Bret Easton Ellis’s Unreliable Narrators

by Derek Neal

As far as I know, Bret Easton Ellis is the only person with the audacity to charge money for a podcast. Every other podcast I listen to is free or at least becomes free shortly after an exclusive period for subscribers. While Ellis’s podcast used to function in this way, a couple of years ago he started charging two dollars per episode, and I stopped listening.

In truth, this is a reasonable price. The podcasts are two to three hours long and feature interesting guests, usually from the film world. For the time and effort he puts into it, it’s worth the money. And yet I’m of the generation who grew up downloading music for free, streaming pirated TV shows and movies, and torrenting expensive music making software. I’ve downloaded thousands of dollars’ worth of stuff for free. I’m not trying to justify my actions, but asking me to fork over two bucks for a podcast (a podcast!?) is a lot. Expecting me to pay seems like a violation of my rights, or something.

Nevertheless, on a day a few weeks ago circumstances conspired against me: I was in a city that I’d moved to during the pandemic, where I knew no one. I was alone in my studio apartment. I needed some human companionship, and Ellis had just released a three hour conversation with Quentin Tarantino. To make matters worse, I’d watched Tarantino’s film Jackie Brown for the first time a week or so prior and had been listening to its soundtrack of late 60’s and 70’s soul and funk non-stop. What can I say, The Delfonics are pretty good. With all these forces stacked against me, I was powerless to resist. I cursed Bret Easton Ellis and punched in my credit card number. Then I called my father to give him my login information and see if he wanted to go in 50/50 with me.

As I started to listen to the podcast, I was surprised to discover that it began not with a monologue from Ellis, as it did when I had listened in the past, but with a reading of a new chapter from his memoir/novel, The Shards. I was immediately hooked.

The story, ostensibly about Ellis’s senior year of high school in Los Angeles, soon becomes something much darker: a serial killer looms in the background, teenagers begin to disappear into the L.A. night, and a strange hippie cult operates in the shadows on the outskirts of town. The year is 1981, but the atmosphere feels more like 1969. While all this is going on in the background, our narrator, 17-year-old Bret, attempts to deal with his own issues, navigating the social landscape of late adolescence and coming to terms with his sexuality. Inevitably, the two storylines intertwine, or at least Bret thinks they do, and this is where we begin to question if The Shards really is a memoir. Could the gruesome murders that begin to pile up actually have happened? Could Ellis and his classmates have been so closely involved with them? Or is Ellis simply an unreliable narrator, exaggerating events for greater effect and drawing connections and conclusions where none exist?

The format of The Shards only adds to the intrigue. Ellis publishes one chapter every two weeks and often comments on the previous episode when introducing the new one. In this way, we have Ellis in the present acting as the author of the story and the younger version of himself, Bret, acting as the narrator. At first, it seems that the short introductions Ellis provides before reading from the story are superfluous, but it soon becomes apparent that these prefaces should be seen as part of the story itself. In fact, what we really have is a frame story, with Ellis’s introductions coloring our interpretation and understanding of the narrative that follows. The two viewpoints—17-year-old Bret and present-day Ellis—give us a false sense of security. We know it would be foolish to believe everything Bret says—he tells us as much himself—but we are naturally inclined to trust the more mature, authorial voice of Ellis. He has distance from the events of 40 years past; he can view things objectively now; he’s simply telling us what happened all that time ago. But this is not true. Just as Bret from 1981 can be seen as an unreliable narrator, so too can Ellis in 2021.

