You can see the Century Towers—the site of the harrowing climax of The Shards, Bret Easton Ellis’s new novel—from Ellis’s 11th-story condo in West Hollywood. It was designed by I.M. Pei in 1964, and for many years it epitomized mid-century-modern chic, and the juxtaposition Ellis paints in his novel—blood splattered against sleek white walls, chaos enveloping order—feels anticipatory. The crack-up on our horizon.
When I asked him, over dinner at Matú in Beverly Hills, whether the crack-up had already happened, whether it was all over, or whether there was any cause for hope (in America, the West, the human species), he laughed and said, “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.”
It had been almost 13 years since Ellis, the author of Less Than Zero and American Psycho, had published a novel when, in April 2020, he was sitting at his laptop in the condo and The Shards just “announced itself,” he told me.
He had been trying to write it since he was 17. But every time he tried he failed. It wasn’t until 2020 that he realized “the key to unlocking it after all these years was that it needed an older voice, that it was, in fact, a memory.”
Then, over the course of 16 months, it poured out of him. “Writing has always helped me understand the world—often it’s bliss, a heightened state of pleasure,” he told me.
Writing The Shards, he said, was “a kind of letting go of the past.”
The Shards is about a serial killer named The Trawler prowling the canyons and malls and parking lots of Los Angeles in the fall of 1981, and the kids whose lives are turned upside down by him.
Unlike Ellis’ previous novels, this one is a big, carefully woven yarn, with plot twists and cliffhangers, and there’s a new vulnerability, a self-awareness. It lacks that Ellis-y staccato cadence.
But it’s not exactly a surprise. It’s more a natural extension of his earlier books: He had first sketched these character types—the rich latchkey kids with their varying sexual preferences and drugs and music—in his 1985 breakout novel Less Than Zero and fleshed them out in his 1987 follow-up, The Rules of Attraction.
Then, in 1990, Ellis wrote American Psycho—about a yuppie who may or may not be a serial killer—and was promptly dubbed a misogynist and became a victim of cancel culture decades before that was a thing. (It was a profitable cancellation, but still.) So, in 2019, when Ellis published White, his first work of nonfiction, it was perhaps not surprising that he had a few things to say about the cancellers (part of a phenomenon he called “Generation Wuss”). But it wasn’t great, and he soon returned to fiction. The Shards parachutes us back into the world from which Ellis comes, the world before the youngs became so sensitive, so weak.
He thought there was something to the idea that we were pushing back against the Pacific Ocean of wussiness that had engulfed us. “I love this fantasy that they are reacting against Millennials,” Ellis told me, referring to Zoomers. “Just like Millennials find Gen X disgusting, I do think Zoomers will find Millennials absurd, like we all do.”
We were on our second or third round of drinks, and the steak tartare had just arrived, and Ellis, in a black hoodie—he always wears black James Perse hoodies, black Calvin Klein t-shirts, and black Lacoste shirts—seemed bored. There, but not exactly. He was exceedingly polite.
I wanted to talk about the story behind the story.
Yes, there’s The Trawler, but really, The Shards is about Ellis confronting Ellis. Navigating the complicated shoals—or shards?—of adolescence. It is not a coincidence that the book’s antihero is “Bret Ellis” and that he attends the private school, Buckley, attended by the author, and that the author himself was a senior in the fall of 1981.
But really really, it’s about that miraculous moment in America when young people—those of us who came after the turn-on-tune-in-drop-out Boomer herd, and preceded the similarly nauseating, helicoptered Millennial monolith—did what they were put on this Earth to do: seek out their freedom.
“We were very, very free to explore things that might hurt us, potentially might damage us,” Ellis told me.
The teenagers in The Shards are not really teenagers but proto-adults, young people sifting through the liminal space between youth and adulthood trying to become full-fledged humans while not doing too many catastrophically stupid things. What makes The Shards, like all of Ellis’ novels, entertaining is that, armed with a great deal of money and unhindered by parental oversight, the teenagers do, in fact, do many stupid things (some catastrophic). They have sex with grown-ups. They prostitute themselves. They glide through school in a semi-stupor helped by their mothers’ Valium.
There’s a scene in the novel in which Bret pitches a movie idea to a producer named Terry Schaeffer in a bungalow at The Beverly Hills Hotel and winds up in bed with him.
“‘That was thirty minutes of my time,’” the producer tells Bret. “‘And now I want thirty minutes of yours.’
“There was a silence. ‘What does that mean?’ I mumbled. I knew exactly what he meant but I just wanted to postpone the reality of the situation.
“‘Quid pro quo.’ He shrugged.”
