the author of American Psycho has run out of ideas

Bret Easton Ellis’ need to revisit the setting of his debut novel Less Than Zero (1985)—the study of disaffected LA teenagers that made him famous before he turned 21—is increasingly perplexing. If Ellis had wanted to trade on past glory for commercial reasons, he would have written endless sequels to the book that turned him from literary star to cultural icon: American Psycho (1991). Instead, his last novel, The Emperor’s Bedchambers (2010), was a belated sequel to Less Than Zero that answered the question of what happened to the original’s teenage protagonists in middle age – but was anyone really asking that?

Imperial Bedrooms was unconvincing, but like the original, it was short, so it could at least be written off as misjudged jeu d’esprit. However, you can’t really do that with Ellis’ new book – his first novel in nearly 13 years, it weighs in at 600 pages, which isn’t to say he’s kidding. The Shards tells the story of a group of disaffected teenagers in LA in the 1980s – including 17-year-old Bret Easton Ellis, who records the activities of his solipsistic schoolmates and recycles them in the first version of Less Than Zero.

Here, Bret takes on the role that the narrator, Clay, played in the original: the only one in his group of overprivileged friends who is self-aware enough to experience the guilt of feeling alienated and detached—making him even more alienated and detached as a defense mechanism.

Clay has had a busy, if unfulfilled, sex life, but Bret makes him look like a monk: he has two male lovers his own age, plus a girlfriend with whom he has regular angry sex because he doesn’t like having to pretend to the world that he’s not gay (though thankfully he is angry sex Pali). He’s also being hunted by his girlfriend’s dad, who can spot the beard user from a mile away.

The graphic sex scenes serve to fuel an endless stream of self-pity, and fans of American Psycho will be pleased to hear that there’s plenty of gory violence. A serial killer known as “The Trawler” – named for his habit of stuffing fish into the various orifices of his victims – is stalking LA, and Bret suspects it’s none other than his new, annoyingly popular classmate, Robert Mallory. Is Bret’s anxiety turning into a delusional state, or is he the only one smart enough to see the truth? The answer comes at the end of the book, after the population of LA has been reduced to a few teenagers and one terribly unhappy cat.

It could be argued that in Less Than Zero and American Psycho Bret Easton Ellis has produced two of the most insightful works anyone has written about his generation – which has left me and many other fans of early Ellis hopeful despite the odds that this is a new novel that long born would be a return to the form he has been trying to regain since he entered the great age of 26 years. After all, his recent, embarrassingly funny non-fiction book White, a tirade against political correctness that had more fire in its belly than any of the novels he’s published in the past 30 years, suggested a man acutely aware of the way we live now.

So it’s a disappointment that he gave us something so ungratefully self-referential, treading on familiar ground with diminishing returns. Like a cut and finish of Less Than Zero and American Psycho, the book doesn’t really work because all the intricately rehearsed details of teenage fights and falling into bed prevent Ellis from sustaining tension.

If you read Less Than Zero today, there’s still something glorious about those teenage characters and their devotion to shallow indicators of coolness, with Ellis’s Joan Didion-inflected prose perfectly suited to the story: it was a successful exercise in creating people who were actually two-dimensionally interesting. Here, every character except Bret is just boring.

Part of the problem is the precarious narrative register adopted by Ellis, telling us about the events of 1981 from today’s point of view. It seems as if he feels he has to explain things to younger readers: for example, the characters talk about a song by The Police, then quote a few lines from it to each other, and then Ellis, the narrator, adds the gloss: “We were quoting lyrics from the song.” You keep expecting him to finish the sentence, “…which was a lot of money in those days”.

There are some wonderfully weird scenes here that only Ellis could write – for example, how he consoles himself by chewing on the underpants of one of his lovers after falling victim to The Trawler – and at times you feel the charge that comes with an author mining the memory of real pain, albeit in a fictionalized form. form. But, in the end, you get the sense that Ellis is revisiting a central period in his personal mythology so seriously that he has forgotten the need to arouse a similar interest in it in the reader.


The Shards is published by Swift at £25. To order your copy for £19.99 call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph books

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