The Rules of Attraction

Romantic ambivalence and sexual promiscuity take center stage in this 1987 novel of  Bret Easton Ellis, who also authored the highly controversial yet successful American Psycho. Set in an affluent New Hampshire liberal arts college in the 80s, the novel follows the lives of three dirty-rich, self-centered, and thoroughly superficial brats who have changed their majors too many times, and who goes to parties more  than they attend their classes. They also all happen to be unfortunately good-looking, and, ensnared by their own vanity, become deeply attracted to each other.

The story is told in an epistolary manner, through the different vantage points of the main characters and their friends, roommates, exes, and at one point, a parent.

“No one ever likes the right person” –Paul

There’s Lauren, the “all-American beauty” with an “Upper East Side Park Avenue bullshit” upbringing who shifted into poetry from painting in pining over her ex Victor, who left her for Europe and is already in love with somebody else.

There’s Paul, Lauren’s indifferent and gorgeously bisexual ex who’s also finding it hard to move on from his last flair Mitchell.  He meets and single-mindedly pursues Sean, the happy-go-lucky drug dealer who indulges his advances and dallies with him either stoned or drunk. Sean, on the other hand, falls hard for Lauren and mistakes Lauren’s bouts of sad, oftentimes teary pre-lovemaking brooding over Victor as genuine love, and attempts to commit suicide after a fight with her.

New York Times dubbed the book upper-middle-class America’s “investigation” of what has happened to its youth. Indeed, its lack of a solid, structured plot–it began and ended artistically in the middle of sentences, to give the feeling that the reader was thrust into the characters’ lives unawares–and the endless, self-indulgent blabbering that seems to characterize most of the narrations highlight the message that directionless and drugged-out are what contemporary American youth has become.

The book exposes the nauseating excesses of America’s elite–Sean and Lauren would pseudo-elope later in the book with nothing but their credit cards–and underscores the uncomfortable truth that money is truly everything, and that the plight of the underprivileged  is so far removed from their own that students on financial aid are talked about with a hush. They would discuss  post-modernism, the Vietnam War, and the advent of MTV over lunch as if they know the world, but would swiftly switch to gossiping at soon as they espy a common friend across the hall.

“Since, like, when does having sex with someone else mean, like, I’m not faithful to you?”–Sean to Lauren

No strings attached–before long the book will have made clear to you that this seems to be the only rule of attraction, of this mindless and highly-risky game which is otherwise known as college. It is a world where initial physical attraction dictates the terms by which people deal with each other, and where the “permanency” of relationships is defined by the regularity by which two people spend the night on the same bed together. Those who are too weak to see above the haze and confuse the kisses for anything other than lust end up losers.

Aside from their sexual abandon, however, the characters are for most part the corruption of the word Bohemian”. For while they put up a semblance of an inclination to artistic pursuits, they only do so because they are not good for anything else. Sean, for once, is always failing three of his classes at any given term, and Paul, the more erudite of our menage-a-trois, could not believe that anyone can fail anything in so small and undemanding a college as Camden.

They are also anything but frugal and impoverished. They are awash with alcohol and drugs as they are awash with money, and it is has become a convenient habit for girls who get knocked up to spend a term or two in Europe to avoid the stigma.

Reviewers the whole blogosphere over have  come to a consensus that Rules of Attraction isn’t one of Ellis’ better works. It has been made into a movie in 2002, which fared just as bad, if not worse, than the book (the movie received a mere $11 million dollars in profits for a budget of $4 million, and currently has a 44% rating on Rotten Tomatoes). Still, it is to be appreciated for its snipes at contemporary society, and I don’t just mean the original, Western audience for which the book was written, but also our Asian milieu, in which, I believe, conservatism is fast becoming a myth. Everywhere everyone just seems to have hit a moral impasse, and while the book doesn’t seem to do anything about it, its sharp and truthful descriptions of what it is like to be in sexual and romantic limbo should be enough to prod us into thinking whether we would like to be in this drunken stupor any longer or start making our way out.

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