There’s an anecdote I sometimes wheel out to strangers or dates to convey the sort of child I was, a morbid and sensitive one with a streak of prurient proxy-sadism. In my hometown there is a huge bookshop with a cafe and I often went to read books for free for as long as I could get away with, books for adults, books about things I wasn’t yet allowed to know about. When I was eleven years old I picked up a copy of American Psycho (1991) by Bret Easton Ellis and spent eight consecutive Saturdays reading it in rapt horror. When I came to a passage in which Patrick Bateman electrocutes a woman’s breasts and her fat splatters onto a window – an image which has remained lodged near the surface of my mind ever since – I burst into nervous laughter and then almost immediately began to cry.
Ellis has remained an ambient presence in my life ever since. Often, how I relate to him has to do with how readily I am able to engage with irony, a variance which determines everything from how I write to how I speak to how I make friends. By the time I was 20, I’d read everything he wrote. I was going through a strange phase, compulsively social and dependent on my friends for any sense of meaning in the world, and yet plagued by the certainty that the way we talked and joked together was preventing actual connection. I felt profoundly isolated. Once I asked my father if he had ever found that irony created a barrier between himself and his peers, and he responded ‘I don’t think we knew what irony was’. But I did. I lived in it and it had poisoned me, made me bitter and lonely and inauthentic. I was undergoing a spiritual crisis, and decided I hated Ellis. I would put all my faith in total sincerity. I would invest in earnestness. I read A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000), with its pleas for authenticity, honesty and disavowals of snide criticism, and believed that Dave Eggers would save me. This approach was not successful but it was all I could think to try. Later, I hated Ellis all over again when he began the most irritating of his anti-woke millennial rhetoric, in essays referencing his partner, a man substantially younger than himself. He seemed to enjoy with unappealingly juvenile relish his ability to annoy a younger generation, lampooning our over-sensitivity and lack of substance. Some of these thoughts were captured in the lacklustre 2019 collection White, which seemed to confirm that despite Ellis’s skill as a novelist there was something at his core not to be trusted. He felt profoundly dated, a quality incompatible with his obsession with coolness, and I mentally consigned him to the dustbin of history.
Then last year I listened to the podcast ‘Once Upon A Time… at Bennington College’ which explores the era in which Donna Tartt, Jonathan Lethem and Ellis were in attendance at the private liberal arts college, at the same time. Ellis is an eager contributor, the willing foil to Tartt’s dignified decades long silence. The guy loves to talk and he’s good at it. I listened to him speak about the wild reception to Less Than Zero (1985) – a sensational debut written at 19 years old which chronicles the numb, jaded, drugged out teens of Los Angeles – his precocious celebrity, and the social dynamics at Bennington, I realised with surprise how much I liked him. I wanted to spend time with this man. He didn’t sound like the embittered dinosaur I’d imagined, scathing and furious at the changing of the guard, he sounded insightful and playful and engaged with art with admirable boyish enthusiasm. Soon after he was everywhere, fully resurrected, the culture greeting him with forgiving benevolence. His tendency toward hackish reductivity had mellowed, less specifically vitriolic about millennials with social justice concerns, and more universally nihilistic in a way which appears not totally feigned but definitely funny. ‘I never feel optimistic about the future. I don’t even think about it any more. I just read novels. I answer my emails. I keep The Food Network on,’ he said in an interview promoting The Shards recently.
Ellis has always been acutely self-aware but The Shards (2023), his latest novel, is rendered with a new kind of fragile consciousness, one related to but distinct from the arch tone of Less Than Zero and other works. For the first time it feels as though he can stand to convey the true agony involved in knowing one’s self without comedic moderation or ironic distance. On the face of it The Shards is a pulpy thriller, narrated by a character named Bret Easton Ellis and following a group of privileged urbane teenagers in LA, as a serial killer nicknamed The Trawler casts a shadow over their delusional glamorous lives. Bret has a girlfriend, Debbie, but also has consistent gay trysts he keeps hidden from his group, including golden couple Susan and Tom, a honeyed fantasy pairing he loves as friends sincerely but also desires painfully, privately. New boy Robert Mallory initially takes Bret’s attention through his astonishing good looks but soon the two begin to circle one another with increasing menace and suspicion. Robert’s story doesn’t check out, he is vacant behind the eyes, he carries an aura of secrecy. Soon his allure threatens to shatter the established order of things, to come between Susan and Tom, a relationship everyone needs to continue for equilibrium to be maintained.
