In the 594 pages of The Shards, the enfant terrible Bret Easton Ellis inhabits an excessive amount of space to recount a ‘fusion of fact and fiction’ of his teenage life. There is an obsessive attention to detail and a habitual repetition which is characteristic in Ellis’ writing. Even though Less than Zero (1985) and Joan Didion’s work are often quoted and referenced in The Shards, his latest novel is a natural continuation of The Rules of Attraction (1987). There is a complex melange of biography which is fully expanded on and offered as an elongated “stream of consciousness”, alternating explicit insights to a teenager’s mind in 1981, an exposé of sexuality and his fear of Trawler, a serial killer, making it an uncanny nightmarish concoction of The Rules of Attraction and American Psycho. The repetition allows the reader to imagine the narrative vividly, and also foreshadows the TV series or film that will undoubtedly emerge from this novel. For Ellis, novels are about style and consciousness, while screenplays are about structure and economy – but The Shards inhabits the space in between these two, and makes use of urgent dialogue that grants the reader access to the protagonists’ voices. The Shards reminds us how much recent television series such as Elite and Euphoria owe to Bret Easton Ellis’ writing and his reckless approach to human existence.
Bret Easton Ellis, once more, verges into a narcissistic, solipsistic, hedonistic journey of self-discovery, excess and observation, with glimpses to the minutiae of everyday life of the 17-year-old protagonist Bret and his affluent environment. As a writer, he sometimes prefers an ‘aesthetic distance’ in his works, but in The Shards, there is a closeness, a suffocating proximity which presents the locations that his character Bret, and ultimately Bret Easton Ellis himself frequented: the villas, the swimming pools, the parties, the hotels, and the Buckley school itself. The characters who surround him offer distinct teenage characteristics but are, still, lucid and fully portrayed: Debbie, Susan, Thom, Matt, Ryan and the enigmatic Robert Mallory. Their parents remain, admittedly, visibly absent.
The lyrical homoerotic passages exploring the physical attributes of the male characters invite comparisons to Constantine P. Cavafy and Allen Ginsberg (and his obsession with the legendary Neal Cassady), but also explore a vibrant bisexuality which defines the storyline before it all leads to an explosive denouement. His sex scenes are extensive and graphic, and they create a voyeuristic space for the reader to observe, unobserved, the characters in their intense casual encounters, and how they avoid acknowledging any causal effect this has on each other. The painful confrontations of jealousy, extremes of mood swings and intriguing emotional and personal moments of contemplation in enclosed spaces are solipsistic and hyper-realistic.
In The Shards, the swimming pool area, and specifically the water – a cathartic space for Bret – transforms from recreational venue to a crime scene, from a space of rejuvenation and desire to that of obsession, and the exploration of naked sensuality. And the swimming pool locker room allows the writer to live his voyeuristic fantasies in an embodied way: “We started changing in front of each other – Thom and Robert seemed less hesitant and self-conscious than I was – and I took sidelong glances at them as we casually talked to each other while stripping off our uniforms. Thom turned around when he slipped off his underwear and quickly stepped into his bathing suit, unaware that I wanted to…” (p.259).
As a comeback, The Shards remains a fascinating investigation of bisexuality – the space between the male and female body and everything in between – ambivalence, (self-)discovery, the terrain between self-doubt and confidence, and that very dark sphere of jealousy. Observing life in such closeness, opening up spaces for old wounds to re-emerge, and perhaps heal, opening up the hidden worlds of bedrooms and thoughts never uttered, instances of emotional instability, excessive drug abuse, sexual abuse and loneliness. As a thriller, it offers a deeply uncomfortable and unsettling descent to human violence, decapitation and torture. But, in its core, it is an homage to those who were never able to be “the most popular guy” at school, the “jock”, but only exist in a peripheral zone, actively contributing to the popular guy’s narcissistic existence.