This Means Something to Me: Andy Burns on Bret Easton Ellis’ “The Shards”

The impact Bret Easton Ellis has had on my life can’t be overstated. Since I read his first novel Less Than Zero back when I was an impressionable high school student, I’ve loved his writing. As an aspiring fiction writer doing my undergrad in English and Creative Writing back in the 1990s, I aimed to fill my own work with some of the same strengths I saw in Bret’s – a certain plainspokenness in language and the use of pop culture touchstones that the people I was writing for (in this case, my fellow classmates and people my age) would recognize. I wanted them to feel seen via my work, just as I felt seen via Bret’s.

My fourth year professor hated my writing. He hated that I wrote stories about blow jobs and girls and referenced going to buy R.E.M.’s Out of Time that he thought dated my fiction. This professor told me I should instead write about my grandmother’s immigrant experience. In 1999, when Bret Easton Ellis was on his book tour for Glamorama and stopped in Toronto, my uncle, whose copy of Less Than Zero I’d pilfered for myself, and I went to hear Bret read and speak. I stood in line for at least an hour for a signature, and when I finally got up to him, I told Bret of the lack of support my professor had been showing me. The author became indignant and told me “your professor doesn’t know what he’s talking about” and encouraged me to keep doing what I was doing, that James Joyce used the pop culture vernacular of his time and that he wasn’t dated. It was heartening and inspiring, and while I eventually gave up on my fiction and found my way into the writing I do now, that support from an author I ranked as my favourite (after Stephen King) was huge.

Earlier this month Bret Easton Ellis released The Shards, his seventh novel and the one I think is probably his masterpiece, and this assessment comes from someone whose favourite book of all time is Less Than Zero. Like his fifth novel, Lunar Park, The Shards is about a fictional version of Bret Easton Ellis, this one in his final year of high school in 1981 Los Angeles. An aspiring novelist, hard at work on his first novel, Bret spends time fucking, writing, drinking, taking drugs, and following the horrific exploits of a serial killer in L.A. known as The Trawler. This Bret expects a fairly set last year of high school with his friends and girlfriend, an expectation thrown into chaos with the arrival of a new student named Robert Mallory, who Bret suspects may have something to do with The Trawler.

The Shards is epic storytelling, a mammoth 600 page horror story slash mystery slash teen drama slash hidden autobiography slash I don’t know what else. And while I do know The Shards is a work of fiction, Bret writes in such a way that the whole time I was reading I wanted it to be autobiography. I felt that the character of Bret Easton Ellis was letting me into his life, revealing his thoughts and actions that I had no business accessing. Mind you, I was also constantly considering how unreliable the narrator was, and if he was the perpetrator of the horrors The Trawler was inflicting on the youth of Los Angeles.

I didn’t recognize myself in any of the characters, but I recognized the movies and music the Bret Easton Ellis of The Shards references. I imagine today the author is a big fan of SiriusXM 1st Wave, my favourite channel, with it’s constant playlist of so much of the music referenced in the book. Now’s the part where I’d tell my grouchy old professor “See, these pop culture references matter! They tie people together.”

I call The Shards Bret Easton Ellis’ masterpiece because it brings aspects of his previous works together in his inimitable voice; the ennui of growing up in LA from Less Than Zero; the horrific violence of American Psycho; the horror of Lunar Park. As I made my way through the book, I constantly thought to myself, nobody else writes like this.

When it was all over, I wondered when I’d read it again, like I did over and over with Less Than Zero as I tried to find my own voice. Throughout The Shards, Bret constantly quotes from the song “Vienna” by Ultravox, with its simple chorus, this means nothing to me.

For me, though, for me, who was seventeen once and then somehow became forty-six…The Shards means something to me.

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