Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Rules of Attraction - Bret Easton Ellis

The context in which one reads The Rules of Attraction may color one’s view of it.  That was the case for me, at least.  The first time I read it was in September of 2003.  I was 20 and going to Paris for the semester.  I seem to recall reading the entire book on the plane flight from New York to Paris.  I seem to recall considering it a very good book for the reason of such speed—considered it to be on the same level of Less Than Zero.  Recently I have felt the opposite—that Less Than Zero is clearly the superior work, and that The Rules of Attraction is the “weaker sophomore effort.”  This is not the way I felt about The Beautiful and Damned (which oddly enough is the most popular review on Flying Houses—and by a long shot) and people tend to think of Bret Easton Ellis and F. Scott Fitzgerald in a similar vein.  For one, they both go by three names, which people generally do not take as a sign of pretension, but may be so (think of the “stature of the artist” view—or maybe just an attempt at accuracy for the names they were called).  They both write about young people and how their social lives affect their interior and exterior selves.  They both had success when they were very young (Ellis younger, however) and both were tagged as emblems of the generations they sought to capture in literature.  Popular films have been made out of their novels and short stories—and they continue to be made. 
They have also both been equated with the characters they portrayed.  And it would be too hard to ignore Ellis’s recent doings: the recent New York Times article about The Canyons is more than an instructive exercise.  In it, Ellis is painted as a screenwriter who has seemingly abandoned the novel writing for which he is known and generally admired.  It is worth noting that Ellis is not known for having written the screenplay for anything yet—so a good deal of whether this latest entre into film remains to be seen.  But I will make a small prediction that The Canyons is going to be about as memorable as The Informers.  Which is to say, nothing compared to Less Than Zero or American Psycho.  The Rules of Attraction and Glamorama get mentioned as secondary works (though I personally believe there is a strong argument that Glamorama is Ellis’s best work—but see also this present review, regarding re-assessment of Ellis as one ages) and most people only know about Imperial Bedrooms or Lunar Park if they are devoted readers of Ellis.  Maybe Ellis has achieved his goals in literature and is now seeking success in film—but it is irresistible to question whether this is just another fact by which to compare him to Fitzgerald—that late Hollywood period, when he had to write for the movies to make a living, and where he burnt out too young.  Fitzgerald died at 44 and Ellis is currently 49 but there have been advances in longevity.  Rumors have flown about Ellis (hardly ignored by the author in his two most recent efforts) and whether he shares certain characteristics with his literary creations.  I will just say that personally, I have my views on this matter (okay I went to NYU and more than a couple people I met claimed personal connections to him—then again one kid in Los Angeles claimed that B.E.E. read his self-published first creative non-fiction book and as time as passed I have increasingly felt that the kid was a liar) and no review of The Rules of Attraction should fail to mention its obsession with “gossip,” but I will decline to offer any personal tidbits that might paint an unfortunate view: we will respect the separation between artist and art object in this review.
                To return to context, then: I liked The Rules of Attraction much better when I was 20 than I liked it when I was 29.75 years old.  Maybe it’s because of something that’s captured in one scene: dismay over the reality that you have reached a certain age, which Sean experiences when he finds out that a centerfold in the pages of Playboy is 19 years old—two years younger than him—when he has always seen centerfold models as being “older”:
“This girl is younger than me, and that does it—instant depression.  This woman, this flesh was always older and that was part of the turn-on, but now, coming across this, something I’d never noticed before upsets me more than thinking about the conversation that Lauren and Judy must have had.” (210)
And perhaps it summarizes my view when I say I don’t consider it a spoiler to tell the reader that Sean has had sex with Judy while Sean was going out with Lauren.  This is because I seriously doubt any reader gets into the nitty-gritty details of this text—draws a massive chart detailing every relationship and how they are part of a larger intelligent design—but also seemingly rough outlines of variations on the same theme: spoiled brats at a small liberal arts college, drinking and doing lots of drugs and having lots of sex. 
It is hard not to mention the context in which I viewed this book at age 20, too.  Briefly, from September through December of 2002, I was the editor of the film review section of the NYU student newspaper.  That context matters for two reasons.  First, the film version of The Rules of Attraction came out while I had the editorial reigns, and I published a vaguely positive review of the film while not feeling an especially strong urge to go out and see it (this in contradistinction to American Psycho).  Second, New York University is a college filled with the same types of characters as those that populate The Rules of Attraction.  So the book is successful on the second front.  If you have been to college—and more specifically, this “type” of college—then you will be able to identify with this book in at least some small way.  Even though the characters are ensconced in the mid-1980s, one may indeed be shocked by how little youth culture has changed—apart from “screen time” which is vaguely anticipated in certain scenes, such as when Sean thinks Lauren will think he is cooler if he says he is majoring in Computers….but I cannot find the page that this detail emerges in.
