Bret Easton Ellis, The Shards (The Bret Easton Ellis Podcast, 2020-2021)

By this stage, a month into Sydney’s second lockdown, I’ve spent about twenty-four hours with The Shards, Bret Easton Ellis’ latest novel. Unlike BEE’s previous novels, The Shards has been published in an auditory format, somewhere between a podcast and an audio book – and with little fanfare, on BEE’s regular podcast. It’s not available on any streaming services, and it’s not even separated from the main episodes on the podcast. Instead, it’s dumped, somewhat unceremoniously, at the start of each episode. On top of that, it’s only available to subscribers on Patreon, a format that’s far clunkier than any other podcast hosting platforms.

This has all made The Shards somewhat of a non-event for the general public, and a major event for BEE’s small cadre of podcast subscribers, who have pored over it on Reddit ever since it was released late last year. BEE releases an instalment every two weeks, and each instalment is about one hour, although some of them are considerably longer than that. BEE has also intimated that he may never turn this into a written novel, and that he may even delete it entirely from the podcast one he’s finished, making it a one-and-done publication.

All of that suggests that this a particularly personal project for BEE – and that’s certainly how he sells it. The first couple of episodes provide the backstory to the podcast, hinting vaguely at a trauma that BEE suffered in his final year of high school at Buckley in Los Angeles. BEE tells us that he’s tried to turn this trauma into a story throughout his writing career, but that each attempt precipitated an extreme panic attack. The last panic attack was so pronounced he ended up in the emergency room at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles. At that point, BEE muses, he realised that he could never afford to recount this story in a conventional novelistic format.

For the first couple of episodes, BEE continues to harken back to this traumatic backstory. We hear about his boyfriend’s reaction, his family’s reaction, and the reaction of his class mates at Buckley, who (supposedly) write in to correct small errors that he makes in composing The Shards. BEE acknowledges this small gaps in his memory, although conceding this adds to the truth-effect, since it implies that the story is true in all its significant particulars. As the series proceeds, however, BEE moves away from these preludes, starting each episode where the last one left off, with only ambient noises – cars, phones, pools – to indicate the continuity.

Of course, none of that tells you what The Shards is actually about, so there’s a few spoilers from this point onwards. At the same time, I should disclose that I haven’t finished the podcast – it’s ongoing – although I have listened to a sizeable chunk of it. Usually, I’d wait until a podcast had finished to review it, but this is a text that lends itself to reflections midway through. As the episodes unfold, I’ve started to question how much of their content is true, or whether any of it is true, leaving me in a state of disorientation best evoked as it proceeds.

Over the first couple of episodes, BBE provides us with a rough sketch of the plot. We meet his girlfriend, Debbie Schaffer, and her father, Terry Schaffer, a closeted movie producer with an interest in Bret. We meet Susan Reynolds and Tom Wright, the homecoming king and queen at Buckley, along with Ryan Vaughan and Matt Kelner, two of BEE’s love two interests. BEE also hints at the two major plot points that tie this all together – the arrival of a mysterious student named Robert Mallory during his final year at Buckley, and the emergence of a Los Angeles serial killer named the Trawler. BEE states that the names of all these people are changed, and that he has slightly disguised the name and modus operandi of the Trawler. 

From here, the podcast breaks into three main registers. The first plays as a tour of Los Angeles in 1980 and 1981. This was my favourite part of the podcast, since BEE has a real gift for cinematic evocations of his home city. Most of the episodes take place in a single space, and give BEE full rein to craft complex and hypnotic mise-en-scenes. Not surprisingly, many of these revolve around movies. We hear about BEE’s local cinemas, his favourite films, and his own aspirations as a screenwriter. Several key scenes actually take place during movie screenings – The Shining earlier, Chariots of Fire later – and these are especially memorable.  

These descriptions are heightened by BEE’s acute memory of what he was listening to at any one point of time. Much of the momentum is fuelled by playlists and intersections – both geographical intersections, and intersections between different people in the story. At first, it’s almost unbelievable that BEE could remember the soundscape to these scenes in this much detail, until we learn that he obsessively took notes about what he listened to each day. Many scenes unfold against an entire sequence of songs – a party sequence, for example, is “scored” to the Go-Go’s Beauty and the Beat, with key events happening at each track change.

This vivid cinematic style is most pronounced whenever BEE immerses us in spaces that we’d now think of as classically postmodern. My favourite sequence takes place in the Sherman Oaks Galleria, already dated by this point, while the most surreal sequence takes place in a new nightclub on Melrose Avenue – empty rooms, filled with nothing but MTV music videos. During these vivid scenes, BEE seems to be eulogising “numbness” and “blankness” as an affect that was specific to his generation. That kind of emptiness feels dated in an over-stimulated digital era – it’s the product of a much older and more austere postmodernism – so there’s a melancholy and nostalgic quality to all the ways that BEE commemorates it here.

