novelistic invention in this book is not just dizzying and provocative, but key to the book´s central theme. How do we create our own narratives, and what stories do we tell about ourselves? What roles do others play around us, and what lies beneath the masks that all of us are wearing? Teenage-Bret might be dating Debbie, but he is also having sexual relationships with other men, as well as having infatuations with both men and women. All of the characters in The Shards have secrets, and this complex sequence of role-playing is understood by the narrator as being part of his education, of "entering the world of being an adult". There´s something almost Proustian in the way Ellis foreshadows and looks back throughout the storyline of The Shards, like a familiar mixtape teenage-Bret is playing in the car, who rewinds or fast-forwards compulsively rather than merely playing the songs all the way through from the beginning.

Queer sexuality has been running through his fiction since the beginning (Less Than Zero andThe Rules of Attraction ), and it´s never been a secret that Ellis is gay. And while readers will probably never find his books in the LGBTQ section of a bookstore, make no mistake: The Shards is an incredibly sexual novel. Sex in this book is erotic, disturbing, drunken and unsatisfying, complicated and contradictory, hot and heavy. Bret, perhaps like most teenagers, seems to be constantly masturbating, as well as perpetually fantasizing about fucking various boys within his social circle at school. He is also frequently having sex with his girlfriend Debbie. Further, he has feelings for another teenage girl that seems to go beyond physical intimacy, approaching an unsettling realm of desperation, adoration, perhaps even obsession. At one point in the novel, teenage-Bret has sex with an adult, accepting it as transactional--a thing he did, another lesson in learning how to exist within the world of adults. Is The Shards a "queer" novel? Is it bisexual or gay, or does it not merit such a distinction because the depictions of sex these kids are experiencing is so messy? The portraits of human sexuality here may be unflattering, but they are real, raw, painful, and familiar. If nothing else, Ellis displays courage in including these episodes in his book, and doing so with this level of honesty. I wish more erotica writers would do that.

As the presence of the Trawler infiltrates teenage-Bret´s world, we see him attempt to become the "willing participant", to go along with the script that everyone else seems to be playing around him--to not get involved, to not make a fuss about things, to not rock the boat. But thankfully for the reader, he ultimately fails, as the book is also a horror story that evokes early Stephen King. Ellis´ descriptions of the Trawler´s killings are absolutely nightmarish, but the disconnect about these murders from the majority of teenage-Bret´s peers is equally horrific. No one communicates what they really feel, what they really need to say, in this book. Whether describing the slash of a knife through flesh, or how two teenagers feel that the lyrics of Icehouse speak to them--seem to be given equal weight. It´s a stylistic choice by the novelist that seems to make The Shards all the more unsettling.

Utterly terrifying and suspenseful, incisive of a period of American Empire of an early generation, and sexual in all the uncomfortable ways we really read about, The Shards is the most personal work by Bret Easton Ellis I have ever read. Unplug the phone, find a comfortable place to read for a few days, and make sure you have enough food and water. Just get it.

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