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Picking up the Shards | Why You Should Listen to Bret Easton Ellis

Gabriel Jandali Appel

For the most part, when I hear someone use the word “autofiction,” I stop listening to what that person is saying. Wikipedia defines the term as “a form of fictionalized autobiography” (which could describe, oh, say, half of the Western canon), before specifying that for autofiction to be autofiction, the main character ought to have the same name as the author. I guess people throw the term at Karl Ove Knausgaard and Ben Lerner, retroactively at Truman Capote or Chris Kraus, but it generally seems like a way to group the blog post you wrote while on ecstasy with In Search of Lost Time. Although Bret Easton Ellis’s The Shards fits neatly into that unfortunate category, it defies several others. Ellis initially presented it as memoir — it’s not. Now, published by Knopf, it’s a novel — sort of, in the end. It is a performance — definitely. It is a podcast. Before we all lose interest, let me explain. 

Onetime enfant terrible, current aging gay curmudgeon, Bret Easton Ellis has written six novels, beginning with Less Than Zero, published in 1985, when he was only 21 and a student at Bennington College. It is for that first novel — as well as his third, 1991’s American Psycho — that he is best known. The narratives that surrounded Ellis upon the release of both books equaled the texts in intrigue; about the druggy L.A. teen who published a hit novel about druggy L.A. teens, and the sadist creep whose misogynistic tome was so disgusting it was dropped by its publisher. (After Simon & Schuster canceled American Psycho, it was picked up by Knopf and became a best seller.)

Over the next two decades, Ellis released three more novels and a book of short stories. He’s accumulated some screenplay credits on some not very good movies. (If you’re unfamiliar with the saga of Paul Schrader’s The Canyons, it’s worth a Google.) In the early days of Twitter, he amassed a rather large following for his provocative musings, back when that was what the site was for. A representative tweet from those years read: “I like the idea of ‘Glee’ but why is it that every time I watch an episode I feel like I’ve stepped into a puddle of HIV?” In 2013, he was banned from the GLAAD awards ceremony, where Bill Clinton was being honored. In particular, the organization seems to have taken issue with Ellis’s view that gay actor Matt Bomer ought not portray the very straight character Christian Grey in the then-upcoming film adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey, an issue Ellis tweeted about no fewer than 27 times. At the end of that year, Ellis started a podcast.

Although there was a minor upswell in the number of podcasts at the time, this was pre-boom. (“Serial” launched nearly a year after “The Bret Easton Ellis Podcast” did.) Each episode was split into two parts: Ellis would read a pre-written monologue for the first half, then conduct an interview for the second. The first two guests were Kanye West and Marilyn Manson; the first episode I listened to, in early 2014, featured either Ezra Koenig or B.J. Novak. I was at an inpatient rehab facility getting sober with ample time to spend listening to podcasts, and I became a fast fan. Ellis was a compelling interviewer, pulling his guests into the universe and vernacular of the show, which let listeners in on details about his life. He resided in West Hollywood with a millennial boyfriend he referred to as “The Millennial.” He often went to movies at the ArcLight by himself. He met with a personal trainer three times a week. He visited his mother in the Valley regularly.

But at the heart of the show were Ellis’s monologues, in which he would review new films and try to understand, or rather diagnose, the zeitgeist. (Friends I recommended the show to would often complain of his frequent use of the phrase “in the culture.”) An early recurring question was whether television could replace film as the central American art form (where he once maintained that it couldn’t, Ellis has reversed course, now positing that it probably has), and at a certain point a commitment to “aesthetics over ideology” — that works of art be judged for their content rather than their political intent or implicit standpoint — became something of a rallying cry. The monologues ranged from a thoughtful but scathing review of Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always to a dismissal of Moonlight as yet another gay victim narrative directed by a straight man, to a reprehensible discussion of the “unedited body cam footage of George Floyd” in which he claimed “a somewhat different and nuanced narrative emerged that didn’t really connect with the sentimental narrative.” While that monologue represented the furthest reach of Ellis’s reactionary conservatism, Ellis and his podcast have become something of a lightning rod to a burgeoning community of many of the most annoying voices on Twitter. Recent guests include Walter Kirn, Anna Khachiyan, and Amanda Milius, all of whom routinely attract attention by parroting right-wing talking points.