As someone who’s now two decades away from my own senior year, I really sympathised with the way BEE pores back over the spaces of his youth. Many spaces that I took for granted in 2001, such as video stores, have now entirely vanished. I appreciated the way BEE took each distinctive space of his young adulthood and riffed on it. In many ways, the other two strands of the podcast are the pretext for these spatial riffs – the story is just a way for BEE to bask in these spaces, and allow his audience to do the same. At its best, The Shards plays as a spatial fantasia, or fantasmagoria, of a postmodern Los Angeles that no longer really exists.

At times, this project felt like BEE trying to reclaim the cinematic history of Los Angeles in a post-cinematic era. Los Angeles has always been the hub of American cinema, which has forced directors to scramble for new ways to depict the city as cinema wanes. BEE collaborated with Paul Schrader to address this in The Canyons, which opens with a montage of dilapidated multiplexes. The Shards is more reparative and restorative, as well as more nostalgic, submerging us in a postmodern cinematic LA enshrined forever in the imagination.

In that sense, The Shards is first and foremost a memory palace. When I picture BEE delivering it, I tend to picture him in the pose he describes most frequently – behind the wheel of his car, driving to and from “the house on Mulholland.” Great swathes of the podcast are simply spent describing the experience of driving all over Los Angeles, usually at night, as if these darkened roads are the only place, in the present, where BEE can still conjure up this older city. It’s no coincidence that he finally gets up the courage to revisit the events of the narrative when he sees one of the main characters from his car, forty years after they last had contact.

Unfortunately, the “story” of the podcast is less satisfying. The second strand of The Shards basically plays as BEE’s coming-out story, both as a gay man and as a writer. We hear extensively about the composition of Less Than Zero, which also played a central role in his last two releases –  Lunar Park, his metafictional memoir, and Imperial Bedrooms, the 2010 sequel. More and more, BEE seems to be heading back to this original moment of precocity to anchor himself in the present, and The Shards continues this trend, providing us with a kind of origin story for Less Than Zero. It also provides a reference point for BEE’s recent shift to screenwriting, since a large part of the story revolves around his effort to pitch a film script.

To some extent, BEE’s coming-out story is sympathetic here. He describes his two main relationships, with Ryan Vaughan and Matt Kelner, and the ways he had to hide this from his friends and girlfriend, Debbie Schaffer. He also captures the excitement of formative sexual experiences, along with the way his crushes developed and intensified over time. Lest this grow too morbid, he’s also quite matter-of-fact about the way that homosexuality existed as an open secret at this time, at least within the cloistered echelons of the Buckley community.

Beyond a certain point, though, the extended sexual scenes grow tiresome. For one thing, they’re extremely repetitive. But they’re also pretty vanilla, for all that BEE tries to prevent them as provocative. It’s clear, as BEE admits, that he has a type – the All-American Guy, and so it gets a bit numbing (to use his own word) to hear him outline this same generic attractiveness over and over again. I sensed that it was meant to be edgy, but it just felt bland, light years away from the more morbid eroticism of Less Than Zero or The Rules of Attraction.

I also had broader problems with the way BEE deals with youth here. Youth is clearly a theme for BEE – both his own youth and the youth of others. Perhaps that’s inevitable for a writer who peaked so soon, and reached such an apex of precocity so early in his career. Whatever the reason, BEE has returned time and again to his own youth, and to the composition of Less Than Zero, ever since Glamorama, his last piece of fiction that really felt attuned to the present moment. His books all consistently focus on men in their twenties, while these 20-somethings have turned to be his object choice when it comes to his romantic partners too.

There’s nothing wrong with BEE having a literary groove – after all, many writers have developed their voice writing about their own youth, or the youth of others. But it reaches a monotonous intensity in The Shards that’s hard to take, given how dismissive BEE is of contemporary youth. In his infamous article, “Generation Wuss,” he starts with an anecdote about a college student who was taped while making out with another male student. When the tape was uploaded to Twitter, the student in question was outed, and committed suicide.

BEE uses this anecdote to headline an article about the supposed softness of millennials, which says a lot about his calculated misanthropy when it comes to younger people. Perhaps that’s also inevitable for a writer whose genius was once so synonymous with his prodigious youth – a writer who has never achieved the incredible volume of works that his incredible surge of early novels once suggested. There’s a certain pathos to that, but the way BEE has processed it, in the last decade, as he has turned away from novels, has been hard to respect.

Put bluntly, I feel as if BEE is so invested in his own youth that he believes nobody has permission to be youthful after him. At times, he seems to genuinely believe that nobody has been properly young since his generation. The irony is that he appears to be drawn to the younger generations he pillories. His current boyfriend is in his late twenties, but BEE uses him as a punching-bag half the time, recounting their arguments to illustrate his bemusement about millennial “fragility.” He also invokes his boyfriend early in The Shards, as if in an apotropaic gesture – to ward off current youth for a story that takes us back to his own youth.  