In fact, Ellis’s storytelling approach, that of serializing his memoir on a podcast, allows him to exploit both types of unreliable narrator: the one who knows they’re unreliable and the one who doesn’t. In the former case, the narrator tells us they can’t be trusted, that it would be unwise to believe everything they’re saying. They are not intentionally duplicitous, but for various reasons are unable to tell us the truth. In the latter case, the narrator claims to be telling the truth, sometimes vociferously so. The more ardent the narrator is as to the veracity of their story, the more suspicious we should become as readers. The narrator protests too much. In this case, the narrator is revealed to be unreliable because external events in the story contradict what the narrator is telling us. Sometimes, these discrepancies will build up throughout the story before culminating in a climax of crippling self-awareness, in which the narrator realizes they’ve been deceiving themself all along. Other times, this moment never comes for the character but is clear to everyone else in the story, us included.

Why are narrators unreliable then? Why can’t they just tell the truth? For one thing, reality is incredibly hard to face on its own terms. It may be impossible but for rare moments of lucidity in one’s life. This is why unreliable narrators, far from being villainous tricksters, are often sympathetic, tragic characters. We recognize and understand their struggle to come to terms with the world around themselves, and we identify with them. There are other explanations as well. It might be due to the passage of time; perhaps narrators simply can’t remember things clearly because they happened so long ago. It might be due to a medical condition that has impaired the narrator’s mental condition. Or it may be due to events from the past that have shaped the narrator in such a way that they perceive the present world inaccurately and cannot recall the past truthfully.

In my previous essay on Teju Cole’s Open City, I commented on how the narration creates a feeling of consciousness on the page, but I didn’t explain how this subjective consciousness can distort and pervert the real events of the story. This latter phenomenon is part of the intrigue of Open City, as a key event in the narrator’s life is withheld until the very end of the story, its revelation forcing us to reconsider the character that we thought we knew. However, there are hints along the way, and one presents itself in the very first pages of the novel when Julius is watching birds from his apartment window. Speaking directly to the reader, he tells us that when the birds have flown out of view “I doubted in some part of myself whether these birds, with their dark wings and throats, their pale bodies and tireless little hearts, really did exist. So amazed was I by them that I couldn’t trust my memory when they weren’t there.Julius’ doubt of his perceptive capabilities and his own mind force us to be skeptical of his reliability as well. This subtle hint puts us on uneven footing as readers; we’re both suspicious of and attracted to Julius, which is a characteristic of all compelling unreliable narrators.

Ellis captures a similar feeling in his introduction to the first chapter of The Shards. He tells us that this story, this memoir, is the one thing he’s always wanted to write. His other novels, similar in theme and tone to The Shards, come to be seen as mere preparatory efforts for this one, in which he will distill his writing to its most essential qualities. The story is so traumatic that Ellis recounts an aborted attempt, 15 years ago, to write down the events of The Shards; the experience was of such pain that it induced an anxiety attack and sent him to the hospital. The stakes are incredibly, almost unbelievably high here.

Ellis then tells us that with the help of therapy he was able to come to terms with what happened to him, that is until he was driving along Holloway Drive in West Hollywood one day and glimpsed an old high school classmate. Suddenly, it all came rushing back to him, and he had to try and write again. As Ellis narrates this introduction, he mixes in names and places, giving weight and credence to the narrative. The characters, although their names have been changed, are always referred to by both first and last name: Susan Reynolds, Tom Wright, Debbie Schaefer, Robert Mallory. This seems to be a characteristic of Ellis’s, and it makes the characters that much more flesh and blood. It’s why I think specifically of Paul Allen (and not just American Psycho) whenever I see a business card. Ellis also loves to list street names and neighborhoods in Los Angeles, and even though I’ve never been there, I can tell you all about Sunset Boulevard, Century City, Westwood, Ventura Boulevard, and Santa Monica Boulevard.

No matter what reservations we have as to the truth of Ellis’s story, the overwhelming amount of minute detail he provides seems to almost beat the listener into submission, daring us to challenge his account of things. And really, we don’t want to challenge him; we are seduced by his story, ready and eager to suspend our disbelief. When Ellis glimpses the woman who activates the urge to finally tell this story, he tells us that she “was a reminder that everything had actually been real, that everything had actually happened. That even though it had been over 35 years since any of us had seen each other, we were still bound by the events of the fall of 1981.”

