Thursday, October 14, 2021

Book 305: The Rules of Attraction


"But I was running and I was running because it felt like the 'right' thing to do. It was a chance to show some emotion. I wasn't acting on passion. I was simply acting. Because it seemed the only thing to do. It seemed like something I had been told to do."

Dates read: March 23-27, 2019

Rating: 5/10

I was pretty sheltered in high school. I didn't party, I didn't drink, I didn't do drugs. I did my extracurriculars and then went home and did my homework, for the most part. So when I got to college, and had some freedom...I went a little bonkers. Nothing out of the ordinary, but LOTS of booze and the occasional marijuana cigarette. To me, this felt practically criminal, but when I hear some people's stories about college partying, I think it was all actually pretty tame.

It's a wonder that the students depicted in Bret Easton Ellis' The Rules of Attraction even have majors, because it's clear that the actual activity that dominates their lives isn't going to class. It's taking drugs and hooking up. There are three primary narrators: Sean, Paul, and Lauren, though there are some chapters from the perspectives of other people in their lives. The story begins literally mid-sentence, as Lauren recounts being drugged and raped at a Dress To Get Screwed party when she was a freshman. One might think this would be a traumatic event, but Lauren's recollection of it is distant, almost bored. The only thing she seems to have strong feelings about at all is her boyfriend, Victor, who took a semester off to travel. The problem is that we get his perspective as well, and he doesn't seem to recall having a girlfriend, much less think that he shouldn't be sleeping with whoever he might like.

There's a loose love triangle that plays out: Lauren used to date Paul, who is bisexual. Paul has a thing for Sean, a rich kid who has managed to find himself in debt to a local drug dealer. Sean is interested in Lauren, who likes him enough to date him for a while, but she's still too hung up on Victor to really get invested. And things might have happened between Paul and Sean...Paul recounts quite a lot of sex, but Sean's own versions of the same nights note nothing of the sort. Everyone's an unreliable narrator, their perspectives are warped not only by their constant drug use, but their own self-centeredness.

This is an odd book. There's a lot in here that I usually would hate: a plot that centers largely around unpleasant people taking a lot of drugs, characters that are difficult to tell apart (I often had to flip back to figure out if it was a Sean or Paul chapter, and struggled to remember which of them dated Lauren when, and which one owed the dealer). But somehow, despite the fact that I don't know that I could say that I liked it, I found it compelling enough. The constantly switching perspectives (including one from Sean's French roommate, entirely in French) keep it interesting, and the unreliability of the narrators made it so that I was always questioning the veracity of their viewpoints.

There's a kind of tenderness there, underneath the jaded exteriors of these students, particularly from Lauren, that drove my continued interest in the book. I'm sure there are those among us who haven't tried to mask pain or feeling lost under substances or experiences, but most people I know have done it at one time or another. The emotional immaturity of the characters is reasonable...they are, after all, quite young. At the same time, it wasn't exactly enjoyable to spend time with anyone in this book. It's not without redeeming qualities, but I'm still not quite sure how I feel about Ellis as a writer. If you're interested in his work, I'd recommend this, but if anything I've described sounds off-putting to you, it's skippable.

One year ago, I was reading: A Bollywood Affair

Two years ago, I was reading: Plagues and Peoples

Three years ago, I was reading: Prep

Four years ago, I was reading: The Blind Assassin

Five years ago, I was reading: Border Child

Six years ago, I was reading: Unbelievable

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