Full disclosure: ‘rich hot teenagers examine their social dynamics while a serial killer hunts them’ is a plot which appeals to me so much it may as well have been devised in a lab. I compulsively read trash like this and my hope going in was that it would be a slightly more literary version of my ordinary pulp, enough bon mots to make me feel good rather than bad about my consumption. There are, indeed, the bones of a serviceable but insubstantial thriller here, enough moments of tension and increasing dread to keep one compelled through nearly 600 pages, chase scenes and mysterious objects and ominous strangers. But chiefly The Shards works as a painful exposition of the daily fright of pretending to be a person you are not – or, more frighteningly, the worry that you are not really a person at all.
Many of the most acutely rendered moments, the ones I winced with recognition at, are moments of transition as Bret moves from one space to another and decides to construct an image of a person he does not feel himself to be. The distance between portrayal and reality is in part to do with panic: Bret exists in a state of near-constant panic, always alive to the danger of others, to sudden noises in the patio at night, to the realisation he is not alone in the men’s bathroom, to a fleeting moment of disapproval from a beautiful man. Meanwhile, he fetishises blankness. Over and over again we hear how Susan’s numbness and blankness are what make her lovable to him (as well as her beauty). The entire point of life is to move through it as a cool customer never betraying the reality of emotion or difficulty, no matter that doing so makes him intolerably lonely. He calls this false self he builds up and maintains every day ‘the tangible participant’, and when all is going as it should be, the Valium is topped up, the shirt is right, the hair styled just so, the tangible participant looks just as attractive and cool as anyone else he admires. The more the events of The Trawler and of Robert Mallory begin to obsess him, though, the less able he is to feed the identity machine adequately. The book’s ending – though it ultimately becomes a little deflating and baggy through insistent repetition and aimless meandering just at the moment the reader is primed for crescendo – did move me in its despair about this failure, the desperation of a good actor who has forgotten to act.
There is a finely conveyed sadness to do with the stark reveal of your little performances. And then to look and see what is truly there at your core and find perhaps that it’s nothing at all – this dread is the characteristic feeling underpinning The Shards. Perhaps too this absence goes some way to explaining a rather overdeveloped devotion to recalling youth and preserving images, a tendency both Bret the man and Bret the character in The Shards share. If you fear there is nothing solid at your centre, nothing substantial and interior to bolster you into middle age, it makes sense to hark nostalgically back to when at least the image was holding up. It’s hard to pull off insouciant flatness of affect in the indignity of an ageing body. Hedonism, pure pleasures like cocaine and liquor and risky sexual behaviour, which make up the core of lives of the characters in The Shards and which also once defined the real Bret Easton Ellis and his literary brat pack cohort when he first became a sensation – these things become more difficult to cleanly enjoy as you get older. They accrue meaning and portent – suggest a darkness – in a way they don’t necessarily when you are young.
In January in downtown Brooklyn I joined perhaps the longest queue I have ever participated in to see Ellis speak with Naomi Fry about The Shards. A woman passing by asked what we were all waiting for and when I said ‘Bret Easton Ellis’ she shook her head angrily and said ‘What?’. Naturally enough, demographics being what they are and me dating who I date, a man I had gone on one unsuccessful outing with in the past arrived and joined me in my place in line as I silently panicked. ‘Hey, look, it’s him,’ the guy said, nudging me and pointing out a man with surprisingly white hair in a black hoodie. And it was: he had walked past the whole length of the queue without anyone else seeming to notice, smiling politely at his handler as the excitable chatter of oblivious fans surrounded them. The crowd was young, peppered with celebrities and tousled fashion folk, and as he spoke I felt oddly cheered. The fanboy enthusiasm for storytelling which works to relieve the nihilism in The Shards had also, it felt to me, worked to counteract the inevitable failure of coolness in his own case, and now we were somewhere different, somewhere more human and interesting.