Rules of Attraction (Ellis)

The Rules of Attraction
Bret Easton Ellis, 1987
Knopf Doubleday
288 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780679781486

Set at a small, affluent liberal-arts college in New England at the height of the Reagan 80s, The Rules of Attraction is a startlingly funny, kaleidoscopic novel about three students with no plans for the future—or even the present—who become entangled in a curious romantic triangle. Bret Easton Ellis trains his incisive gaze on the kids at self-consciously bohemian Camden College and treats their sexual posturings and agonies with a mixture of acrid hilarity and compassion while exposing the moral vacuum at the center of their lives.

Lauren changes boyfriends every time she changes majors and still pines for Victor who split for Europe months ago and she might or might not be writing anonymous love letter to ambivalent, hard-drinking Sean, a hopeless romantic who only has eyes for Lauren, even if he ends up in bed with half the campus, and Paul, Lauren's ex, forthrightly bisexual and whose passion masks a shrewd pragmatism. They waste time getting wasted, race from Thirsty Thursday Happy Hours to Dressed To Get Screwed parties to drinks at The Edge of the World or The Graveyard. The Rules of Attraction is a poignant, hilarious take on the death of romance. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio

Birth—March 7, 1964
Where—Los Angeles, California, USA
Education—B.A., Bennington College (Vermont)
Currently—lives in New York, NY and Los Angeles, CA

Bret Easton Ellis, an American novelist and short story writer, once regarded as one of the so-called literary Brat Pack, (which also included Tama Janowitz and Jay McInerney) is a self-proclaimed "moralist." Ellis employs a technique of linking novels with common, recurring characters.

Ellis was raised in Sherman Oaks in the San Fernando Valley, the son of Robert Martin Ellis, a wealthy property developer, and Dale Ellis, a homemaker. His parents divorced in 1982. He was educated at The Buckley School, where he did not distinguish himself; then he took a music-based course at Bennington College in Vermont, which is thinly disguised as Camden College in all of his novels. He was a part-time musician in 1980s bands such as The Parents before his first book was published.

Less Than Zero, a tale of disaffected, rich teenagers of Los Angeles, was praised by critics and sold well. He moved to New York City in 1987 for the publication of his second novel, The Rules of Attraction, which follows a group of sexually promiscuous college students. Although it sold fairly well, Ellis admits he felt he had "fallen off," after the novel failed to match the success of his debut effort.

That novel introduced Patrick Bateman, who would become the principal character of his controversial third novel, the graphically violent novel American Psycho. Originally intended to be published by Simon & Schuster, it was withdrawn after external protests from groups such as the NOW and others due to the alleged misogynistic nature of the book. The novel was later published by Vintage in 1991. Some consider American Psycho, whose protagonist, Patrick Bateman, is both a cartoonishly materialistic yuppie and a serial killer, to be an example of transgressive art. The novel has achieved considerable cult status.

His collection of short stories, The Informers, was released in 1994, while his publishers waited on the promised fourth novel. His fourth novel, Glamorama, published in 1998, is set in the world of high fashion. The story follows a male model who becomes entangled in a bizarre terrorist organization composed entirely of other models. Glamorama plays with themes of media, celebrity, and political violence and, like its predecessor American Psycho, uses surrealism to convey a sense of postmodern dread.

Lunar Park, released in 2005, uses the form of a celebrity memoir to tell a ghost story about the novelist "Bret Easton Ellis," and his chilling experiences in the apparently haunted home he shares with his wife and son. In keeping with his usual style, Ellis mixes absurd comedy with a bleak and violent vision. In this semi-autobiographical novel, the fictional Bret continues both transient affairs and long-term relationships with men and women at various points in the novel. Critical reaction to the novel was mostly positive, with many critics endeared by the tones of wistfulness and sentimentality Ellis had achieved.

When asked a 2002 interview whether or not he was gay, Ellis explained that he does not identify himself as gay or straight. He explained that he is comfortable to be thought of as gay, bisexual or heterosexual and that he enjoys playing with his persona, identifying variously as gay, straight and bi to different people over the years.

