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Bret Easton Ellis: The Rules of Attraction

September 6, 2021

Bret Easton Ellis’s The Rules of Attraction is it about college students at a fictional liberal arts college in New Hampshire in the 80s, and all the indulgence and personal drama that setting entails. It seems reasonable to believe that many of the students mentioned would spend significant parts of their lives in class or doing homework, but you’d barely know it from reading the book. Instead, Ellis focuses on the plentiful partying, drug use, and hooking up.

I’m coming to this book, let’s see, thirty-four years after it was written, and times are different now than they were when it came out. I pulled up Michiko Kakutani’s NY Times review from back then, and she seemed to feel . . . defensive, maybe, like she thinks it’s intended to shock her and those like her and she has to put the book in its place. She’s probably not wrong.

In 2021 we’re a little more desensitized to the shock value of excessive and risky behavior. In fact, high shock value seems like default setting in a lot of pop culture these days. There are some moments in the book that still made my stomach drop, but the perspective of time also helps look through that sensationalism and see that there is more going on.

Ellis writes from rotating first-person perspectives. Quite a few people get their own short sections, but we primarily read from three points of view in particular: Lauren’s, Paul’s, and Sean’s.

As the book begins, we meet Lauren telling a story about losing her virginity. It’s the first of several hammer drops in the book. It’s disturbing, but what’s most disturbing is how non-consensual it is. (I say that as someone who feels that contemporary conversations about consent are too simplistic to contain everything essential involved in sex.) And actually no–what’s most disturbing is how nonchalant, or even happy, she is about what sounds like a truly regrettable first time. “I always knew it would be like this,” she says. It’s a clue that however free-spirited, liberated, and eager for pleasure these characters may be, the internal motivational dials somehow aren’t set quite right.

Another central character is Paul. He’s supposedly bisexual, in that he apparently once dated Lauren, but he seems pretty much gay by now. He has more than one lover throughout the book, but the main thing about Paul is that he really wants to be with the third main character: Sean.

Sean, for his part, doesn’t seem to think about Paul much in return. This becomes clear when, after reading relatively early on the same events one evening described first by Paul and then quite differently by Sean, we realize that not only are our narrators potentially unreliable but at least one of them is either completely deluded or straight-up lying. In any case, Sean has eyes for Lauren, though he asks her at one point, not apparently out of some modern view of open relationships so much as out of sheer psychopathy: “Since, like, when does having sex with someone else mean, like, I’m not faithful to you?” But Lauren doesn’t really care about Sean anyway, or even seem to like him much. She really pines after another student, Victor, throughout the book. Sean also tries to kill himself three times–once by hanging himself with a necktie that breaks under his weight, another time by trying to cut his wrists with a too-dull razor cartridge, and finally by overdosing on Sudafed of all things.

In and around the plot points of unrequited love, there is a lot of sleeping around and drug and alcohol use. Although The Rules of Attraction was written when those things were becoming more common but still shocked a lot of people, they’re even more prevalent today. There’s an obvious appeal to the strong sensual pleasures they bring. If I’d read this book when I was in college, I suspect I would have completely glossed over the fact that if ever there were a document showing that pleasure-seeking might not bringing happiness, this is it. I can certainly recall a younger version of myself that would have been drawn to those experiences without considering any possible downsides.

And what downsides are there? If I refrain from resorting to puritanism or squeamishness in my analysis, maybe I’d admit that some experimentation and recklessness is just fine for young people to indulge. Adventures and intense experiences can help us figure ourselves out, even if some people’s tolerance for such things is higher than mine. And let’s be honest: casual sex and drugs haven’t gone anywhere and don’t seem likely to anytime soon. Ideally, young people would grow out of making them the central feature of their lives and start focusing on something more important. Not everyone does that–especially in our heavily permissive, narcissistic culture, but maybe that’s just part of me worrying who’s getting old.

With that concession granted to those more libertine than I, there is still something here Ellis is asking us to look at. Maybe there is a perfect amount of hedonism to bring excitement to an otherwise sober life, like an occasional cheat day on one’s diet. Ellis is not moralist enough to suggest what that might be, but he’s not glorifying this level of indulgence, either. The suicide attempts (one of them successful), the casual references to failing classes, the unrequited love, the abortions, and the unhappy family lives are all there in this world.

I can’t quite get to the point where this level of unsupervised, youthful exploration seems like it would be good for someone, whether myself or, heaven forbid, a potential child of mine. On the other hand, we also get the sense that most of these characters will make it out of college without ruining their lives, whether that’s due to family wealth or other advantages. The message, if there is one, is therefore hazy. Is there a point? Maybe no point is the point, when it comes to Ellis. But I don’t think he would want us to feel like everything is going perfectly well, either.

From → Books

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