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the complete review - fiction
Bret Easton Ellis
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B : long-winded, but manages just enough to hold the reader's interest
See our review for fuller assessment.
||Anna van Praagh
||Hannah E. Gadway
|The LA Times
|Neue Zürcher Zeitung
|The NY Times Book Rev.
|Wall St. Journal
From the Reviews:
- "The Shards has echoes of Emma Cline’s The Girls and Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby, but the book doesn’t say anything or move the needle on any of the characters or themes he has already covered many, many times. As in all his other books, cultural lodestars are luxury items and restaurants are the world’s only meaningful signifiers. For those who want it, there is loads of sex and horrific violence. (...) As a literary stylist you can't fault him. His sparse freewheeling sentences are hypnotic and on a sentence level he captivates with tone and mood and insight." - Anna van Praagh, Evening Standard
- "More important than the story is the atmosphere, and this is where the book’s elephantine bulk becomes necessary. It is, frankly, sometimes boring, but this is in service to an obsessive dedication to immersing us fully in Bret’s world of pain and alienation. Like the characters, the reader is first numbed, later satisfied, finally a little drunk with it all. (...) It takes us back to our discovery of his daring world, a time that then seemed dangerous but now seems innocent. In this context, reading it is a strange, sobering and moving experience." - John Self, Financial Times
- "Now, tweaked and tightened, The Shards arrives in print form, and any lingering uncertainty that its brilliance lay more in the recitation than the writing can be dispensed with. The Shards isn’t just Ellis’s strongest novel since the 90s, it’s a full-spectrum triumph, incorporating and subverting everything he’s done before and giving us, if we follow the book’s ingenious, gleefully self-aware conceit, nothing less than the Ellis origin story. (...) Superficially, The Shards cleaves to Ellis’s well-established aesthetic. The dialogue is deadpan, the atmosphere paranoid and tacitly hostile. Sex is graphic and anhedonic; violence is lurid and sexualised. But beneath the coldness and carnage, a new, gentler quality is detectable." - Sam Byers, The Guardian
- "The Shards feels like a natural culmination to Ellis’s work; while Less Than Zero languished in its numbness and American Psycho was electric bordering on nauseating, The Shards feels natural, as if Ellis has found his perfect niche. (...) While the truth of the novel is questionable, there is no doubt that this story grapples with very real issues. The novel deals with gruesome violence and paralyzing fear as well as everyday challenges like struggles with identity. (...) Above all else, The Shards is a horror novel, and it is set to scare readers in the best way possible. The plot is gripping and keeps one’s heart racing, and readers will be looking over their shoulders long after the book is closed. The novel makes readers start to question themselves and their assumptions as much as Bret questions reality." - Hannah E. Gadway, Harvard Crimson
- "The thrillerish material is handled reasonably well, I think, though thrillers don’t thrill me much as a rule. All the tropes and topoi are there (.....) Ellis is essentially offering us his own supervillain origin story. (...) Some of the writing, as always, is almost teachably bad at the level of the sentence, but the mastery of tone and pace is complete, and the sharpness of Ellis’s mind is often in evidence." - Keith Miller, Literary Review
- "(I)t all unravels like a kind of ultraviolent YA novel, Beverly Hills, 90210 meets Portrait of a Serial Killer. (...) Though the vibe is well sustained, it feels at times like a miniseries that should have been a movie. (...) At 600-pages-plus, The Shards is a harder sell, however sun-drenched and blood-soaked it may be. If you're interested in the semiotics of Ultravox or the quickest route to Malibu, you're in for a great time. But The Shards lacks the delirious absurdism and the tight control of Ellis at his best. For all its porno doominess, it often elicits little more than a mild wow." - Charles Arrowsmith, The Los Angeles Times
- "The Shards combines the paranoid mood of Ellis's early fiction with the structure of a thriller, resulting in a work that is inevitably conventional, but playful with it. (...) It's undoubtedly overlong -- baggy and frequently repetitive, even as it remains compulsive. But the length allows Ellis to indulge in a more expansive, reflective style. (...) Ellis establishes a mood of sustained dread, lust and guilt, through a plot that performs the seductions and dangers of narrative -- and the lure of violence in story." - Anna Leszkiewicz, New Statesman
