Up until this week, it had been over a decade since Bret Easton Ellis last put out a novel. But he’s certainly kept busy in the time between publishing Imperial Bedrooms, in 2010, and his latest book (out last week), The Shards. He created and directed a web series, and wrote three movies. He’s tweeted a ton. Started a podcast that was for public consumption in 2013 and moved it to a Patreon-funded subscription-only platform in 2018. Perhaps most notably, the same year he started The Bret Easton Ellis Podcast, he collaborated with director Paul Schrader on 2013’s infamous 2013 erotic thriller The Canyons, a critical punching bag starring Lindsay Lohan.
And though he’s done plenty since then, the experience of watching The Canyons—and of seeing everyone have and share an opinion about it—still resonates with me. As that project, along with the rest of Ellis’s work, shows, he has an understanding of how to sum up the zeitgeist by staying a tick or two ahead of it like few living artists have, especially over the length of a career like his. He’s been tapped into the way the attention economy works since 1985 when he published his first novel, Less Than Zero. More importantly, he’s tapped into the way our attention—and the way to capture it—has changed over the years. Love him or hate him, Bret Easton Ellis, perhaps unique among contemporary novelists, has been ahead of the curve. We’ve been living in his world for a long time—it’s only now, though, that we’re starting to realize it.
It’s pretty wild how consistent the Ellis experience has been. I’ve been reading him since I was about 14. I stole a copy of Less Than Zero from a Borders after an older kid told me it was one of his favorite books. That was 1995—a full ten years after the book had initially come out and caused a sensation. Upon its release, New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani called it “one of the most disturbing novels I’ve read in a long time,” and the general vibe from the culture seemed to be one of disbelief—that there was no way that modern teens were doing drugs, having lots of sex with regardless of gender, and generally remaining numb to it all. When I read the book a decade later, I was blown away. It felt like a sexier version of being a normal teen in Bill Clinton’s America. It was all a little extreme, sure, but I could relate to the narrator talking about all the things he did to just try to get through the day, from the drugs to the way that he “heard if you stare at the television screen for a long enough time, you can fall asleep.” That particular strain of numbness wasn’t relegated to rich kids in the suburbs of L.A., even people in 1985 wanted to act like it was. Today, I can’t help but feel like Ellis was trying to warn us that that sense of malaise was coming for the rest of us, that it was only getting worse, and I don’t think we took him seriously.
Part of that was his fault, of course. Ellis understands how to court just enough controversy—that saying something outlandish, even if you don’t mean it, can get press. It sometimes overshadows whatever point you were trying to make in the first place, but it can get you noticed. The 1991 release of American Psycho might be the best example of this dynamic. When news of the novel’s plot broke, Simon & Schuster pulled the book just as it was about to ship out. When it was picked up by Vintage Books, the National Organization for Women called for a boycott of all books from the publisher and its parent company. Ellis certainly didn’t start debates over freedom of speech, or over the artist versus. the art they create, but he seemed to understand that the discourse was slowly becoming more democratized—and the way that change could work for or against an artist. 30 years after its release, American Psycho—and its movie adaptation—exists in a different light. It’s called a “modern classic” and has even started squeezing into conversations about the most important American novels ever written. And the book’s protagonist, Patrick Bateman, has achieved a certain level of fame, thanks in large part to Christian Bale’s stylish on-screen portrayal of the character. (It’s not hard to draw a line from Bateman to, say, Tony Soprano, or Lydia Tár: they’re horrible. People have died because of them. But damn, they’re all pretty cool, and they dress great enough to be a constant presence on any Instagram feed or moodboard.)
But the delight Ellis seems to take in playing the role of provocateur is most evident on his podcast. Typically, he spends as much time as he’d like discussing whatever is on his mind before getting to the conversation with each episode’s guest. I find myself wincing from time to time, and disagreeing with a lot of the things he says. But at the same time, I appreciate that he’s saying anything at all—and that he’s doing it in a smart, thought-out. Most striking is his manner: He talks. He doesn’t yell. That makes it easier to keep listening.
And after all these years of reading and listening to him, I’ve only become more convinced Ellis has understood that the culture is always shifting, and that he knows just how to get ahead of the change. He’s no Nostradamus; he’s not even like William Gibson, another writer who came to prominence in the 1980s and today is considered a prophet of the downsides of technology. I wouldn’t dare call Ellis subtle, either; anybody that’s read American Psycho can tell you he’s far from that. He also doesn’t predict things as much as he reports on the way he sees where America is at and where it’s going. Characters in books like Less Than Zero or The Rules of Attraction try to drown their apathy, cynicism, and sadness in sex, drugs, and consumer culture in a way that seemed outlandish and controversial in Ronald Reagan’s America, but in 2023 feels tame. Everybody is Ellis’s world is hedging their bets on the dream of capitalism, whether it’s Patrick Bateman or Lohan’s character in The Canyons. (Spoiler alert: it never turns out great.) For all its controversy in 1991, American Psycho today reads like a gory spoof and a commentary on what we commonly refer to as “toxic masculinity.” Most pressingly, Ellis understood then and now how to make it all about himself. For all his railing against the group that came after his own Generation X, Ellis is the godfather of Main Character Syndrome. Every book is about him in some way or another. That doesn’t mean the books are autobiographical—just that you always hear his voice telling the story.
Midway through The Shards, I found myself thinking about all the things Ellis has said or written that were unpopular but were eventually proven right. This is sort of tricky, given the material: the book is almost entirely set in the early 1980s and is a work of autofiction that finds Bret Easton Ellis (the novel’s main character) telling a story in the voice of Bret Easton Ellis (the real-life author). He’s played around with a similar idea with 2005’s mock memoir, Lunar Park, but there’s something different at work in The Shards. Maybe it’s real, maybe it isn’t, but Ellis-the-narrator writes about the “new Bret”—one who is finally dealing with his “addiction, depression,” and is becoming “maybe even likable,” a change that leads him to pick back up writing his latest novel, a project he’d abandoned over a decade earlier. “I had to write the book because I needed to resolve what happened—it was finally time.” What follows, as stated at the end, is “entirely a work of fiction” about people and places, drug use and serial killers, all “of the author’s imagination.”
But that little disclosure at the beginning got me thinking about how, since Ellis has been on the ball about so many things, maybe he’s onto something with that idea about resolution. Maybe the thing he’s ahead of the curve on this time is our collective need to move forward and away from the things holding us back from whatever it is we really want to do. I might be wrong about that—and maybe I’m trying too hard to find a bright side in his fiction. But then again, Ellis himself claims at the start of The Shards that he’s “sunnier.” It’s not for nothing that what follows is, I think, one of his best books.