In her New York Times book review, published on September 19, 1987, Michiko Kakutani compared the shortcomings of The Rules of Attraction characters to the then-current run of 1980s jeans commercials: “Not only are these kids uniformly attractive (slim and sun-tanned with high cheekbones), but they also all project the same air of shiny self-absorption – a mood reinforced by the commercials’ slick, MTV-like pacing and the driving synthetic music.”
Further on: “Most of the time the characters [in The Rules of Attraction] are too drunk or stoned to remember who they spent the night with and too spaced out to remember to go to class. Lucky for them they have their parents’ American Express cards to pay for their trips to St. Tropez and Amsterdam, their BMW’s and their Porsches.”
“…his characters are so sketchily defined, so uniformly jaded and drugged out as to be indistinguishable from one another, and we’re left to echo their own refrain: ”It’s all so boring.”
The notoriously and normally cutthroat Kakutani* was pretty tame in her breakdown of the protagonists and their willingness to selfishly wallow in unprovoked nihilism. In what was a two-in-one review of also From Rockaway, maybe, the later recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Journalism, was cutting to the chase. The rich kids of Camden College (in TROA) are nothing but spoiled brats. And water is still wet.
Last night, I finished the second book released during author Bret Easton Ellis‘ impressively early days as a novelist. (His first, Less Than Zero, was released in 1985 and when he was 20). I got to say, by the time an approximate 120 pages were left of The Rules Attraction, I was able to determine that I had never met such unlikable characters before in fictional work.
Ellis would scoff and ridicule me because in what manual in the history of literature does it say your characters have to be winsome to gain a reader’s undivided attention (to the last page). There isn’t one. Similarly to how his book’s title suggested, explored, and realized that you could Russian Roulette your way into someone’s pants, but not into their heart. Sometimes the “rules” go out the window. I must’ve just felt disappointed that I held more compassion for the gangster types taking names and chopping limbs on the Sopranos than I did for Sean, Lauren, or Paul, and most of the secondary players.
Having graduated from traditional college life, I did the whole she-bang of hard partying, waking up fifteen minutes before class, crash napping afterward, ate Pop-Tarts in substitute for two meals a day, squeezed in library time, and shamelessly took in the sexcapades of my classmates as ear candy. This was us then, in freshmen and sophomore year. Not be treated as a non-sequitur, because of this, I should’ve been more sympathetic in reading about Ellis’ Camden College students. (Fictional Camden was based on his college days at real-life Bennington College). But, dammit, I could not stand these characters. There were complaints and wants one after the other and work put in for such rewards were scant and only coveted. Written in first person and purposely beginning and ending mid-sentence, the “chapters” of The Rules of Attraction are like pastiches of small and pillow talk, that in between not doing classwork, with the hopes that it will lead to something more. Naturally, it doesn’t. Only momentary fulfillment or distraction.
On the flip side of the many Talking Heads records mentioned in the text, Ellis’ verve of flippancy excelled in The Rules of Attraction. He felt no need to explain the selfish, desperate desires of his characters. It remained, even so, difficult to cheer them on when they preferred spending money on drugs over school materials, and slept with other people’s boyfriends or girlfriends because why not. Ellis won, as a writer, in not giving a damn, but the leads Sean, Lauren, and Paul, not at all.
Paul, profusely idyllic and stylishly gay, was the only character worth rooting for. He’s also the only character with the inclusion of family matters, as his relationship with his mother, Eve Denton, isn’t fractured but fragile. They keep heartache and doubt at a distance from each other and only released at conversational breaking points. During a light nightcap in a hotel restaurant, where Paul was staying with his mother in Boston, the mother’s milk she so heartily wanted to offer her son is restrained and the scene is treated tenderly by Ellis.
Paul has the most dignity left by the end of the book. He wore his heart on his sleeve and got burned for it. But wrapped the school semester with an admirable I messed up, I can live to tell, life goes on sensibility. Can’t say the same for his one-time friend lover, the obliquely bisexual Sean Bateman. Bateman is a lost, wild child of the mid-80s that is failing his classes and sells drugs. He sleeps around and rates and judges women as if he is a catch. When he falls for Lauren, it’s the universe’s payback time for his lax regard for women. Lauren is the sole female lead in TROA and just as much of a loss as Sean. Pinning for apparent boyfriend Victor who spent most of the book abroad in Europe, she is somewhat of a free spirit, but her cavalierly is not empowering. Reading her make a fool out of Sean is a little amusing, but a great deal of pity is amassed for Lauren by book’s end.
I obtained a vantage point about The Rules of Attraction because I had seen the 2002 film version starring James Van Der Beek, Shannyn Sossamon, and Ian Somerhalder. Adapted and directed by Roger Avary of Pulp Fiction screenwriting fame, it was crude, bold, and wacky. Taking place in present-day early 2000s, and not 1985 like in the book, it stayed true to laying out the love triangle situation between Paul, Sean, and Lauren. The mishaps in the film were painted over with fantastic camp and the casting of Lauren is awesomely deviant from the book as Sossamon is not a blonde, White girl, but multiracial, naturally tanned, with brown eyes, and shaggy brunette hair.
I liked the film so much, I bought it on DVD and watch from time to time. So why the hell did I dislike the characters in the novel so much? (The book is supposed to be better, right? The Devil Wears Prada wasn’t either). Though the film was debauched, the unattractive attributes of the characters were pronounced with a vengeance that was more colorful than despondent. The novel was straight most of the time.
How you view the sad college life of The Rules of Attraction depends on which presentation you experience first: the book or the movie. The book will make you want to watch this landscape, reinvigorated, in an early 2000s set. But the movie is satisfying enough that if you do read the book, it will render like a tourist trap. Not as a supplement to caring or understanding this one temperamental semester of the rich kids of New Hampshire’s academic elite.
*I first heard of Michiko Kakutani during an episode of Sex and The City. Carrie said Kakutani’s name to her friend Stanford, in anticipation of what the critic said in her review of Carrie’s book. Stanford promptly responded with “Who?”, Carrie explained, and he said, “I thought you were suggesting an appetizer.”
This post is a part Lavish Rebellion’s #87Obsessed series. A celebration of thirty years of 1987 in 2017.