Fans of Bret Easton Ellis (1964) had to wait thirteen years for his latest novel The Shards. After a powerful beginning, the penultimate novels by the American author collapsed after a few chapters, so expectations were not that high anymore.

Like in his debut Less Than Zero, Ellis returns in The Shards to his high school in Los Angeles. The Shards has been set up within an ingenious interplay of facts and fiction. The retrospective protagonist has the author’s name and occasionally drops the titles of his novels American Psycho and Less Than Zero.

In a radically changed society, it is even more striking how privileged the lives of wealthy white students at Buckley actually are. However seriously these youngsters study American literary history, they are deaf and blind to the rest of the world. Their careless routine of recreational drug abuse, abundant sexual excesses and limitless wastefulness is interrupted only briefly by news reports about ‘the Trawler’, a sadistic serial killer targeting teenagers in the area.

Buckley School
Buckley high school

The novel begins to pick up steam when, out of nowhere, a new student enters Bret’s classroom and his circle of friends. From then on, the protagonist grows more and more convinced that this popular and handsome Robert Mallory is none other than the infamous Trawler killer.

Ellis takes his readers into this maddeningly convincing train of thought. The murders follow a set pattern: pets disappear and reappear horribly mutilated, victims receive silent phone calls before being abducted and found dead and battered several weeks later. When this happens to classmate Matt (with whom the bisexual Bret has a secret affair) it creates a growing tension that continues for many chapters.

With this tension, astonishment also increases, which gradually turns into bewilderment. Why doesn’t Bret speak out? Why is he keeping all the information to himself? Why doesn’t he report to the police? The vacuous reaction of Bret’s group of friends evokes downright disgust. No one seems to really care about the fate of their murdered classmate. All attention is focused on organising a welcome party for their new classmate Robert.

Bret Easton Ellis
Bret Easton Ellis

The protagonist tries to ward off his fears by taking a steady stream of Valium pills. This might be good for his night’s rest, though the book would have benefited from less flattened emotions. A visit to Bret’s girlfriend Debbie’s father, a film director who seems interested in a script the boy has come up with, ends in involuntary sex (if not rape) in a hotel room. Bret shrugs his shoulders and only hopes that things will lead to a film contract.

You’d grant these seventeen-year-old kids driving around aimlessly in expensive cars some sense of wonder about human existence. If the outrageously hedonistic parties around heated outdoor pools keep going on and on, you even develop sympathy for the serial killer who at least breaks these soulless patterns.

Three novels
Three novels

Whether or not Robert is ‘the Trawler’ remains a mistery until the end of the book. Whether that suspense outweighs immersing yourself in hundreds of pages of adolescent self-love and stupid escapism remains to be seen.

Not to mention the detailed way Bret Easton Ellis describes the cruel abuse of innocent animals. Tip: gulp down a Valium pill before reading.

The Shards – Bret Easton Ellis, Alfred A. Knopf, 2023, 608 pages