“Whatever my take is on the Terry Schaeffer thing, it’s something that happened to me,” Ellis told me. “Not quite in that way, but yeah, I thought I was going to get something, you know. And I was young. I thought, ‘Okay, this older producer is going to help me make a movie,’ foolishly, and it didn’t happen, and it was a big life lesson.”
He added: “I know that some younger readers might think that that is a trauma narrative.” (He had never heard of this term, “trauma narrative,” and then he’d discovered it online, and he found it awful and humorous.) “I just didn’t see it that way. We didn’t feel that we were being victimized.”
Midway through the ribeye, I realized I’d been reading Ellis all wrong.
I’d read Less Than Zero when I was 15, and the characters seemed a little terrifying and dreamlike. Self-destructive but also capable of a level of unimaginable cool. They were like the glossy magazines I later wrote for when glossy magazines still had confidence, when they didn’t feel compelled to apologize for their status. They were paragons of a way of life that was just beyond the realm of possibility—aspirational.
Yes, it must have been horrific for Clay, the protagonist in Less Than Zero, to watch his friend Julian have sex with a man in a seedy hotel to pay off a heroin debt. But also: Imagine the stories. There was literally no one at any frat party or any rooftop throw-down in Alphabet City or the Upper East Side or in any SoHo loft—we’re talking pre-9/11, before SoHo became the douchetastic headquarters of Russians and Turks and other model-bangers—who could ever top that.
Say what you will about the cast of characters in The Shards—including Bret Ellis and his love interest, Matt Kellner; and his friends Thom and Susan and the rest of them—lounging around their pools, making mixtapes, cruising the wilds of Los Angeles in convertible Mercedes. They make a lot of dumb decisions. But the impulse behind all that is an unslakable thirst for independence, and that is a glorious thing. In 1981, young people still wanted that.
“It was just like, ‘Okay, this is the narrative, the path of growing up,’” Ellis said. “You’re going to win some, you’re going to lose some, it’s not going to be great, and then you’re going to come out the other side—which is what we all wanted. There was no idea of wanting to stay a child, there was none of this cosplaying or, like, loving anime. It was really wanting to move into the adult world.”
Later, while I was watching Ellis—he was being photographed on his balcony for this article—I was reminded of a paper I’d written in college in the early nineties on Ford Maddox Ford’s The Good Soldier. I’d put every other word in quotation marks. A very trendy, postmodern thing to do. The professor had scribbled a note at the bottom: “Have you been reading Derrida?”
The quotation marks were a way of communicating that, beneath all the ordinary words, there were deeper meanings, darker realities that not everyone was aware of. It was a pose, an over-intellectualizing.
Yes, it’s wince-inducing to think of now, but it was born of the right impulse: the desire to be more sophisticated, to read more deeply. It was a kind of proto-adulting. It was what one did when one was a clueless but aspirational nineteen-year-old. At the time.
Since then, that faux-sophistication, that irony, has been subsumed by other trends, and the unflappable cool of the great purveyors of Gen X-ness—Snake Plissken or Ferris Bueller or the unnamed 24-year-old protagonist of Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City—has given way to the uncool earnestness (or is it faux-earnestness?) of the signaller, the brand builder, the 16-year-old TikTokker with his (their?) political antennae sussing out what can be posted or even thought.
The first time Ellis tried to write The Shards, that transformation had yet to happen. Same thing with the second attempt. And the third and fourth.
“I didn’t notice the big, overall change until the big rip happened in 2015, 2016,” Ellis told me. “I was with my partner, who was 22 years younger than me. We’ve been together for 10 years. And I saw how he was dealing with the world compared to how I dealt with the world at that age, and I was shocked. I was shocked by how he reacted to things and how things were bothering him and how there was a kind of space moving forward.”
The space that had opened up was unnerving, and by the spring of 2020, one month into the lockdowns, hard to avoid.
But it also offered perspective. A recess in which the artist could detach himself from himself, the past, and stare into the incredible shrinking darkness and wonder aloud what had happened to the narrative.
I imagined Ellis sitting at his laptop, staring across the billboard-palm-tree patchwork at the Century Towers—just south of the Wilshire Corridor and The Beverly Hills Hotel—the hills rising into a limpid, turquoise sky—and imagining that this was where his novel would arrive at its thunderous conclusion.
The novel was not really a defense of the past so much as a nostalgia for it, and a lamentation. It felt lonely. It was him gazing at himself, at what he—we—had become.
Later, I emailed him to ask if Gen X might save us. “I don’t think anyone can save us,” Ellis wrote back.
Read all of Peter’s stories for The Free Press here.
And if you appreciate our work become a subscriber today: