Book Reviews

The Shards by Bret Easton Ellis at Knopf

Genre Gay / Bisexual / Historical / Recent (1980s) / Students/Teachers/Professors / Young Adult / Mystery/Suspense/Thriller
Reviewed by ParisDude on 03-August-2023

Book Blurb

Seventeen-year-old Bret is a senior at the exclusive Buckley prep school when a new student arrives with a mysterious past. Robert Mallory is bright, handsome, charismatic, and shielding a secret from Bret and his friends even as he becomes a part of their tightly knit circle. Bret’s obsession with Mallory is equaled only by his increasingly unsettling preoccupation with the Trawler, a serial killer on the loose who seems to be drawing ever closer to Bret and his friends, taunting them—and Bret in particular—with grotesque threats and horrific, sharply local acts of violence. The coincidences are uncanny, but they are also filtered through the imagination of a teenager whose gifts for constructing narrative from the filaments of his own life are about to make him one of the most explosive literary sensations of his generation. Can he trust his friends—or his own mind—to make sense of the danger they appear to be in? Thwarted by the world and by his own innate desires, buffeted by unhealthy fixations, he spirals into paranoia and isolation as the relationship between the Trawler and Robert Mallory hurtles inexorably toward a collision. 

Set against the intensely vivid and nostalgic backdrop of pre-
Less Than Zero L.A., The Shards is a mesmerizing fusing of fact and fiction, the real and the imagined, that brilliantly explores the emotional fabric of Bret’s life at seventeen—sex and jealousy, obsession and murderous rage. Gripping, sly, suspenseful, deeply haunting, and often darkly funny, The Shards is Ellis at his inimitable best.


Book Review

One of the seemingly easiest French salad dressings is the sauce vinagrette—in a nutshell, a mixture of mustard, vinegar, and olive oil. It is simple if you prepare it like most people; they pour the three ingredients into a bowl, give them a few stirs, and voilà. The result is… bleh. Edible. Not the real thing. But I don’t work like that. Call me  anal-retentive, call me perfectionist, but I always try to make everything blend together until I have a, uniform sauce. I start with the mustard and vinegar, then slowly add the oil, and stir, stir, stir, until “la sauce prend” as we say in French. The sauce amalgamates to perfection. You can’t distinguish the particular ingredients any longer; you get a nice, smooth new thing.


I was reminded of this—“la sauce prend”—while reading Bret Easton Ellis’s latest novel, released last January. At first (at long, long first, if I may say so), I had a hard time getting into the book. An unexpected surprise for me, who couldn’t praise Ellis’s other novels too enthusiastically (I’d be hard put to tell you how many times I re-read ‘Less Than Zero’, ‘The Rules of Attraction’, ‘American Psycho’, and above all, ‘Glamorama’). But this time, I encountered quite a few things that annoyed me, disappointed me, discomfited me. For more than a third of the novel, I couldn’t bring myself to care for any of the characters or what happened to them. I disliked the first-person narrator, who came across as a spoiled, self-centred, delusional brat. Most importantly, I felt as if I was kept outside the story, as if the words hid the plot. But little by little, with the author stirring and stirring and stirring in winding, gushing, breathless sentences, loops, repetitions, I could feel it: “la sauce prend.” For the second half of the book, I was in the game, I felt everything, I became involved, I even believed the story to be true (an erroneous belief that only crumbled when I stumbled upon the disclaimer at the very end of the book which told me otherwise).


The plot takes place in 1981. It’s the singular story of Bret, a rich, bored, blasé seventeen-year-old kid who lives in Los Angeles, in a huge, soulless mansion on Mulholland Drive, drives his state-of-the-art German-brand car to this upper-class private school called Buckley in Sherman Oaks, wants to become a writer (believes he is already a writer, to be more precise), and hangs out with the other rich, spoiled kids of his senior class. That would be namely his girlfriend Debbie; his best friends, aloof Susan and too-nice-to-be-true football hunk Thom, who could be the poster couple of any highschool TV show; handsome Ryan with the secret agenda; dopey Matt, Bret’s own secret. What is that secret? Well, the first-person narrator who the reader is made to believe to be the author themselves is more attracted to guys than to his clingy girlfriend, whom he only dates because she fits into his current narrative. Of course Bret has an unrequited and unavowed crush on Thom; and of course, Matt being an uncomplicated and willing outcast, they frequently meet in Matt’s discreet hang-out to have sex, too.