For a while after Trump’s election, Ellis’s ire was directed at one target in particular: “the resistance.” He expressed no coherent political ideology, rather an extended eye roll at the most exaggerated overreactions of the liberal mainstream. “Catching Trump in a lie was so beside the point in the summer of 2020 that I was embarrassed by the Boy Scouts who proudly kept track,” he said in one episode. In a moment when everyone was raising the alarm about disinformation and the so-called post-truth era, this was inflammatory. But in the context of two-hour run times, the reactionary moments were few and far between, couched in the soothing voice of a familiar character. They were possible to tune out for a second until the conversation returned to the Oscars. And for the most part, Ellis stayed within the realm of stuff you can get away with saying on a podcast, but surely would never put down on paper. 

Except Ellis did put much of it down on paper — in White, a 2019 collection of essays that may as well have been lightly edited transcripts of several of his podcast monologues. To say it was poorly received is something of an understatement. “Bret Easton Ellis Takes on Generation Wuss,” read the headline of the Times review, an essay by Bari Weiss in which Ellis is accused of “starting a fire and then feigning surprise when people accuse you of being an arsonist.” Other venues were less generous. White’s hostile reception confirmed not only Ellis’s skill as a courter of controversy, but also how effective a shield podcasting had been: “The Bret Easton Ellis Podcast,” where he was airing the same views and much of the same language on a weekly basis, had gone largely unnoticed and uncritiqued for six years. But, as Ellis put it, “despite the reams of bad press the book and I were receiving from the mainstream media, it didn’t translate into lack of interest from audiences.” Some of those audiences, it became clear after Ellis went on Tucker Carlson’s show, were right-wing. “If you’re invited, believe me, go on Fox,” he said. “Fucking sell 5,000 books.” And the podcast persisted, with Ellis again shrugging at the libs and their hatred of his book, and keeping the formula largely unchanged. 


And then, on September 6, 2020, six months into the pandemic, Ellis changed the format. Instead of an opening monologue, he read the first chapter of a new, in-progress book he was working on. At first, none of it sounded atypical. Not his ensuing recollections of previous attempts to write the same story, including a vivid depiction of a panic attack that effort caused him in 2006, nor an anecdote he included about seeing a woman from his past while driving on La Cienega Boulevard with his oft-referenced millennial boyfriend, Todd. But when Ellis embarked on a prolonged memory from the summer before his senior year of high school, introducing his friends at the time and eventually making reference to a serial killer who began stalking Los Angeles in 1980, it became apparent that this was something different — something new. The monologue concluded around the 30-minute mark, and then Ellis interviewed that week’s guest.

What unfolded, a chapter at a time on the biweekly podcast (followed by an often unrelated interview with a guest), was Ellis’s latest novel, his best by many accounts. Not that he was using that term, at least not exclusively: “I can’t call this a novel, or fiction, though the lawyers at my publishing house will probably force me to,” he said. He explained that it was “basically 99 percent pure autobiography. Everyone is real. Everything happened. All of the scenes actually played out.” 

And so Bret Easton Ellis began to chronicle the senior year (1981) of a character named Bret Easton Ellis at The Buckley School in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles. Like his real-life counterpart, this Bret grew up in the Valley, has a successful real estate developer father, and dated the daughter of a famous movie producer. (In this telling, the producer is called Terry Schaffer; in reality, it was John Foreman, who produced Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Unlike real-life Bret, this Bret has no siblings, a fact Ellis addresses before reading the third chapter on air. He also mentions having changed a character’s name from Matt Slavin to Matt Kellner before introducing “the memoir, the novel — I mean, whatever you’d like to call it.” He explains away both changes: his sisters have complained about his writing about them in the past, and the original last name was deemed too similar to the actual last name of the person on whom the character is based. (Ellis mentioned that one of the people he’d spoken about in the previous episode — a married man who’d made a sex-for-cash deal with a music producer — had already thanked him for changing his name, and had also corrected the kind of car another character drove in high school.)

His implication being that everything else is reported exactly as it happened. Were these interjections also autofictional flourishes? Or were they just Bret, podcasting as usual? Over the years, he’d often punctuate a film review with a personal story (like when he explained that he was reviewing Sonic the Hedgehog because his millennial boyfriend who rarely wanted to see new movies but loved video games was intrigued), or digress during the introduction to an interview (like when he reminisced about Union Square Cafe before his conversation with Stephanie Danler), or simply divulge a story from his past (like finding a boyfriend of seven years dead in his kitchen of an aneurysm, and falling into a depression). Ellis’s introductions, where these asides took place, were clearly pre-scripted. Were they embellished? Probably, yeah. But they were, for all intents and purposes, real. 

