The early 1980s of Bret Easton Ellis’s doorstopper novel hauntingly evoke pathologies of the present
Bret Easton Ellis’s 1985 novel Less Than Zero offers an insider’s guided tour of the partying, sex, drug abuse, preening, crises, and rivalries of a set of rich young Los Angelenos. He wrote his new door-stopper of a book The Shards from the perspective of an adult looking back at the life and milieu he inhabited decades ago. Everything in Less Than Zero felt lived in, and the same is true in The Shards. But in The Shards the viewpoint is that of a guy with vastly more life experience, the geographical parameters aren’t as narrow, and the narrative abandons the principle of all vision and next to no story for loads of vision and story.
The Shards features scenes of a main character who resembles the Clay of Less Than Zero. But this protagonist spends time in New York with his parents, and Ellis describes things not in the clipped, slang-ridden style of a teen, complete with syntactical errors, but in the discursive and sometimes lyrical style of a mature author, one who has learned how to write without losing any of his morbid fascination for what he saw and felt.
The Shards offers that in the context of a work with a tighter plot than Less Than Zero, in spite of its far greater length. In The Shards, the teens of 1981 Los Angeles still have self-destructive tendencies, yet they are generally not their own worst enemies. Amid the partying, sex, listening to hip music, and cruising around to mansions, drive-ins, and nightclubs, a pair of intertwining plots develop about a newcomer at the local high school named Robert Mallory whom the narrator suspects of being a serial killer called The Trawler, and a cult of Manson-like weirdos who turn up on strangers’ property and work all manner of mischief.
Less Than Zero served up hints of these storylines, particularly the latter. The italicized passages in that novel present Clay’s accounts of hearing a dog bark late night and not going outside to find out why—Ellis knows that what he leaves to the imagination is scarier than anything he could depict—and of the aftermath of trespasses on the family’s property. After finding discarded cigarette wrappers, the father makes some upgrades to home security.
In The Shards, Ellis finally answers some of the questions that the earlier book briefly raised, and at certain points, we get to see the monster. A scene in a chic nightclub, where a drugged-out hippie scratches the forehead of a girl who enters the restroom at the wrong time before the staff put him in a headlock and call the police, will haunt you. But some readers won’t worry about these cultists who have nothing on the Manson crew. Instead, what is up with this guy, Robert Mallory, who shadows the narrator during the latter’s jaunts around the Valley and whom Clay/Ellis can barely stop thinking about?
Mallory is the repository of all the narrator’s fears about what the type of dude known these days as an incel might do. The young women who turn up dead in various places around the city are just the kind this unstable boy, who spent time in institutional care in Jacksonville before coming to Southern California, can only admire from a distance. What sets him apart from other lonely guys, it becomes clear early on, is his willingness to go to lengths to mess with people’s minds and freak them out. He walks up the aisle in a movie theater and leaves a strange and haunting impression in Ellis’s mind before tailing him as Ellis drives around the Valley, psyching the narrator out with his ability to idle at a curb and then shoot out and merge with tight traffic without warning. The narrator, and the reader, had no idea he could drive so skillfully, and that’s far from all.
Read any review or critical work on Bret Easton Ellis, and you are more than likely to encounter the term narcissism. The kids in Less Than Zero and in the new novel are obsessed with fashion and looking good, and you can just see them sitting around their pools in the Valley wearing their pricey Ray-Bans late at night, looking and feeling cool. Reading The Shards in the context of present morality, you will note similarities as well as differences between what people used to know as narcissism back in the 1980s, and the type of behavior that social media promotes and facilitates. It has changed tremendously, and not for the better.
In The Shards, Ellis worries so constantly and acutely about Mallory eavesdropping and spying on him that his feelings will not abate even when he visits New York, nearly 3,000 miles from the scenes of the perceived stalking harassment. Even on the East Coast, Ellis does not feel safe from Mallory. He writes: “And again I had become fearful I was being watched, whether I walked through Barneys or along the edges of Central Park or at the crowded bar in P.J. Clarke’s—I never got over the feeling that Robert Mallory was somewhere, holding a pair of binoculars, or looking at me through a telescope, constantly locating and monitoring me, from somewhere.”
Maybe 1981 doesn’t sound that long ago, but how alien a world it seems, when even a character widely known to belong to a set of young SoCal narcissists wanted very much to limit, not expand indefinitely, others’ access to his personal and private self.
How different the world is now. The concern, even on the part of a fashion-conscious narcissist, for privacy and for limiting his exposure to those bad actors who would peer into his life, has given way in our time to a tendency to put the stuff of one’s inner life out there and let strangers help themselves. Here I am, world. Check me out! Never mind that the world is full of sick and dangerous people. Open the doors of your private life, share sexy photos on Instagram, what’s the worst that could happen?
The Shards reminds us of how certain of the unhealthiest habits of past generations have mutated and evolved into self-endangering behavior that will continue to bear hideous fruit as social media collapse the boundaries between public and private and elide distinctions on which civilized life, everywhere and for eons, has turned.