THE RULES OF ATTRACTION
By Bret Easton Ellis Simon and Schuster. 256 pp. $17.95By Jonathan Yardley
Here we have the second novel by the author of "Less Than Zero," which made something of a splash upon its publication in 1985. In some measure the sensation was caused by the author's youth: Bret Easton Ellis was an undergraduate when the novel was written and a mere 20 years old when it was published. In larger measure, though, the novel aroused interest because it depicted, in gritty if artless terms, a world unknown to most of us: that of rich and privileged youth in Los Angeles, where expensive drugs and cars are as routine as casual sex, and individual lives achieve neither value nor distinction.
"Less Than Zero" wasn't much of a work of fiction, but was redeemed by what gave every appearance of being an authentic slice of contemporary American life -- a dispatch, as it were, from another planet. The question it left unanswered was whether its author was a real writer or had merely scored a fluky success that would be exposed by the second novel upon which he was reported at the time to be working.
Now that the second novel has arrived, it must be reported that in no respect are the judgments it invites encouraging. To put it as directly as possible, "The Rules of Attraction" is a piece of trash: a leering, sensational, terminally monotonous book that is unredeemed by style, characterization, structure or point of view -- none of which it possesses to any discernible degree. It is repulsive not merely because of what it describes, though that certainly is entirely disagreeable, but because of its pervasive smugness and cynicism.
"The Rules of Attraction" purports to be a description of life on the campus of a small, private college in New England, a college presumably modeled to some degree after Ellis' own alma mater, Bennington. No doubt there is an element of truth in what Ellis describes, but he exaggerates so far beyond the realm of credulity that the novel could be taken as parody were it not so resolutely unamusing.
The novel's focus, to the extent that it has any, is on three students at this fictitious college: Sean, the one with whom the author seems most sympathetic, is looking for love but settling for sex; Lauren, a poor little rich girl from the Upper East Side who allows Sean to bestow his affections on her but scarcely returns them; and Paul, who offers both sex and love to Sean, and to just about any other hunk of masculinity who makes the mistake of offering him a friendly word.
These three, like all the others who lounge their way through Ellis' pages, are spoiled, self-indulgent, purposeless children -- "children" most emphatically is the word for them -- for whom it is entirely impossible to work up a scintilla of sympathy or interest. Their separate narratives are litanies of narcissism and self-abuse: They record both the bottomless consumption of alcohol and drugs and the joyless pursuit of sex, and they whine about the injustices to which a neglectful world has subjected them. Here, for example, is Lauren:
"The things around me depress me, seem to define my pitiful existence, everything is so boring: my typewriter -- no cartridges; my easel -- no canvas; my bookshelf -- no books; a check from Dad; an airline ticket to St. Tropez someone put in my box; a note about Parents' Weekend being canceled; the new poems I'm writing, crumpled by the bed; the new story Franklin has left me called 'Saturn Has Eyes'; the half-empty bottle of red wine ... we drank last night; the ashtrays; the cigarettes in the ashtrays; the Bob Marley tape unwound -- it all depresses me immensely."
Were there any evidence of irony in this passage it would have bite, but no such evidence exists. Ellis has failed to put any distance between himself and his subjects, as he did in "Less Than Zero"; he accepts the whines and self-indulgences of these cretinous brats as legitimate, and records their empty lives with no apparent sense of that emptiness. He has taken a subject ripe for satire, but none of that is to be found in "The Rules of Attraction."
This is a pity, for surely there is material for both satire and serious fiction on the college campuses of the 1980s. Student life and academic requirements have changed drastically in recent years; such change usually contains the seeds of interesting art. But what Ellis has written is merely an exploitative little book, one that seeks not to understand but to titillate. Its subject matter is dirty enough, but it is Ellis' approach to this material that is truly obscene.