Then a new guy joins Buckley. Robert. Another rich, handsomer-than-thou guy. Bret thinks he saw him before, but Robert denies it. Is he lying? Why does he feel so disconcertingly… off to Bret, somehow? What is he hiding? While the other youngsters welcome the newcomer and try to make him fit in seamlessly, Bret starts getting obsessed with not only odd Robert but also a mass murderer who calls himself the Trawler and who has so far abducted, tortured, then killed three highschool girls (and no one else seems to care). As the questions abound, Bret finds himself sucked into a dangerous maelstrom which will alter his life forever…


Bret Easton Ellis presents the same ingredients that have made his fame and glory. A bunch of wealthy, entitled, utterly clueless characters whose main goal in life is to fit into the prewritten roles they’re meant to fit into. They are all shown as rather unfeeling, unemotional, uncaring individuals. When in a relationship, they just go with the prescripted flow. They are actors, not even skilled ones. They’re not unlikeable per se, but numb, with a pronounced “So What”-and-“Whatever” attitude. Anything outside their confined, almost claustrophobic circle becomes nonexistent for them. Politics, class, privilege, racial issues, poverty—they don’t see it, and therefore, those things vanish completely. They drive around in expensive cars (BMWs, Mercedes, Porsches, Jaguars), they wear expensive designer clothes, they go to the movies several times a week, they interact politely but uninterestedly with their house staff, they ride their horses, they throw (and attend) parties, they smoke clove cigarettes, they drink margaritas, they get high (weed, cocaine, loads of prescription drugs, anything to keep reality at bay). They’re young, with a bright, cloudless future lying ahead of them, and completely left alone (if you want to see any responsible parents or any responsible adults, for that matter, pick up another book because the’re completely absent from this one—over the whole, several-months-long span of the novel, Bret’s parents, for instance, are absent from their home).


Bret is part of this specific group, and yet, he knows he doesn’t really fit in. He knows he’s different. For starters, he’s gay (pretty much closeted because he has to consider his future career). He also thinks (and overthinks) too much. He notices things (“as a writer,” he would say). He acknowledges the fact that he’s putting on an act, that he’s playing a role, and he seems to be the only one not overtly happy with it. As the book progresses, I was left wondering if he was delusional because it became hard to decide whether what he presented as truths and reality was really that (this trick reminded me of my all-time favorite, ‘Glamorama’), or if he really sniffed out things that were foul. Maybe that was what drew me in at the end, this distortion between what was shown, through the eyes and mind of Bret, and what was real.


But at first, when I started reading the book, I’m afraid I found it quite… boring (I never thought I’d say such a thing about an Ellis novel). Boring and outright annoying. There were some idiosyncracies that made me want to scream—if I never read the word “narrative” again, I wouldn’t complain; and which seventeen-year-old boy is so sure of himself that he refers to himself as “a writer”? I mean, seriously? I also found most of the characters somewhat half-assed, unfinished, almost caricatural. The narrator went on and on, almost whiningly, about seemingly unimportant things, then ended most of the chapters with some anticipatory foretelling (along the lines of “little did I know then that this and this would happen” where you can replace “this and this” with something very sinister) that made me want to skip whole passages until I could find out what it all was about. “Get to the point, dude,” was what I was frequently thinking.


And yet, Bret Easton Ellis being one of my most admired writers, I persevered. And, as I said at the beginning, little by little, the sauce started to come together. Things started to make more sense, started to close in on me, the reader, and pull me in. I guess it took me over a month, with several interruptions, to finish the first half, and only two evenings to rush through the second. There, at last, I found remnants of what I love this author for. The suspense, the chills, the cringing together with one of the characters, the fears, the hopes, the meaningful insights. I didn’t even mind that what was masterfully shown in Ellis’s previous novels was sometimes told in this one. All in all, I recommend this book even though it’s not, as the blurb claims, “Ellis at his inimitable best.” It was good, I’ll certainly read it again, too, but let’s say that if ‘Glamorama’ is undoubtedly excellent for me, this one would come in as good.




DISCLAIMER: Books reviewed on this site were usually provided at no cost by the author. This book has been purchased by the reviewer.


Additional Information

Format ebook and print
Length Novel, 595 pages
Heat Level
Publication Date 17-January-2023
Price $14.99 ebook, $17.39 hardcover
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