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The Shards


The Shards

A privileged high school senior who is exploring his sexuality and his creativity as an aspiring author. A murderer on the loose and a killing spree that affects his friends. The social lives of the young, impressionable and wealthy. Sexual assault in the name of making money in Hollywood. There are so many storylines in THE SHARDS that it hoists itself well above the average “killer on the loose” agenda and gives us Bret Easton Ellis’ most readable book since LESS THAN ZERO.

Bret, the writer himself, is the novel’s protagonist. There are disclaimers before, during and after his first-person narrative declaring that it's a bit of a memoir, a lot of imagination and maybe another smidge of real life. He notes that in the midst of telling stories from his young adulthood, he is also making stuff up. And the stew that he concocts is a sex-obsessed, heart-pounding thriller that I found hard to put down.

"There are so many storylines in THE SHARDS that it hoists itself well above the average 'killer on the loose' agenda and gives us Bret Easton Ellis’ most readable book since LESS THAN ZERO."

Bret, the character, is writing a novel about his rich, crazy, drug-and-sex-experimenting friends. He gives us perhaps too much information about his own sex life, but his oversharing makes him feel very real to us. He is an anxious, independent, depressed young man who is looking forward to escaping LA to go to Bennington College in Vermont the following fall. The story takes place during two summers and one school year. There are so many things to pull a reader into this book that I think you could read it multiple times, focusing each time on yet another character and their storyline to understand how they all influence each other. THE SHARDS is a thick plate-glass window with many layers that protect us from the dangerous frolics of these LA kids.

The novel is set in the ’80s. It is a Bret Easton Ellis before he became a literary phenom, stuck in a triad that includes Jay McInerney and classmate and best friend Donna Tartt. They were the Lost Generation Remix. And Ellis gives us (perhaps) a more realistic view of how and why the traumas of their lives could happen. These are teenagers who drive the fanciest cars, go to expensive prep schools, and from the outside look like they will go on to become upstanding members of society. However, behind the scenes, the façade becomes weak. Ellis lets us see all the evils they must put up with to survive.

As a serial killer known as the Trawler begins to pick off wealthy kids from his school, Bret meets a new student. Wary because it seems so suspect for a senior to start at a new school, he becomes transfixed by the handsome, charismatic and mysterious Robert Mallory. Bret has a girlfriend but also several boyfriends behind the scenes, and he is hesitant to out himself. So he and his paramours are all closeted. His girlfriend’s parents are breaking up and causing a lot of difficulty for everyone involved with her. Robert spent a few years in an institution after a nervous breakdown. The drugs and alcohol run at very adult levels, and Bret tries to keep abreast of all of this while delving deeper into the brutal deaths caused by the Trawler. Is he about to become a victim himself?

It must be said, though, that Bret is already the victim of an uncaring world where families are more concerned about the guest list at their pool parties than how their children are doing. In the present state of the world, his lack of being cared for feels like a warning of the greater mental health crisis that young people are facing today. The novel presents a template for the days when the fabric of what was considered the American way becomes unraveled by the proliferation of all possible vices. It also gives us an erotic thriller and a handbook for how not to raise a child.

By putting himself front and center in the story, Ellis creates a solid link between his readers and himself. As someone who grew up in the ’80s, I loved the constant stream of cultural references, the preppy clothes, the movies and the music, and everything else he uses to pad his tense, atmospheric story.

THE SHARDS is a literary testament to the ability we all have as we get older to look at our pasts and realize that had we known as much as we do today, we would have been even more frightened and unsure about how we lived our teen lives. It is not always the most comfortable read, but it is a compelling one. Bret Easton Ellis’ command of his own talent is clearly nothing to doubt. He has a story to tell, and readers should line up to listen.

Reviewed by Jana Siciliano on January 27, 2023

The Shards
by Bret Easton Ellis