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The Shards by Bret Easton Ellis
Literary fiction

The Shards

by Bret Easton Ellis

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Quick take

Bret Easton Ellis’ thrilling latest is 2 parts 80s LA, 1 part serial killer at large, with a dash of prep school drama.

Good to know

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_400

    400+ pages

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_80s

    80s

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_WellKnownAuthor

    Famous author

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_Unreliable

    Unreliable narrator

Synopsis

17-year-old Bret is a senior at the exclusive Buckley prep school when a new student arrives with a mysterious past. Robert Mallory is bright, handsome, charismatic, and shielding a secret from Bret and his friends even as he becomes a part of their tightly knit circle. Bret’s obsession with Mallory is equaled only by his increasingly unsettling pre-occupation with The Trawler, a serial killer on the loose who seems to be drawing ever closer to Bret and his friends, taunting them—and Bret in particular—with grotesque threats and horrific, sharply local acts of violence.

The coincidences are uncanny, but they are also filtered through the imagination of a teenager whose gifts for constructing narrative from the filaments of his own life are about to make him one of the most explosive literary sensations of his generation. Can he trust his friends—or his own mind—to make sense of the danger they appear to be in? Thwarted by the world and by his own innate desires, buffeted by unhealthy fixations, he spirals into paranoia and isolation as the relationship between The Trawler and Robert Mallory hurtles inexorably toward a collision.

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Content warning

This book contains scenes depicting graphic violence.

Free sample

Get an early look from the first pages of The Shards.
The Shards

Many years ago I realized that a book, a novel, is a dream that asks itself to be written in the same way we fall in love with someone: the dream becomes impossible to resist, there’s nothing you can do about it, you finally give in and succumb even if your instincts tell you to run the other way because this could be, in the end, a dangerous game—someone will get hurt. For a few of us the first ideas, images, the initial stirrings can prompt the writer to automatically immerse themselves in the novel’s world, its romance and fantasy, its secrets. For others it can take longer to feel this connection more clearly, ages to realize how much you needed to write the novel, or love that person, to relive that dream, even decades later. The last time I thought about this book, this particular dream, and telling this version of the story—the one you’re reading now, the one you just began—was almost twenty years ago, when I thought I could handle revealing what happened to me and a few of my friends at the beginning of our senior year at Buckley, in 1981. We were teenagers, superficially sophisticated children, who really knew nothing about how the world actually worked—we had the experience, I suppose, but we didn’t have the meaning. At least not until something happened that moved us into a state of exalted understanding.

When I first sat down to write this novel, a year after the events had taken place, it turned out that I couldn’t deal with revisiting this period, or any of those people I knew and the terrible things that befell us, including, most crucially, what had actually happened to me. In fact without even writing a word I shut the idea of the project down almost as soon as I began it—I was nineteen. Even without picking up a pen or sitting at my typewriter, only gently remembering what happened proved too unnerving in that moment and I was at a place in my life that didn’t need the added stress and I forced myself to forget about that period, at least for a while, and it wasn’t hard to erase the past in that moment. But the urge to write the book returned when I left New York after living there for over twenty years—the East Coast was where I escaped almost immediately upon graduation, fleeing the trauma of my last year at high school—and found myself living back in Los Angeles, where those events from 1981 had taken place, and where I felt stronger, more resolved about the past, and that I was capable of steeling myself from the pain of it all and entering the dream. But this turned out not to be the case then either, and after typing up a few pages of notes about the events that happened in the autumn of 1981, when I thought I had numbed myself with half a bottle of Ocho in order to keep proceeding, letting the tequila stabilize my trembling hands, I experienced an anxiety attack so severe that it sent me to the emergency room at Cedars-Sinai in the middle of that night. If we want to connect the act of writing with the metaphor of romance then I had wanted to love this novel and it seemed to be finally offering itself to me and I was so tempted, but when it came time to consummate the relationship I found myself unable to fall into the dream.

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Why I love it

Literary enfant terrible Bret Easton Ellis simply sounds like no one else. In this incisive new novel, he drops readers into a surreal, quicksilver 1980s Los Angeles simmering with tension and unease. It is a thrilling treat to see him return to some of his most important themes—trauma, self-knowledge, paranoia, social patterning—and make them new again.

At the center of this dark coming-of-age story is Bret, a senior at the tony Buckley School, and his tight knit circle of friends. On the surface, they seem to be on top of the world with endless potential and possibility before them. But when a new student, Mallory, arrives at Buckley and becomes a charismatic new presence in Bret’s friend circle, it begins to reveal fissures and darker undercurrents lurking just beneath the surface. This precipitates a gripping descent into paranoia that leaves both Bret and the reader on unsure footing, only made more pressing by the rising incidences of violence seeping from the background into the foreground from a nostalgia-tinged LA that refuses to be mere scenery.

The Shards is a wily novel, playing with the boundaries between fiction and fact, myth and memoir. It troubles easy clichés about growing up and asks difficult questions: Are we defined by our traumas? To what extent can we trust our minds and memories? It’s a new standout from a modern master who still has a few tricks still up his sleeve.

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Member ratings (1,348)

  • Lindsay Z.

    Olympia, WA

    This book was graphic, indulgent, unsettling, yet completely mesmerizing. An unreliable narrator unlike any other I’ve ever encountered, and just enough action to keep the pages turning. ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

  • Jared B.

    Hernando, MS

    Immediately one of my favorites. The tension, suspense, lust, and horror- it’s all so perfect and engaging. Yes, it’s long. Yes, it’s graphic. But it’s so well written and it really strikes a nerve.

  • Jill C.

    Fort Dodge, IA

    Bret Easton Ellis knocks it out of the ballpark again with this 80’s story which brings me back in time in several areas. But you don’t have to be a Gen Xer to appreciate this amazing story. Loved it

  • Amanda G.

    White Hall, MD

    Fabulous and at times just brutally awful. Consuming, transportive, cynical. You’re not sleeping or eating until Bret lets go of you. Total fever dream. Sad I can’t read it again for the first time.

  • Matthew L.

    Barrie, ON

    Deliciously dark, “The Shards” is a love letter to Los Angeles and serial killers that deftly blurs the line between fact and fiction. Unlike anything I’ve ever read before. Absolutely brilliant!

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