Bret Easton Ellis was one of the first sacrificial offerings to the gods of cancel culture. His best-known novel, American Psycho, about a misogynistic Wall Street banker-cum-murderer, caused outrage before it was even published 30 years ago.
A media storm ensued after excerpts from the book, in which the protagonist mutilates women, were made public. Ellis was accused of the same misogyny as his character. In a sign of things to come Ellis’s publisher apologized for “an error of judgment” and dropped American Psycho.
Another publisher quickly scooped up the rights, and feminists, including Gloria Steinem, called for a boycott. A campaigner from the National Organization for Women described American Psycho as “a how-to manual on the torture and dismemberment of women”. Actually reading it would have revealed that it is a satire of “toxic masculinity” in the Reagan years, not self-help for aspiring serial killers.
Despite the backlash, the novel was published in 1991. Ellis believes that it wouldn’t be published today.
Ever since, Ellis has been the shock jock of American letters. He’s one of those authors who leaves no one — whether or not they’ve read him — indifferent. In recent years he has spoken out against “woke” censorship, sanctimonious groupthink and the “epidemic of self-victimization” afflicting “generation wuss” (millennials).
Aesthetics over Ideology
Unsurprisingly, the author’s home is outside America’s intellectual mainstream. He can now be found on Patreon, an online platform for creators to share their work, where he hosts the biweekly Bret Easton Ellis Podcast — a cross between The Joe Rogan Experience and Radio 4’s Front Row. His credo: aesthetics over ideology.
Monologues from the show formed the bulk of White, Ellis’s 2019 essay collection, which sold well but received scathing reviews, portraying him as the literary equivalent of Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino, an aging reactionary yelling at the cool kids from his front porch.
Ellis is back with an audiobook and this time eschews the culture wars. For the past 10 months he has been serializing The Shards on Patreon. It has barely been noticed outside his fan base. That’s a shame because it’s his weirdest, most interesting work in years.
Ellis has spoken out against “woke” censorship, sanctimonious groupthink and the “epidemic of self-victimization” afflicting “generation wuss” (millennials).
Ellis says that he has tried to write The Shards for most of his career, but never got very far. In 2006, after making notes about the plot, he collapsed, his heartbeat quivering. He gulped three Xanax, to no avail. “In that moment, I was sure I was about to die,” Ellis recalls in the introductory chapter to The Shards.
He ended up in A&E. The examination determined that there was nothing physically wrong with him. Ellis’s meltdown was purely psychological. The author claims that he had been so disturbed by the plot of The Shards, by how horrific his book was shaping up to be, he had suffered a panic attack.
At this point you might wonder what could be so triggering about The Shards that Ellis would end up in hospital. After all, he is a man who wrote in minute detail about a crucifixion by nail gun.
The short of it: The Shards supposedly isn’t a novel. Rather, it purports to be a memoir of Ellis’s final year of high school in 1981 in Los Angeles. In the autumn of that year Ellis and his friends fell foul of a serial killer. The author has been traumatized ever since.
High School and a Serial Killer
Ellis attended Buckley, a prep school in the affluent LA neighborhood of Sherman Oaks. Unlike many writers-to-be, he wasn’t a loner. His clique even included Buckley’s power couple, Susan Reynolds and Thom Wright. (Ellis changed all the names for legal reasons, but “everyone is real” and “everything happened”.) Ellis’s girlfriend, Debbie Schaffer, was a stereotypical southern California hottie, “the teen-boy ideal”. But she wasn’t her boyfriend’s ideal; Ellis relished regular trysts with male classmates.
All the while the young author toiled on what would become his first novel, Less Than Zero. Ellis’s life might not have been picture-perfect — his parents were mostly absent — but he wasn’t a tormented teenager either. Until, that is, the autumn of 1981, when a mysterious new student named Robert Mallory joined Buckley.
The first thing anyone noticed about Mallory was how magnetic he was. Ellis describes him as “a friendly Greek god”. But under the Apollonian image lurked a sinister individual. On Mallory’s first day at Buckley the school’s statue was found desecrated with blood, the severed heads of koi carp pasted on so as to suggest female anatomy. Weeks later a student and ex-lover of Ellis, Matt Kelner, was found dead. Was Mallory the murderer? And was he somehow connected to the Trawler, a serial killer active in LA at the time? Was Mallory the Trawler?
That’s the central mystery of The Shards, and it’s rendered all the more absorbing by the format Ellis has chosen to tell his story. Rather than publish it as a book, the author is serializing it on his podcast. Every two weeks he reads a new chapter (he’s on chapter 21; there are four or five installments to come) to his nearly 4,000 subscribers. Charles Dickens serialized his novels in cheap periodicals. Ellis has updated the format for the age of Audible. It works.
Ellis claims that he had been so disturbed by the plot of The Shards, by how horrific his book was shaping up to be, he had suffered a panic attack.
The wait between installments only intensifies the spell, giving listeners time to think and, for some, to geek out. On Reddit dedicated fans are dissecting The Shards like yeshiva students with the Talmud. They tracked down Ellis’s Buckley yearbook to put faces to the characters. They also scoured old issues of the LA Times (and Google) in search of information about the Trawler and the events described in The Shards.
You might have guessed it already: they found nothing. If it sounded too good — or too awful — to be true, that’s because it was. Despite what Ellis states, there’s no evidence The Shards is a true-crime story. On the contrary, throughout his career Ellis has mixed fact and fiction to great effect. Case in point: his 2005 novel Lunar Park featured Bret Easton Ellis as a protagonist pitted against supernatural forces.
Maybe the ultimate giveaway is that the big baddie is called the Trawler, which sounds an awful lot like Ellis is not-so-subtly trolling listeners. Ellis did go to Buckley and the characters in the book (with the exception of Mallory and the Trawler) all seem to be real. Something traumatic might even have happened to Ellis in high school, just not being entangled with a serial killer, and The Shards is his therapy.
On Reddit dedicated fans are dissecting The Shards like yeshiva students with the Talmud.
There’s another way to look at The Shards. It has been more than a decade since Ellis wrote a novel. After Imperial Bedrooms he grew disillusioned with the very purpose of the novel. He lamented that “no one really talks about novels any more”. The heyday of the Great American Novel — when a single book could captivate the literary world for months — had passed. And so, Ellis revealed, the form “didn’t interest me any more”.
The Shards is Ellis experimenting with the novel, disguising it as nonfiction. He has borrowed the confessional tone of tell-all celebrity memoirs. That’s why he repeatedly insists that he’s laying bare his darkest moments. And by serializing a murder mystery, Ellis has also aped wildly popular true-crime podcasts.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether any of it is true. What matters is the story. And Ellis tells an engrossing one, packed with his usual trademarks: a paranoid narrator, immersive descriptions, slow-burning suspense, luxurious settings, beautiful people having graphic sex, cruelty, obscure pop songs, scholarly digressions on cinema. But does it amount to anything?
Yes, The Shards is an eerie, at times moving metaphor of growing up and toughening up, a quintessential bildungsroman about becoming an adult. What Ellis is doing stretches back millennia, when humans gathered around to hear a story about suffering great horrors and coming out the other side. But the glow of the campfire has been replaced by the blue light of our smartphones.
The Shards, by Bret Easton Ellis, is available on Patreon
Theo Zenou is a U.K.-based writer