When someone inevitably asks you at the end of the year, what is the best book you have read this year? Sometimes you go through all the books you have read and you come up with two or three. But this time, I only have one. The Shards is the best book I read this year. As one reader so eloquently put it, this book is phenomenal. Despite the length, graphic sex and animal violence, it was “unputdownable”.
Bret Easton Ellis stars as himself in this semi-autobiographical (yet only partially true) book from his point of view as a 17yo living on his own and attending an elite private school in 1981 in Beverly Hills. In the fall of Bret’s senior year of high school, him and his small circle of friends attend Buckley, a private school in Sherman Oaks. They spend their free time doing drugs, having sex, going to the movies and swimming. The music and movies of this period are so well described by Ellis, that you almost want to listen to the soundtrack while reading the book. Robert Mallory attends Buckley on their first day of senior year and fits into Bret’s friend group effortlessly. Bret, a closeted gay teenager, is enthralled with how handsome and smart Robert is. But when Bret recognizes him from a movie theater, he saw him over a year ago, Robert lies to him. Bret becomes obsessed with him, drawing parallels between Robert and the Trawler, a serial killer targeting young adults in early 1980s Los Angeles. Interestingly, there was a serial killer called the Trawler in that time period, though they targeted the elderly. When he tries to warn his friends, they accuse him of embellishing, which he does in his early writing.
The Shards is nothing if not complex, with several different storylines. The plot includes general nostalgia of Los Angeles in the ‘80s; Bret’s own coming of age story about being a closeted gay teen writing his first novel (which turns into Less Than Zero) but also about a serial killer targeting teens and young adults, and their pets. Mr. Ellis narrates the story but is also the protagonist. His group of friends include Thom White, a handsome football player who is not too bright, White’s girlfriend, the amazing and beautiful but very cold Susan Reynolds, Bret’s girlfriend, Debbie Schaffer, a nagging, coke addicted girl whom he does not seem to care for or have much interaction with besides sex and drugs. Matt Kellner and Ryan Vaughn, on the fringe of his group, both of whom he has had sexual relations with, though neither are gay. All of them have non-existent relationships with their parents, who are mostly absent. Bret’s own parents have left for months to go on vacation and he frequently refers to his home as “the empty house on Mulholland”, though his maid, Rosa, seems to care about him. One interesting thing I thought about the adults in this novel, is that they all treat their teenagers like adults, confiding in them, hitting on their friends and imbibing in drugs and alcohol in front of them, with no cares at all. Ellis captures this empty existence brilliantly and as the reader, you are caught up in their numbness. He drives around in his expensive cars a lot, by himself, and describes left turns, right turns, what the areas look like, and only Ellis could write this and make it fascinating.
This is, without a doubt, the best book I have read this year (and maybe last year). Do I think there could have been less animal violence; yes, it seemed gratuitous but didn’t take away from my overall feel of the book. The author has the innate ability to take you back to a time and place, talking about the music, clothing, hair, movies, and makes you feel you are actually in that place at that time. His writing in The Shards feels so personal and the plot, brilliant. There are a lot of graphic sexual situations, animal cruelty and repetitiveness but none of that matters as you read this. While Ellis insists these events happened, it doesn’t really matter in this case because maybe the story is more fascinating than the actual truth.