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Notes on "The Shards," by Bret Easton Ellis
A few months ago, I decided to study the works of contemporary “literary” authors who had serialized some of their fiction.
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This led me to Bret Easton Ellis, who had just serialized his newest novel (his first in 13 years) in podcast form, allegedly unedited and with chapters published as he wrote them.
This could not have been a more perfect case study.
This is assuming that he did publish chapters as he wrote them. As I’ll discuss later, Ellis inserted himself into this story, intentionally blurring the lines between the real world (and the real Ellis) and the fiction (including, to an unknown proportion, the fictional Ellis). When we say he published it as he wrote it, we are basing that on what he said in the podcast episode introductions when he aired the story. Those segments were partially reality, and partially fiction, and he deliberately made it as unclear as possible which was which.
What Stood Out?
Inserting Himself Into His Work
In the style of Lunar Park, Ellis insists that this novel is actually a work of non-fiction. As he frames it, this novel was constructed from diary entries written back when he was in high school. These entries detailed a phase in his life that was so traumatizing for him that he’d been unable to speak of it for decades. With anybody.
Until now. He’s says he feels now that he has to tell this story. Being compelled to tell a story about what was happening in his life is how all his novels were written, and each corresponds to a different time in his life. Only this time, he has to go slowly. The serialized format was a way to let the retelling affect him less severely, so he could pace himself; some episodes were longer or shorter based on how difficult the subject matter was for him.
At least, this is what he claims. This is, after all, a work of fiction, and not only is the Ellis from the past, the high school student, fictional, but so is the Ellis from the present, the narrator. Except not entirely. Both the Ellis in the book and the real Ellis are in this story, and it’s not clear where the fiction ends and reality begins. The high school Ellis and the narrator both at least closely resembles the historical ones.
He has done this before: in Lunar Park, he is the main character, except in that story it is easier to tell the fact from the fiction. For example, in Lunar Park he talks a lot about his wife and son, who are central characters in the story, and the whole story can perhaps be seen as a fictionalization of some events that led him to grow closer, but also impossibly distant, from his son—yet, in real life, Ellis is gay, unmarried, and has no children.
To be honest, it’s a little jarring when you go into a story like this not knowing what is going on. I felt the same way about Fargo, with its “based on a true story” message at the beginning of the entirely fictional movie. If you accept that these stories are, in a sense, a game, it’s fun; otherwise, it feels like you’ve been lied to.
So: what is a lie, and what is the truth?
For example, The Shards, Imperial Bedrooms, and Less Than Zero, all take place in the same area of L.A., and Ellis quotes the names of streets, stores, malls, and more from that area. He names the same schools in all these books. He presumably grew up around there and is writing about a place he’s quite familiar with. So, a lot of it, at least, is not fiction. But are the broad strokes true, with the details being made up? Or are the details true, but the broad strokes are the lies?
There’s a consistency to these lies, too. Bret in The Shards might very well be Clay from Less Than Zero, if we accept that Clay is a stand in for Ellis and that much of the story is, at least partially, a roman à clef.
Eg, Blake’s dad is clearly Terry from The Shards: a gay movie producer with a wife and a taste for boys, and the father of a love interest (blaire = Debby?). Both clay and Ellis in The Shards have a family member (aunt?) with a place in Palm Springs that he can stay freely. Clay’s parents are split up; Bret’s parents are about to split up in The Shards.
Then again, The Shards is fiction, and all of this might be deliberate misdirection.
It is a fun game, like I said, if you’re in on it. This game only deepens when we look at the alleged writing process.
The Alleged Writing Process
In the novel, Ellis-in-the-past is a high school student who wants to become a writer, and Ellis-in-the-present can explain how much of a sensation he would become. And all those details can be confirmed on Wikipedia in our reality, since Ellis did go on to be a famous author.
