Queue Blondie, Duran Duran. And in theaters? The Shining. Apocalypse Now.
The Shards is the novel Bret Easton Ellis wanted to write when he was a senior in high school. Instead, he produced Less Than Zero (1985) which captured what Ellis identifies as the paradoxical feeling of numbness in 80s Los Angeles and launched his career as one of the most prominent novelists of the era. In his own words, it was “a vibe book.” Where Less Than Zero finds teenagers slouching in the shadows of their decisions, the autofiction of The Shards uses the sounds, colors, and textures of the past to recall with unflinching clarity the world of Bret’s youth and to reckon with the motives and actions of those teenagers.
On Friday, February 3, Ellis spoke at The Sheldonian Theater to introduce The Shards. Readers follow 17-year-old Bret through his senior year at The Buckley School, an elite college preparatory day school in Los Angeles, as his relationships with friends weave in and out of their city’s complex sociopolitical landscape. The novel is Ellis’s first in thirteen years. In jeans, a black hoodie, and a polo shirt he confesses to the gathered crowd, “I didn’t have the talent to write a book with as many characters as I imagined. [At 17], I was a liar. I was living a fake life.” He likens being a writer to possessing a superpower – one that he could not control until he gained more experience with his craft.
When the pandemic hit, Ellis looked up people he knew from his past. He was haunted that he couldn’t find his high school classmates. In his search, Ellis discovered that the coffee shops, the malls, and the movie theaters where he and his friends hung out in high school had all been raised. There was the first spark of inspiration. “The novel wouldn’t be narrated by the 17-year-old Bret, but the 57-year-old man who could flesh out the entire tragedy, who could give context to the horrific events that happen in the book.”
For this reason, New York Times Books critic, Melissa Broder, recognizes “an exciting new vulnerability” in The Shards. Indeed, Ellis stresses during the talk that his book is above all about “the people I loved.” The author explains, “My alienation at that time prompted me to become a writer… I led a solitary existence made up of disappearing into books and movies, being obsessed with music… It’s my turn now to write about myself at that age. The things I went through. The things that haunted me.”
In the claustrophobic numbness of 1981 Los Angeles, Bret’s alienation acts as a centripetal force for the narrative. Ellis attributes this, in part, to his closeted gay existence. At Buckley, “we were secret agents sending out signals to each other.” He asserts that, just as he did not shy away from Patrick Bateman’s illusions in American Psycho (1991), he would not hide from the complex fantasies of Bret coming to grips with his own sexuality. “A lot of critics think this book has too much sex in it, too much masturbation, that the Bret character has too many fantasies, but if you’re a 17-year-old boy, you want sex constantly. To not have Bret describe the sex he has with girls and boys would be inauthentic.”
In our conversation after the talk, I ask Ellis what the virtue is in building his texts around his own life experience. “Everyone that is a successful writer ultimately writes what they know regardless of genre. Even science fiction writers create fantasies that are very personal about their longings and about what they aspire to.”
Ellis published Less Than Zero while still a 21-year-old student at Bennington College in Vermont. I mention to him the popular Podcast, Once Upon a Time in Bennington, that details his time as an undergraduate with other culture-defining novelists, Donna Tartt and Jonathan Lethem. What was it like to live and work in a community of aspiring writers? “It was both exciting and daunting. I thought I was [the best writer in the school] until I read Donna’s work. Then I realized she was probably the best.” He shakes his head no with a smile when my follow up is whether he has a hidden part in Tartt’s novel about students who attend a fictional college in Vermont, The Secret History (1992). “Unfortunately, if I had known that so many people would be so interested in that particular time at that particular college and who we were, I think we all would have behaved a lot differently.”
All three writers went on to produce novels that would captivate the literary world to varying degrees, but unlike Tartt and Lethem, Ellis – maybe for having grown up in LA, maybe because movies were reliable friends in his teenage years – felt drawn to Hollywood. “I regret those years.” He spent much of the early and mid 2000s writing scripts that went through rewrites of rewrites until their stories became unrecognizable from the original or were commissioned but never ultimately produced. Ellis looks back on that time as a failed enterprise. “Those were my 40s and 50s. That’s when writers produce their great novels, and I was in Hollywood writing things that never got made.”
The dedication to The Shards reads “for no one,” and Ellis states plainly, “I didn’t write it for the audience. I’m not that kind of writer.” However, the implications of revisiting the past are not lost on the people gathered in the Sheldonian or the future reader of the novel. Ellis began his career when people congregated at box offices for the event of a big screen picture, before social media reduced the time allotted for a narrative to develop. While the way we receive and internalize stories will always change, the basic human emotions that drive them are consistent – perhaps, persistent. When Ellis brings back the songs and the movies and the characters from the 80s in The Shards, he demonstrates how mature memory may access the whole story. It’s not about vibes anymore.
The Shards by Brett Easton Ellis is 608 pages and published by Knopf. It is available at Blackwell’s for £21.99.