After casting this spell upon us, Ellis begins to break it in future introductions. In the third episode, he tells us that he received an email from a former classmate who had some corrections to provide for the previous episode. The classmate corrects Ellis about what time he saw The Shining in the summer of 1980, a key detail in the previous episode and the first time Bret sees the antagonist of the story (or thinks he does). It wasn’t 10:00 a.m.; it was 11:30 a.m. The classmate also corrects Ellis about what time they met for lunch that day and tells him that he got the car of another friend wrong. It wasn’t a Mercedes SL 450; it was a Corvette. These may seem like trivial details, but they function as hints in the narrative of the story, contradicting Ellis’s account of things and forcing us to question his truthfulness. Ellis begins to become the narrator who doesn’t know he’s unreliable.

In later episodes, he continues to provide corrections. In turns out that the site of one girl’s disappearance was not a drugstore, but a record store. However, when Ellis attempts to verify this on the internet, he can’t—too much time has passed. Ellis is also unable to find information on the death of a classmate when he tries to look him up online. There is no record of an obituary outside of Ellis’s memory. After he listens back to another episode, he realizes he “got the timeline screwed up;” he had an important conversation with a classmate on a Wednesday, not a Friday. Despite these discrepancies, Ellis never wavers from his belief in the truth of his story. He says that the meticulous journals he kept in high school allow him to remember dates, names, places, even which songs were playing in certain situations. Indeed, Ellis reminds us in episode two that this is “99% pure autobiography; everyone is real; everything happened. All of the scenes actually played out.” And maybe most of these things did happen, but in the way that the events of Fight Club happen, or the way that the events of any Ishiguro novel happen—the facts of the story are more or less true, but the interpretation of their significance and meaning are skewed and distorted by the narrator’s subjective viewpoint.

As the evidence begins to pile up against present day Ellis’s recollection of things, we see something similar happen to 17-year-old Bret from 1981. While he becomes increasingly obsessed about possible connections between a serial killer and a new student, his friends worry progressively more about him and his descent into paranoia and madness. The antagonist of the story, Robert Mallory, tells Bret that “when you’re talking to me, you’re really talking to yourself.” Later, Bret tells himself, “you hear things that aren’t really there.” How much of the story is real, and how much is a projection of Bret’s imagination? It’s impossible to say, and Bret does not know either. In one episode, he drives to a seemingly abandoned house and imagines that a murder may have taken place there, despite a lack of evidence. He tells us that “even though I hadn’t really seen anything ominous, somehow my mind told me that I had.” Bret slowly awakens to his own unreliability and the fact that he cannot trust his own interpretation of events, but he is unable to do anything about this; his attempts at ignoring his own worst impulses are futile.

The double unreliability of the narrative, the story within the story, the young Bret and the older Ellis, it all creates a dizzying vortex that is inescapable for the reader. There is no satisfactory explanation for what is really going on here, and searching for one would be a mistake anyways—we would end up like Bret in 1981, trying to fit all the pieces of a messy, tangled, impossible story together. Instead, the best understanding may be one that Bret himself suggests, but never seems to accept: all stories are unreliable. When Bret visits the home of a recently deceased classmate and begins to infuse meaning into the objects left around his bedroom, he tells us that he might be “hearing things that weren’t there because I was the writer.” Bret is a writer in 1981, and Ellis is the writer of The Shards. All writers are liars, simply by virtue of choosing what to include and exclude from a story, how to organize and order events, what to emphasize and what to diminish. Ultimately, what’s real within the confines of the story and what’s true in terms of objective, historical fact doesn’t matter for The Shards, or any novel. It’s a story, and it doesn’t have to be real to tell us something real.

I’ll continue giving Bret Easton Ellis my money until the end of The Shards, and maybe I’ll find out what this story was really all about. I hope he doesn’t tell us.