So despite the guise of the new book, Ellis’s high-school memories sounded just like any other of his (true) anecdotes. Then things took a turn as the plot grew more and more fantastical, as the serial killer in the story got closer and closer to Bret. It was real, until it wasn’t. When a mysterious van was following Bret to Palm Springs, listeners’ brows were probably lifted, but that journey from belief to not unfolded along a unique trajectory. There’s something different about listening to a story take shape over the course of several weeks, believing it to be reality until you slowly realize it isn’t, and encountering that same story all at once in a book with the words “A NOVEL” emblazoned on the cover. 


This year, The Shards was published with the words “A NOVEL” emblazoned on the cover. For the first time in his career, Ellis has released a book to overwhelmingly positive reviews. In something approaching a rave, The New York Times praised “an exciting new vulnerability” in Ellis’s work. It was true: the man who just a decade ago penned a 3,400-word screed against the media’s portrayal of gay men as “magical elves” has written a very sweet, gay, high-school love story. In The Shards, whether Ellis would admit it or not, he finally embraces the victim narrative he has so thoroughly mocked on his podcast. But being gay in high school defines your experience. And being gay defines The Shards.

The protagonist is closeted — he has a girlfriend, but is secretly sleeping with two different boys in his class. He has become painfully jealous of Robert Mallory, the mysterious and beautiful transfer student who might be pulling one of these secret male lovers away. While Bret is attracted to Robert, he’s also genuinely scared: at the same time as this teenage interloper upsets the balance of Bret’s tightly knit group of friends, that serial killer is picking off kids their age. It could be a show on The CW. And Ellis, not a snob, may well advocate for the CW version (though the book has already been acquired by HBO for adaptation). Those of us who have listened to years of his podcast monologues full of deep appreciation for melodrama and teen soaps knew that Ellis had this in him. He’s devoted hours of airtime to reviewing the likes of Euphoria, and described crying after rewatching the post-9/11 episode of Sex and the City dedicated to the city of New York. The man can be a softie. 

The Shards is drenched in an unabashed sincerity not found in Ellis’s previous work. “The empty side of the bed was the first hint that maybe Ryan Vaughn wouldn’t be taking this as seriously as I was,” he writes. “The second hint was the flash of sadness and panic when I realized: I doubt I touched Ryan in quite the same way he touched me.” Moments like this, of unfettered emotion, stand out against Ellis’s spare prose. 

In the space Ellis’s fiction has inhabited since Less Than Zero, nothing is taboo. Kids discuss doing cocaine in front of their parents, they have threesomes, exchange sex for money, drive drunk, use the N-word, commit murder, live the dream. He has typically displayed a certain coolness toward queerness: These kids don’t care who they’re fucking. And when Less Than Zero came out in 1985, I’m sure this attitude was very hip indeed. It has taken Ellis some 40 years to confront what was actually taboo in this world, what he was once afraid to write about. Featuring a character named Bret who’s busy transmuting his own high school experiences into a novel called Less Than Zero, The Shards suggests that here, at last, is the reality behind the artifice — the experiences a Los Angeles private high-school kid had that led him, at twenty, to write a book about Los Angeles private high-school kids. And what is he busy hiding? What can Ellis, only now, as a 59-year-old, finally reveal? A remarkably vulnerable portrait of sincere gay love. These sections that seem so out of place in Ellis’s oeuvre really do land. They’re moving.

Of course, Ellis is still Ellis, so passages like the one I quoted above are preceded by lines like “I was amazed looking down his muscled back flexing with a sheen of sweat while he was on all fours, his pale ass spread open, allowing my cock to slide in and out of him while he muttered obscenities urging me on” and “his pink cock was sticking straight up almost parallel to the abdominal muscles that ran up his taut, hard stomach.” Frankly, these went down a little easier on the podcast — when a man nearing 60 reads this out loud, a self-consciousness comes through, adding a layer of levity that isn’t present on the page. There’s a certain hesitancy in his voice, a pause here or there. But there’s also the fact that on a podcast, you miss a beat as you check your phone or do your laundry. 

More is lost in the print version of The Shards than the lubrication for all those cock scenes. While the first chapter of the book is nearly identical to the first podcast introduction, Ellis’s subsequent section-by-section introductions are lost. Under the guise of contextualizing the passage he was about to read, he consistently affirmed the authenticity of what was to come next. “Each chapter of the book would now be the opening monologue for the podcast and, in ways, it wouldn’t stray that far from what we usually do, just me talking,” Ellis announced in the second installment, before an interview with Peter Bart. In the next episode, he relayed that one of his sisters had asked him if it was such a good idea to go back and deal with these events” — apparently real. “It happened almost 40 years ago, it’s forgotten. Leave it alone.” Over and over, he underscored the accuracy of his account. “Yes, like everyone connected to the story, Matt Kellner was a real person,” he said before interviewing the novelist Bruce Wagner. Also absent from the book is the commentary his guests offered, as when Quentin Tarantino questioned the veracity of the supposed memoir. Of course, interspersing a novel with interviews with people like Quentin Tarantino — in which they also discuss said novel — would be absurd. But when The Shards takes detours into the land of true Hollywood stories, this level of meta-examination goes a long way. 