And that is one important thing to note about this book: it is either one long chapter, or about 80 mini-chapters (maybe I’m off on that number—it’s just off the top of my head—I don’t want to spend the time to count up every single number of times that each character speaks in an attempt to make some sort of numerological quotation, nor do I believe that Ellis wants us to do this)—and if that parenthetical is any sign, it’s harder to view it as the latter.  This plot evolves over the course of one fall semester—roughly the months of October and November.  This includes Halloween and it is worth noting here that it bears a similarity to Daylight Savings Time, in ways that I did not even think about.  Really, I must have considered this book to be of such an inspiring nature that I adopted one of its narrative techniques: present tense first-person shifting narration (except that I kept it in third-person).  Indeed some of the scenes we both include probably share some of the same “one-liners at party” dialogue.  I wrote Daylight Savings Time when I was twenty-three and twenty-four, and Ellis published The Rules of Attraction when he was twenty-four, and while I would not suggest that I was on the same level of Ellis at that age, I would suggest that our “mental age” was probably not far off.
                This can be interesting material—but generally it is not.  It suffers from the same problem as Palo Alto (recently reviewed here) by James Franco: we don’t know which character to root for because we’re not sure of what they care about, or how smart they really are.  It appears that Sean is smarter than he appears, but we never really get any satisfaction out of seeing that side of him, except maybe in the scene at Vittorio’s (a 70-year-old poetry professor relocating to Italy that makes passes at Lauren)—that is, we do not know whether the things he tends to remember have significance or not.  At one point Sean mentions how his "hippie" ex-girlfriend knows to talk about Ginsberg, but then does not realize he wrote “Howl.”  I suppose Sean is supposed to appreciate that he can see through her “feigned coolness,” but the reader is never exactly sure how much of the behavior of the three major characters is “feigned coolness.” 
                This is most apparent in Paul’s interactions with Sean, and perhaps less apparent in Sean’s interactions with Lauren.  Which leads me to recognize that I have not provided a plot-line for this novel yet.  It concerns Sean Bateman (younger brother to Patrick Bateman, who makes an appearance and even gets his own “monologue-mini-chapter”), who rides a motorcycle and says “rock and roll” and “deal with it” in response to other people’s random statements, Paul Denton, who is bisexual but seems more gay than straight, who is from Chicago and generally seems the most “stuck-up” of the characters, and Lauren  Hynde, who pines for her boyfriend Victor who is “spending some time in Europe,” who keeps  changing her major, who slept with Paul before the action of the novel “starts” and who sleeps with Sean in the course of it, and who may be the social conscience of the book itself.  These characters attend the same school as Clay from Less Than Zero (who also has his own “mini-chapter monologue”): Camden College.  Maybe it says something when I recall that Clay’s “excerpt” is one of the best parts of this novel, and apparently shows that Ellis has not “lost his gift” but has just shifted it in a less interesting direction.  This is not to say that the subject matter of this book is boring: it takes on a topic which is rarely examined in literature and provides a somewhat fascinating resolution of that issue.  The issue is sort of referenced in Less Than Zero but attacked head-on in this book—but maybe it’s the case that a good deal of the allure of Less Than Zero is its almost mystical, mysterious quality.  This is not as strongly the case here, and though Ellis begins and ends the novel mid-sentence and includes a “blank” Lauren mini-chapter, he generally is content keep his authorial gaze fixed upon “society” as the “topic” of the book. 
                Maybe I am putting words in his mouth or providing my own interpretive gloss but I swore I once read an article where B.E.E. claimed to be inspired by Balzac’s La Comedie Humane and that his work was his take on that sort of vision.  If this is the case, the problem mentioned above (i.e. the same problem with Palo Alto) makes this attempt a failure.  But, like Palo Alto, it is a book that I read very quickly the first time around, and that will certainly remind liberal arts B.A. holders of scenes from their own life and maybe cause them to write books vaguely imitating its literary style that lack sufficient quality for publication.  However I doubt that any of them had as much sex as occurs in this book.  Aside from the hypersexual element, the book is generally true to life, and thus good.  However, I would consider it to be a notch below even Imperial Bedrooms, which, while no masterpiece, at least involved a more mature narrator.  For the uninitiated to Ellis, reading about a Dressed to Get Screwed Party and then holding your own Dressed to Get Screwed Party is reason enough to experience this book once—just don’t expect to be as blown away your second time around.    

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