- "Ellis is a true literary craftsman, and the novel's imagery is lush and gorgeous. (...) But there is an exciting new vulnerability in Ellis's latest book, inviting the reader more profoundly into the emotional realm of the protagonist than he has with his previous characters (.....) For all the narrative investment it demands, the novel's climax and denouement ultimately fall flat." - Melissa Broder, The New York Times Book Review
- "A pleasingly slippery, impish author, Ellis uses all the up-to-date autofictional techniques to far more exciting effect than, say, Ben Lerner’s superficially tasteful and objectionably dull novel The Topeka School. (...) The Shards is an inspired 1980s fever dream of a book, nostalgic and lustful and ecstatic, as well as a loving act of pop-cultural conservation. (...) Setting is everything: this is ultra-privileged LA in the time of new wave. The hair is perfect and the freeways empty as Bret and friends take cool, cinematic drives (...) Initially a reminder of how exhilarating a stylist Ellis can be -- lyrical and cool and compulsive, the long panoramic sentences gliding like Mercs along those Pacific freeways -- across 600 pages the prose becomes undifferentiated and humdrum. It’s a shame this needlessly baggy novel wasn’t pruned of bloat and workmanlike exposition." - Rob Doyle, The Observer
- "The Shards can be usefully thought of as both a prequel to Less Than Zero and a presentation of the atmosphere and circumstances that brought that novel into being. (...) I devoured it, delighted not only that Ellis has written his best novel since American Psycho but that it feels like the work of a writer who has found a way of wedding the traditional satisfactions of the novel to his own inimitable style." - Alex Preston, The Spectator
- "The graphic sex scenes serve to enliven the endless stream of self-pity, and fans of American Psycho will be pleased to hear that there’s plenty of horrific violence, too. (...) It is a disappointment, therefore, that he has given us something so unrewardingly self-referential, which treads familiar ground with diminishing returns. As a cut ’n’ shut of Less Than Zero and American Psycho, the book doesn’t really work, as all the intricately rehearsed details of teenage fallings-out and fallings-into-bed prevent Ellis from maintaining the tension. (...) Part of the problem is the uncertain narrative register adopted by Ellis, telling us about the events of 1981 from the vantage point of today. (...) There are some wonderfully weird scenes here that only Ellis could write" - Jake Kerridge, The Telegraph
- "There’s a dazed and confused quality to his prose, a uniform blankness of tone and evenness of detail, such that a strange narcotic fug seems to hang over everything. The same calibre of attention is paid to Bret’s frequent masturbation sessions as to the central building blocks of the plot (.....) He also makes provocative connections between writers and serial killers (.....) Taken at face value, it’s a pretty daft idea -- the two forms of vision assertion and hurt infliction aren’t exactly comparable -- but as an exercise in button-pushing, it’s inspired." - Edmund Gordon, Times Literary Supplement
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
In The Shards fifty-six-year-old narrator Bret Ellis looks back from the present-day to his senior year in high school, specifically the fall of 1981.
The narrator's later life- and career-arc closely resemble author Bret Easton Ellis' -- not least as author of Less Than Zero --, and, like the author, the narrator attended the private school Buckley, around which much of the action is set.
(A nice touch is Ellis using his senior yearbook picture for the author-picture on the book's jacket-flap.)
The novels centers around the first two months or so of Bret's senior year at Buckley.
He is already a wannabe writer, occasionally working away at the book that would become Less Than Zero.
He is already clearly trending gay -- involved in a casual, almost entirely sexual relationship with classmate Matt, and lusting after various others -- but also has a girlfriend, Debbie, a relationship he plays along with because it fits his narrative -- the image he wants to project at school (heterosexual, among other things).
(Wannabe writer Bret thinks a lot about narrative and controlling it, something he applies to his life as much as his writing.)
There's also close friend Susan, who is dating Thom; Bret is drawn to Thom as well but also genuinely close to Susan.
These kids are ultra-privileged.
Money is not just not a concern, but hardly even thought of.
They all drive to school in fancy cars.
There's basically no such thing as parental supervision -- or much involvement --, with Bret's parents conveniently entirely out of the picture for almost the entire novel: they're traveling in Europe, leaving Bret to fend for himself (with the housekeeper coming by to feed and clean up after him and the dog).