This vehement paranoia about contemporary youth (or any youth since 1981) comes across at key moments in The Shards, most notably when BEE details an experience he had at the Hollywood Hilton with Terry Schaffer, his girlfriend’s father, and a prominent Hollywood producer. BEE describes being assaulted, but also insists that he wasn’t assaulted. There’s a poignant denial here, but something else as well – a sense that BEE, who has been so critical of the types of identity politics that produced #MeToo, can’t bring himself to fully empathise with his own experiences, since that would mean having to empathise with those of others.

While I simply found his endless recounts of his formative sexual experiences monotonous on their own terms, they’re pretty on the nose given this precious fragility that BEE likes to project onto contemporary youth. Apparently, it’s indulgent for a college student to commit suicide after being publically outed, but it’s not indulgent for BEE to obsessively return to (stock-standard) experiences that happened forty years ago. You start to see some of the pettiness of White here – the internet troller, and self-confessed Twitter addict, complaining about the way in which millennials behave online, while acting even more petulantly himself.

To some extent, this self-indulgence is kept in check by the third strand of The Shards – the true crime element. Along with his nostalgic mapping of Los Angeles, and his coming-out story, BEE is also telling a true crime story here – or at least purports to be. But there are warning signs early on. Listening, I wondered why he disguised the modus operandi of the Trawler. If it’s a true story, why bother? Even disguised, the Trawler’s crimes seem so dramatic that I wondered why I’d never heard his story in the recent plethora of true crime podcasts and TV releases – especially on My Favourite Murder, which specialises in LA-based crimes.

There’s also something unbelievable about the Trawler on his own terms. His modus operandi is so naff – leaving a themed poster in each of his victims’ mailboxes – that he seems more like an extension of BEE’s own obsessive curation of his youth. At times, the Trawler is also like BEE’s writerly unconscious, ritualistically and repetitively rearranging bodies in the same way as BEE’s own sex scenes. He does have a few creepy traits – especially one involving pets – but these quickly start to seem cheesy as you sense that BEE may well be making it all up.

As the podcast proceeds, the Trawler’s actions seem less and less plausible. So do their intersection with Robert Mallory, the new student at Buckley. By about the twentieth episode, BEE no longer seems to be concealing these contrivances. He interpolates two new alter egos, “the writer” and “the tangible participant,” into the story, and increasingly mediates the more preposterous plot points through them. When his preludes about the trauma of it all recur in the most recent episodes, they seem almost parodic – a provocation to the listener, who can’t possibly believe that all of this is true by this late stage in the game.

Personally, I didn’t find this fictional turn provocative. BEE has often worked at the nexus between fiction and memoir, so if anything it was pretty predictable. Yet he’s so emphatic, in the opening episodes, about the truth of it all – so emphatic about his trauma – that the turn to fiction feels like a peculiarly bad-faith gesture in this instance. Writing a “fictional” true crime memoir gives you license to include repetitions and coincidences, and moments of lurid absurdity, that work better in the true crime field than in a conventional work of prose fiction.

Of course, there are many successful hybrids between fiction and true crime, while many true crime texts resort to narrative to bring their points home. There are also books that are memorable in the potentially bad-faith ways they blend the two genres, such as Joe McGinniss’ Fatal Vision, which prompted Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer. But The Shards isn’t even memorably problematic in this way, at least not to me – it neither works as true crime or fiction, and feels less than the sum of its parts as it starts to wind down. 

I wonder, then, what the future holds. I can’t see it working as a written novel – it’s too repetitive for that. I also understand now why BEE has kept it off regular podcast platforms. A bigger community of true crime fans would debunk it in a second, or at least ask challenging questions. BEE clearly wants to test just how much people will accept it as fact, amongst his reverential podcast subscribers, yet even that feels like a bad-faith gesture at some level. As the story proceeds, you feel, uneasily, that you’re a test case, although it’s not clear for what exactly. Perhaps BEE has some entirely different project, and this is just his palette cleanser.

Despite all that, I’m still listening. That’s a testimony to how much I enjoy the first aspect of the podcast – the cognitive mapping of Los Angeles. At the end of the day, BEE is still a terrific spatial storyteller – he has a gift for tracking scenes as they move through urban space. These are the scenes that feel truest in the podcast – long sequences where he drifts through malls, freeways and cinemas, watching other people and how they move through the spaces in turn. This was a big part of what made Less Than Zero so memorable. More and more, the true crime stuff just feels like a pretext for BEE to gossp about stuff that happened 40 years ago.

A small part of me is also holding out and hoping that this is genuinely a true story. If it is, this is one of the more remarkable true crime memoirs I’ve experienced – as bizarre, in its own way, as The Stranger Beside Me, which often feels like a point of reference for the way that BEE describes Robert Mallory. At the very least, I hope it ends up as a screenplay, since my favourite moments were when BEE subsumes the listener in his exquiste cinematic sensibility.

About Billy Stevenson (936 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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