Take the little diversion into #MeToo territory that The Shards makes about halfway through its 600 pages. When Ellis chronicles his young protagonist optimistically showing up at a private bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel and being pressured into having sex with the middle-aged movie producer, he goes to great lengths to try not to depict himself as a victim. This is not out of character: Ellis has repeatedly done whatever is the auditory version of rolling his eyes at a number of #MeToo cases. “And is that really sexual assault?” he said when the actor Anthony Rapp accused Kevin Spacey of sexually assaulting him. “Dude, push them off and walk out of the room,” he added. In The Shards, Ellis is similarly assured. “I was technically ‘underage’ but no one had hurt me, I hadn’t been assaulted, I let it happen, I made it easier for Terry to take my underwear off and bring me to an orgasm, and I really had no feelings either way about what transpired in the bedroom of the bungalow,” he writes. “I simply hoped it would lead to a scriptwriting gig but there was the possibility that it wouldn’t: that the offer had been ephemeral, a tease, a ploy to let him taste my cock and rim me, suck me off and fuck my mouth.” Protestations aside, if we’re told explicitly that character Bret is the same person as author Bret, and that everything in the novel really happened, is Ellis saying, in effect, me, too?

Since the publication of the novel, Ellis has insisted that although this incident did occur, he did not and does not feel victimized. In an episode of his podcast released on March 13 of this year, his friend and fellow writer Maria Semple asked him to “go deeper into if that was traumatic for you.” Ellis held his old line. “Gay men are different. Sorry, the gay world is different,” he said. “I didn’t really want to do it, but no negative feelings about it except that I didn’t get an agent and I didn’t get my script made.” But intentionally or not, Ellis betrays some “negative feelings” in the pages of his novel. Robert Mallory, who serves as an idealized projection of many of the things Ellis’s protagonist wishes he were (beautiful, straight, fucking the girl he likes), also has a run-in with Terry Schaffer, the lecherous gay movie producer. When Schaffer makes a pass at Mallory, he responds by tossing Schaffer over a balcony and shattering his leg. Not quite the zen posture adopted by the author on the podcast. But that interplay — between Bret the anti-woke skeptic and Bret the sensitive author, Bret the vulnerable teen and Bret the knowing interviewer — makes the scene all the richer. 


What if The Shards isn’t a novel at all? What if, instead, the version of The Shards that was published by Knopf is really a transcript of a performance — and an incomplete one at that? None of Ellis’s glowing reviewers entertained this theory, perhaps because most don’t seem to have realized that the book was audio serialized in the first place. It was easy to miss what Ellis was up to if you had better ways to spend the last decade than listening to countless hours of podcasts, especially the one that birthed so much of White. But if you weren’t listening to the podcast, you couldn’t have understood what Ellis’s project — dare I say it, his innovation within the unfortunate field of autofiction — was about. 

Critics have, of course, recognized The Shards as autofiction. You can’t really miss it. Even though Ellis omits most of his part-by-part introductions in the novel, he concludes with a four-page epilogue in which he attempts to recapture the spirit of what he was able to accomplish on the podcast. He reflects on his writing process, even doing his best to incorporate some of the meta techniques he so skillfully deployed in the audio format. He reports that his younger boyfriend was nearly driven “mad” by the book. “Todd and I would have fights in which he disputed the ‘veracity’ of certain events that I adamantly confirmed,” he writes. “Some nights Todd slept in motels.” For those of you keeping score at home, I do think this probably happened. But here, unlike on the podcast, the trick doesn’t work. The last quarter of the novel drags, the bloody action movie climax doesn’t fully gel, and when it’s not being spurred along by the metafictional interstitials, the entire facade begins to crack. The epilogue alone can’t put the fictional genie back in the bottle. Yet as with the rest of the book, the part of the epilogue that works is the page about Ryan Vaughn, the boy Ellis loved. The longing and regret he is able to sincerely express connect the events of the previous pages to the current day. This expression is the kind of thing novels do best. And there is no doubt, upon reading these final pages, that the longing is real.

Gabriel Jandali Appel is the former business manager of The Drift. He is currently an editor at the Metrograph Journal.