Matt lives in a pool house on his parents' property, and his parents often don't see him for days.
(Bret claims: "not engaging with your parents for days on end didn't seem particularly weird or abnormal" in those years, and the seventeen-year-old Bret certainly seems unbothered by it.)
The kids also engage in a lot of sex, and take a lot of drugs.
With their fake IDs, they also have no difficulty getting served alcohol, and they drink a lot too -- though it's the casual use of and resorting to drugs that is most notable (and tiresome).
Among the few things from outside their ultra-privileged world that shakes things up a bit is that there is a serial killer on the loose.
Known as 'the Trawler', he has a very creepy MO, first messing with his victims' minds by moving things around where they live, calling repeatedly and not saying anything, and getting rid of the would-be victim's pets, before then actually striking.
What he did to them was horrific, with only odds and ends about all the terrible (and strange) things becoming known, as the police try to keep the most sensational aspects under wraps.
Tellingly, its Bret that obsesses over the Trawler, while most of those he interacts with don't seem to be following the case very closely.
The other major change that unbalances the easy-going life of these Buckley seniors is the arrival of a new student, Robert Mallory.
Bret is immediately suspicious of him -- and has some pretty good reasons for being so.
Robert was in a psychiatric institution of sorts, and his mother died under peculiar circumstances.
And Bret is sure he's seen him once before, at a movie theater, but Robert denies it, and Bret is sure he is lying.
Bret becomes rather obsessed with Robert, even following him in his car at times (and denying it when he's caught).
he worries about what Robert and Matt talk about -- and then also Robert's interest in Susan, which is then also increasingly reciprocated.
Then Matt disappears -- not that anyone notices right away -- after some Trawler-like incidents where he lives, including the disappearance of all his fish from their tank.
And then Matt is found dead .....
From the first, Bret makes clear that bad things happened in "that awful year".
There are hints of what is to come from early on: he doesn't give details but mentions being haunted by: "what happened to Matt Kellner", or about his early concerns about something going dreadfully wrong and: "Later, I found out that Susan intuited this as well, but didn't know that day in September she was going to be its main target".
Repeatedly, there are portentous declarations, which he then only slowly gets around to proving true -- "This was the last time I ever saw Thom Wright happy".
At the heart of it all is Robert Mallory, and Bret's obsession with him.
He becomes convinced that Robert killed Matt, and that Robert is the Trawler.
And there are suspicious connections, not least that first sighting of Robert at the movies that he so vigorously denies.
Late in the novel, Robert confronts Bret:
"What do you think you're piecing together ?
You're making up some kind of story about me ?"
His face was a confused grimace.
"Is that what you're doing ?
Making up a story about me ?"
As noted, wannabe writer is fixated on controlling narrative, even trying to write his own for his senior year at Buckley, complete with pretending to be in a happy relationship with Debbie.
But, try as he might to stick to the script, he's not very good at it.
He also had rather too high expectations that others will stick to their scripts -- "Why isn't Susan Reynolds taking Thom to the airport ? Why wasn't that happening in the narrative ?".
But the one thing he is convinced of is that Robert is the liar who is following his own evil agenda.
The book handles that tension reasonably well, readers left wondering whether Robert really is this monster -- there are a lot of things pointing to it -- or just how reliable a narrator Bret is.
Among the ways Bret tries to make his case is by overwhelming with detail.
The Shards is a long novel, and Bret seems to chronicle every last one of his movements, thoughts, and conversations from those few months.
A lot of this can get tiresome -- not least the frequent mentions of him masturbating.
He admits some memories are hazy -- and there are times of alcohol- and drug-induced blankness -- there's an awful lot of specificity to most of this account, including the many lengthy conversations that are reproduced.
Some of this, and also his (non-)priorities are explained
There was a football game in the afternoon at Buckley and though I can remember who I masturbated about on that early October day (I wrote it down -- I kept lists, a jack-off journal) I can't remember what team the Griffins were playing
In a coda to the book proper, Bret notes:
The facts from that fall were receding from memory but being seventeen actually became clearer to me emotionally, more focused and pressing than it ever had at fifty-six, and I realized I had needed this distance of forty years to finally begin writing the book.
