There are no rules...

There are no rules…

“and it’s a story that might bore you but you don’t have to listen, she told me, because she always knew it was going to be like that…”

So far this year, I have travelled via book to the Middle East, the sewers of London, dangerous foreign planets and ancient Scandinavia, but is there really any spot as terrifying as an American university in the 1980s? That’s the location for Bret Easton Ellis’s zeitgeist-y novel, The Rules of Attraction. Everyone has vaguely heard of Ellis, if only for American Psycho, and I’d looked at getting one of his books for some time. When my birthday approached I gave a list of books to my friends the teacher and the psychologist; generally those that my mother was unlikely to want to buy me. This one came from the teacher.

Attraction is about, at its core, horrible people doing horrible things to one another, and not much caring about the consequences. However, there’s far more too it than all of that. There are three main characters. Sean is, or at least thinks of himself, as being too cool for anything that’s going on around him, will sleep with anything with a pulse and later falls in love with Lauren when they start dating. Lauren is pining after her boyfriend Victor and dates Sean just to pass the time between waiting for her boyfriend to return and changing her major again and again. Finally, Paul, who is an openly bisexual guy who used to date Lauren and is now sleeping with Sean. Their love triangle is fuelled mostly by cocaine and beer, and their strange/strained relationships get mixed up with everyone else’s.

Many parts of the story are left ambigious for the reader to interpret how they want. For example, Paul’s narration is full of stories of his sexual exploits with Sean, declaring how strongly they seem to feel for one another, but in Sean’s chapters, he never mentions so much as even kissing Paul. Is all of it in Paul’s head, or is Sean just carefully selecting what he wants to tell us? At the same time, Sean seems in love with Lauren and says how much she enjoys their sex, but when it’s Lauren’s turn to talk, she’s far less impressed. And even Lauren and Victor – in his few brief chapters – have entirely different stances on what their relationship actually is.

The novel deals with many huge topics such as suicide, drugs (from weed through to meth), violence, divorce and abortion. The characters are generally unpleasant, almost all of them out to help themselves and make sure that they come out on top of any situation that they end up in. They treat these issues with contempt and, occasionally, humour.

Ellis writes with smart style, each character very much having their own voice so you can immediately tell without looking if it’s Sean, Lauren or Paul speaking. Even the more minor characters who occasionally get their own chapters have an individual voice. The most unique is Bertrand, Sean’s French roommate who has a chapter written entirely in French. Given that I don’t speak French, I had to skip this, although I have since found translations for it online. Apparently a number of the characters appear earlier and later in Ellis’ other novels, and Sean is actually the brother of American Psycho‘s killer Patrick Bateman. Lauren and Victor appear as the main characters in later novel Glamdrama, and minor character Clay is apparently the main figure from his first novel, Less Than Zero.

While the people involved may all be vile to various degrees (Paul is probably the most sympathetic, but that’s not by much), it’s an engaging and quick read as you watch these young men and women, presumably with some intelligence about them, crash and burn. They’re living in a world where money is everything, drugs are abundant and the future looks uncertain, so maybe you can excuse them some of their behaviour. Then again, maybe not. I guess it boils down once again to the fact that we always want what we can’t have, and how much that hurts or annoys us.

The novel begins and ends mid-sentence, implying the endlessness of student futility as people make the same mistakes again and again. Few questions are properly answered, but somehow this is still satisfying, as how much do we really know about everything that goes on around us?