For the last six episodes of his podcast, American Psycho author Bret Easton Ellis has held readers rapt with an early 1980s story of Los Angeles high school kids who become entangled with a handsome new student named Robert Mallory — and a serial killer known as The Trawler.
Adding to the intrigue: Ellis says everything in the story really happened to him and his friends.
Ellis, a frequent critic of Hollywood and literary censorship, explained early on that he was releasing the podcast to his paid subscribers in part because he isn’t sure anyone would publish it, given its sometimes horrific contents. He has also wondered if his most successful works – including American Psycho and Less Than Zero — would find publishers today, given the sensitivities of 2020.
The new story, which Ellis has alternately described as a novel and a memoir, is full of details that might migraine the minds of modern-day publishers: a killer who trawls homes before his murders (like the Manson family once did), learning their blueprints and stealing pets; underage sex; and ghastly violations involving dead fish. The working title is The Shards.
Ellis is, as he explains on the podcast, completing a new installment every two weeks in time to read it at the start of each B.E.E. Podcast. He has no editor, no notes from a nervous publisher, no corporate board worried about potential fallout. He has changed names and other details, he says, but sometimes friends from Buckley, his Sherman Oaks private school, will contact him after an episode to make minor corrections.
“This is the problem with not having an editor or a fact-checker, when you are feverishly writing down your memories and sending them out into the world without that particular guidance every two weeks,” Ellis said in the installment released Sunday. “I’m my own editor, my own fact-checker, on this book, in this audible incarnation.”
He added: “That’s not to say that there isn’t a plan with this book — there is. These things happened. It’s a story with a beginning, and a middle, and an end. And I was there. So there’s an outline I’m following, and I’m trying to tell this as straightforwardly as possible, as much as my memory permits. In other words, I’m not making this up as we go along. I already know what’s going to happen, and where to end it.”
He has also left open the possibility that The Shards could, at some point, be released through a traditional publisher.
The Shards is classic Ellis, confident and assured, stocked with references to real places and cultural landmarks from the same approximate period when Less Than Zero took place. But he may be an even better writer in his 50s than he was in his 20s, more skilled at creating a sense of place and time. While Less Than Zero, American Psycho and Glamorama benefitted from a this-is-happening sense of urgency, The Shards rides an overpowering swell of this-happened nostalgia — and a tragic sense of inevitability.
Is it really all true? Our narrator is named Bret Easton Ellis, but we shouldn’t read too much into that: Bret Easton Ellis also narrated the 2005 mostly fictional Ellis novel Lunar Park. This time, Ellis speaks directly to the listener, adding a sense of intimacy and trust as he assures as that this all really did take place. Was Robert Mallory the Trawler? Which of his friends will make it out alive? Tune in every other Sunday for a new episode of the B.E.E. Podcast.
Ellis tweeted in 2013: “New novel: Robert Mallory is a high school student and serial killer in 1981 Los Angeles.” But that may mean nothing: Ellis has said on the podcast that he has wrestled for years with how to tell the story of what happened to him and his friends, and whether it should be a straight memoir or a thinly veiled novelization. A Google search for “The Trawler” and for crimes that resemble those in the story turn up nothing. Ditto lists of serial killers who operated in Los Angeles in the 1980s.
But Ellis has suggested that people may have, for mysterious reasons, buried the truth.
That provides a subtext for The Shards that may be scarier than a serial killer story: We live in an era where it can sometimes feel impossible to say what really happened, and what didn’t. Censorship and corporate jitters that prevent some stories from being told add to the sense of uncertainty.
Of course, Bret Easton Ellis was getting cancelled long before anyone used the phrase “cancel culture”: His contract for American Psycho was infamously canceled before he found a new publisher and released the book — to protest and horror – in 1991.
The serialized format goes back to Charles Dickens publishing his novels in installment in the Victorian era, and more recently Tom Wolfe publishing serialized stories in Rolling Stone. Ellis often wonders on the podcast if movies are still relevant — and if there’s any hope at all for that most antiquated of mediums, the poor, forgotten novel.
He may have found it.