Even if your parents did love you, in the 1980s, you spent a lot of time as a teenager alone. Also, often, unsupervised—with your friends, in cars, or in empty living rooms in empty midafternoon neighborhoods—but alone, for certain. “Not engaging with your parents for days on end didn’t seem particularly weird or abnormal,” Bret Easton Ellis writes in his new novel, The Shards.
This is the voice of one Bret Ellis, aged 17, a senior in the class of 1982 at the Buckley School in Los Angeles, who is living by himself and working on the manuscript of a novel called Less than Zero, while his parents have gone off to Europe (“trying to repair their flailing marriage,” an effort in whose outcome “I had zero interest”).
Or is it the voice of the middle-aged Bret Ellis, an author famous for having written Less than Zero, not to mention American Psycho, who has told the reader of how he was driven to write a novel called The Shards to recollect a series of terrible events in his younger life—starting in “the summer before the horror began, though we found it had actually started before that summer, had already been unfolding in ways we weren’t aware.”
Ham-fisted foreshadowing is central to the Bret Ellis style; the horror in question is constantly being previewed and post-viewed through the novel’s nearly 600 pages, as Bret tells the reader how horrible it was “as the fall of 1981 moved inexorably toward its ironic and tragic conclusion,” or how horrible it was about to be, and how irrevocably the horror would shatter his social circle, and which drugs he was taking (quaaludes, Valium, weed, Valium, cocaine, quaaludes) to bear the anxiety, and what music he was listening to during each ominous or awful scene, and by which stupefyingly precise route he drove his dad’s cream-colored Mercedes 450SL there (“I usually took Woodcliff to Valley Vista but on that first day I drove across Mulholland to Beverly Glen”). Old Bret is even more tedious and erratic than young Bret, and both of them are set up that way quite deliberately by Bret Easton Ellis.
The teen narrator who emerges from all this is perversely endearing, through the sheer force of his striving and unreliability. His circle of best friends, he tells us, features the overwhelmingly gorgeous couple of Thom and Susan, Buckley’s homecoming king and queen, and his own multi-orgasmic girlfriend, Debbie, “the hottest girl at Buckley … the fantasy boys jerk off to”—behind whose back Bret is having passionate sex with the Trans Am–driving co-captain of the football team, and with the “green-eyed Jewish guy with a killer body who was also the class stoner.”
Beyond the physical superlatives, Bret makes it clear he and his pals are culturally rarefied. They know the Stray Cats from “their U.K. import produced by Dave Edmunds” a year before the rest of America does; when the Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star” marks the birth of MTV, “we knew the song and had been listening to the album it came from, The Age of Plastic.” Even when the crew was still uncool enough to go see the Eagles, “we had watched as they broke up onstage in what would be their last concert for fifteen years.”
The question dangling here is how much of this we are supposed to disbelieve. Bret’s own friends accuse the budding writer of embellishing the facts, of bending reality to fit the story he wants to tell—especially when he starts telling them about the sinister patterns he perceives around Robert, the new boy at school, who is even more attractive than everyone else. “When you talk to me you’re really talking to yourself, dude,” Robert tells him, in an early confrontation that haunts Bret for the rest of the book.
What are the various Brets truly up to? Teen Bret struggles to describe his Less than Zero manuscript within the novel within the novel: “It was about me but there was no story … just this drifting numb quality that I was trying to perfect. It didn’t matter to me what the characters did.” From another angle, his girlfriend’s father, a powerful Hollywood producer, tells him, “It’s an exciting time for young people.... But their stories aren’t told well enough. Slasher flicks, sex comedies. Dumb stuff.”
Yet the grown-up Bret Ellis has put these reflections into a slasher film on the page, building to a pair of climactic gory set pieces that might as well be storyboards. Bret’s world is not merely being menaced by ennui, curdled privilege, and a terminal case of senioritis, but by a psychopathic killer called the Trawler, whose crimes fascinate and obsess our young protagonist. The old shocking transgressions of Less than Zero—teens dazing themselves out on heavy drugs, or trading gay sex acts with older figures for cash—are dealt with by page 9, as mere background to a sensational unfolding story of madness, murder, and mutilation.
The human experience of being young in the 80s is oddly out of reach in this frenzy. In a hip, darkened space that’s part bar, part art happening, Bret watches a projected music video filled with “the eighties video staples that hadn’t become clichés yet.”
But adult Bret is seeing this from the far side of a barrier of established cliché and representation, and so is the reader. When Bret goes to the Galleria, what played in my mind were the Galleria scenes from Fast Times at Ridgemont High. When Buckley’s mascot statue is creepily vandalized, it’s Donnie Darko. When Bret prowls the daytime streets playing detective, it’s Jeffrey Beaumont in Blue Velvet. When he goes to a druggy teen party beside a lit-up pool, of course, it’s Less than Zero, the movie.
Behind all the familiar sights is something Bret desperately wants the reader not to notice. The book builds toward a shattering secret that is not especially hard to see coming—the other characters keep more or less saying it, point-blank, and so do Bret’s choices of music and video entertainment—but the revelation just replaces one set of inconsistencies and improbabilities with another. The book ends up on the same question it begins with: Why is Bret telling us this?
An unhappy answer comes from the actual Bret Easton Ellis, in an author’s promotional note—not to be confused with the foreword and afterword provided by the fictitious Bret Ellis, about the writing of the fictitious novel. Bret Easton Ellis, who read the unedited book as a serial presentation on The Bret Easton Ellis Podcast, describes it as having arisen from his teenage fears, as an aspiring writer drawing on his own experience, of distorting and misunderstanding the real-world events of his life. “I imagined a relationship with a boy was something other than what it was,” he writes.
Here, for sure, is a horror story of the 80s. The young Bret of The Shards tells himself he’s a secret bisexual, while his middle-aged persona spells out his exclusively male fantasies. He’s trapped inside a double closet, unable to admit even what he’s unable to admit. The lurid secrets of a knife-wielding lunatic are more accessible—more acceptable—than the ordinary secrets of a gay teen. Bret Easton Ellis would rather lock his teenage alter ego inside a horror novel than let him face something that might resemble real life.
Tom Scocca is the former politics editor of Slate and the editor of Popula