They occasionally drink champagne, snort cocaine and drive in their convertibles down the boulevards around Los Angeles. The setting of Ellis' new novel, "The Shards," evokes landscapes known from many Hollywood films.
The protagonists are spoiled adolescents who make their way to school via the picturesque Mulholland Drive and Sunset Boulevard, which winds through Beverly Hills down to the Pacific Palisades.
Already in 1985, Bret Easton Ellis had set his debut novel in Los Angeles: The protagonists in "Less than Zero" were characterized by superficiality, indifference, as well as their consumption of drugs and anxiety relievers.
Similarly, "The Shards" also centers on partying wealthy young students. Among them is the 17-year-old Bret, a fictionalized version of the author, who is writing his first novel in the early 1980s.
A serial killer thriller
In the prologue of "The Shards," Bret Easton Ellis plays on autofiction and discusses his own career and works, referring for example to his controversial 1991 novel, "American Psycho," which in Germany was indexed by the Federal Department for Media Harmful to Young Persons because of its explicit crime scenes.
The narrator, who is now 56 years old, explains why he needed many attempts to write his new novel set in 1981. He writes that he was traumatized by events that happened during his final year at the Buckley Prep School, but that he nevertheless wanted to depict them.
In "American Psycho," a serial killer is on the prowl in New York. Readers know him as the novel's narrator and lead protagonist, Patrick Bateman.
But in the new novel, no one knows until the end who the "Trawler" is. The serial killer murders young women; his bestial tendencies terrorize residents of the West Coast in the early 1980s.
One name is frequently mentioned in the prologue: Robert Mallory. Is the new classmate the Trawler?
The prologue also prepares the reader to a gruesome story, as the narrator mentions that many of his psychotherapists weren't able to deal with the horror of the 1981 events. He finally found one who helped him overcome the trauma and write the book.
'Writing is a drug'
As the flap of "The Shards" reveals, the Los Angeles-born Ellis wanted to become a musician. Before turning to literature, he first studied music and, until the 1980s, he played the keyboard in different New Wave bands.
Ellis has since made a name for himself as an author of eight works of fiction and his 2019 collection of essays, "White." He is also a screenwriter and director.
Writing is like a drug for him, he told German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, but "much better than all real drugs." He said that he did take drugs as he worked on the first version of "Less Than Zero," but managed to avoid them — as well as alcohol — while writing his other works. He'd then use recreational drugs to reward himself once the books were published — but even that stopped in his mid-40s, he claimed in the interview.
The new novel is not Ellis' first autofictional work. "Less Than Zero" (1985) and "Lunar Park" (2005) both have autobiographical components, with the latter being a mock autobiography of the author.
His latest work is however different from other novels in the genre because it is also a gory thriller, as a critic in the German weekly Die Zeit points out.
Exploring evil, outsiders and human madness, "The Shards" meets all expectations of a Bret Easton Ellis novel.
This article was originally written in German.