He spends a great deal of time in the book talking about his writing process. He describes it like so: writers are exaggerators. All great novels are basically just collections of interesting true events experienced by interesting people (or those who have met interesting people), except where the writer exaggerated and masked everything, to a massive or minor degree.
He says in The Shards (and certain interviews) that Less Than Zero was based on his diaries, just heavily exaggerated and fictionalized. That Rules of Attraction came from his time at college, and that American Psycho came from his time in New York among the charming folk of Wall Street when he was feeling trapped in his life filled to the brim with shallow appearances, leaving him filled with rage and despair.
In every case, he spent years writing his novels, not because he wanted to write a novel, but because he was simply unable to not-write that novel. He would resist it and resist it until, finally, he wrote a page here or there of outlining, and eventually these built themselves into entire stories. In Lunar Park, he portrays this almost as a sort of possession, but in The Shards he portrays it more as a psychological imperative.
There are interviews around that confirm some of this.
This is reinforced in Lunar Park when he claims that parties are part of his work—that his debauchery and lifestyle is the fuel that feeds his literary career. Unless he was lying ^^
I believe that Imperial Bedrooms was highly autobiographical as well, reflecting the filming of The Informers.
Anyway, the novel feels so raw and honest that it’s embarrassing to read sometimes—except, at the same time, we know it’s fiction, so it isn’t as embarrassing as it could be. But this is powerful and important and very intriguing.
So, we get two takeaways from this discussion.
First, it is fun to speculate whether this is his writing process, or whether he lied for the sake of the story, possibly to reinforce suspension of disbelief and to muddy the line between reality and fiction.
Second, I wonder what would happen if I wrote a story using this approach.
The narrator is unreliable on many levels, but we do not know to what extent. Not only is reality and fiction being muddied, but the narrator might also be lying to us about what happened in the story.
What effect does this have? Well, it makes the book a bit of a game. You wonder a lot how to interpret what you’re reading. There is a lot of play around figuring out how the author, the fictional author, and the reader interact. It makes the story stick with you.
Simple: it worked.
I especially like how the serialized format allowed him to put introductions before many of the episodes. This level of meta-commentary added a lot to the storytelling, especially because this meta-commentary was at least somewhat a part of the fiction itself.
I wonder how the physical book will differ.
Coming of Age
This is a coming of age story, which means the story revolves around pivotal, formative moments in somebody’s life, which happen to occur quite frequently during adolescence and early adulthood. There is something magical about these times in people’s lives. They are, as I said, formative, and they feel special and important and full of meaning.
The first time you realized something. The first time you did something. The first time you accepted or rejected something. The first time you felt something. When you first met somebody or said goodbye to them. When you first accepted something about yourself.
This novel has a plot, and a good one. Contrast this with his earlier works, which don’t really have any narrative to speak of
This book is extremely raunchy, and contains some extreme, vivid violence
Suspension of disbelief via dramatic irony: he talks constantly, from the present, about the events of that summer and the violence and the killings, but the characters in the past don’t know about any of that. This adds some dramatic tension while at the same time making the events of the story more believable. It isn’t executed perfectly, but it’s good.
My notes say (this is not a quote from the book): He often likes to exaggerate; his friends complain about it; he takes a seed of truth that made something sort of interesting to begin with, then embellishes it until it is something entirely different — yet it still contains that seed of something real and interesting.
a complaint: Normally, preorders are appealing because it guarantees you that you’ll have a copy of your book as close to release day as possible. Waterstones has innovated on this concept and introduced a new kind of preorder that still hasn’t shipped weeks after the book’s release date. So, as I said, this is based on the serialized podcast.
An aside: while researching this, I learned something curious: F Scott Fitzgerald put true events into his fiction to such an extent that he even quoted his wife’s journal almost verbatim in his novels, which creeped her out; as well as personal info about the people he knew, which they were not pleased about. And, incidentally, The Great Gatsby is one of Ellis’s favourite novels of all time. An influence?
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