For all the facts receding, Bret certainly seems to be able to dredge up a great deal in very close detail, however.
Interestingly then, when things come to the final head, he opens the chapter noting:
The following was culled together from various police reports, eyewitness accounts and testimonials concerning what happened on Saturday night, November 7, 1981.
But even here, the account is soon Bret's own, as he describes his experiences.
(And, of course, readers are left to wonder whether maybe he too has more first-hand knowledge of what just preceded it as well ....)
As far as inhabiting his seventeen-year-old self, Bret does seem to get that down quite well -- though one wonders whether it's for the best.
He admits the occasional pangs of self-consciousness -- "did I look like an asshole ?" -- but quickly gets over them.
The introspection is appropriately teen-superficial, and his explanation and belief that he is testing out the waters of adulthood unconvincing.
(Bret is not a sympathetic narrator, and for the most part a complete asshole -- especially, but hardly only, in how he treats and handles Debbie.)
His unwillingness to involve the authorities -- for example, by bringing them a suspicious tape recording he receives -- is also baffling (as is the way he then tries to make his case when he finally does try to share his concerns with the school's principal).
Bret is most convincing when he does acknowledge , as he does at one point: "how naïve I could be at seventeen despite my surface cool and the air of jaded knowingness I was aiming for and worked so hard to project".
But the seventeen-year-old who moves in this rarefied, privileged world and thinks he has it all figured it -- including going along with Debbie's father's advances, in the hopes of breaking into the movie business -- is a lot to take.
Bret surprisingly allows Robert to be the rare grounded voice of reason late in the novel -- "It's not acceptable. You don't just grope your daughter's friends at a fucking party" he insists, while Bret shrugs off considerably worse --, by which point readers might really have begun to wonder whether it isn't Bret, rather than Robert that has the real problem .....
Things come very much to a head -- no happy couples (not Bret and Debbie, not Susan and Thom, not Susan and Robert, not Bret with any of the guys he lusts after) are left together, and while Bret does continue at Buckley ... well, he no longer has the old gang to share the lunch table with for the rest of the year.
Bret's suspicions of and obsession with Robert are comic-horribly resolved in satisfying fashion -- an enjoyably silly outcome (as readers become in no way invested in the characters and their fates, and know what comes next for that Bret -- his long longed-for escape from this California life, and his transformation, with the success of Less Than Zero soon to follow).
Ellis does make the happenings creepy -- not least with a mysterious van that Bret keeps seeing -- and there are moments of real suspense.
There is also some genuine horror mixed in -- several animals fare very poorly (and if there's any character readers worry about, it's probably Bret's family dog, Shingy) -- though it strains a bit too hard for the sensational.
Above all else, however, The Shards is long-winded.
Bret certainly over-shares, and unfortunately both the sex and the drug-taking are generally very bland and tedious -- all too routine.
Bret whips up his passion, which sometimes makes it sound convincingly teen, but it doesn't feel particularly real or authentic.
Too much is too blasé.
And while self-centered and -obsessed Bret naturally has difficulty making much of anyone else, that leaves the other characters very flat.
(A lot of bad dialogue also doesn't help.)
The Shards has a certain drive -- it's not exactly gripping, but it's boring in a way that still leaves readers curious as to how things will be resolved; one might not rush through the pages -- it's a stretch to call this a thriller -- but one does keep turning them.
If a lot of it is hammered home too hard, the picture of LA life at the beginning of the 1980s among the kids of the city's movie and real estate movers and shakers -- complete with gratuitous celebrity sightings -- is amusing, and Ellis weaves in the movies and books of the time -- and the obsession with the Z Channel -- in well for an amusing blast from the past.
(Note, however, that as I am exactly the same age as Ellis the cultural references perhaps resonate more obviously with me than they might a younger reader.)
There's even something fascinating about how Ellis goes on at such unnecessary length, though it does make for a peculiar reading experience.
The Shards is certainly an odd heap and mess of a novel, and can't really be called a success, but it is not without interest.
- M.A.Orthofer, 2 January 2023
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Bret Easton Ellis:
Other books of interest under review:
- See Index of Contemporary American fiction at the complete review
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About the Author:
American author Bret Easton Ellis was born in 1964.
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© 2023 the complete review
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