In an August 2005 New York Times article, "Bret Easton Ellis: The Man in the Mirror," Ellis revealed that his best friend and lover for six years, Michael Wade Kaplan, died in 2004 at the age of 30. Ellis described their partnership as being a "very loose kind" and "not particularly conventional" as "neither one of us was interested in the lifestyle." Kaplan's death left Ellis bereft and experiencing what he describes as "a midlife crisis" which acted as a "big catalyst" in helping Ellis finish Lunar Park, adding "a new layer of wistfulness and melancholy to the writing" that had not been there before."

Lunar Park was dedicated to Kaplan and Ellis's father, Robert, who died in 1992 and about whom he speaks openly in interviews promoting the novel. Ellis describes feeling liberated by completing the novel which allowed him to come to terms with many of the unresolved issues regarding his father. In his author Q&A on the Random House website, Ellis comments on their relationship, which left him with a lot of damage. Now older, Ellis describes how his opinion of his father changed over the prior 15 years while writing Glamorama, in which the central conspiracy concerns the relationship of a father and son. Even earlier, the character of Patrick Bateman from American Psycho was based on his father. (Adapted from Wikipedia.)

Book Reviews
Having read some 200-plus pages of this sort of thing, the reader senses that Mr. Ellis is not only playing to our cheapest voyeuristic impulses by trying to glamorize the shallow world he's created but is also zeroing in on his characters' worst traits in order to feel superior to them himself. While there's a hint of a plot ..., his characters are so sketchily defined, so uniformly jaded and drugged out as to be indistinguishable from one another, and we're left to echo their own refrain: ''It's all so boring.''
Michiko Kakutani - New York Times

Serves to establish Mr. Ellis' reputation further as one of the primary inside sources in upper-middle-class America's continuing investigation of what has happend to its children....There is a raunchy tradition in literature— the young man lurching around the lower depths, short on cash, long on nerve, taking his knocks and writing about it. But here we have...young men and women spending their parents' dough and feeling victimized by the help.
Scott Spencer - New York Times Book Review

Ellis is, first and last, a moralist. Under cover of his laconic voice, every word in his [novels] springs from grieving outrage at our spiritual condition.
Los Angeles Times Book Review

This tale of privileged college students at their self-absorbed and childish worst is the very book that countless students have dreamed of writing at their most self-absorbed and childish moments. With one bestseller to his credit, Less Than Zero author and recent Bennington College graduate Ellis has had the unique opportunity of seeing his dream become a reality, and all those other once-and-future students can breathe a sigh of relief that it didn't happen to them. Through a series of brief first-person accounts, the novel chronicles one term at a fictional New England college, with particular emphasis on a decidedly contemporary love triangle (one woman and two men) in which all possible combinations have been explored, and each pines after the one who's pining after the other. Theirs is a world of physical, chemical and emotional excess—an adolescent fantasy of sex, drugs and sturm und drang—wherein characters are distinguished only by the respective means by which they squander their health, wealth and youth. Despite its contemporary feel and flashy structure, the book begins and ends midsentence—the narrative relies on the stalest staples of melodrama and manages to pack in a suicide, assorted suicide attempts, an abortion and the death of a parent without giving the impression that anything is happening or that any of it matters.
Publishers Weekly

Two years after his debut best seller, Less Than Zero, Ellis returns with a very different novel. Though still about college students (Ellis graduated only last year), this story is told through numerous student diaries, illustrating the "accidents" that often form the basis of modern relationships. Here, misunderstandings, differing perceptions, and often just bad hearing cause pairings to begin or end, proving Ellis' implicit thesis that there are no "rules." Ellis has his pretensions (the book starts and finishes in the middle of a sentence, and one diary entry is in easy French), but he successfully fleshes out his characters and creates involving situations. —Susan Avallone
Library Journal

Discussion Questions
Use our LitLovers Book Club Resources; they can help with discussions for any book:

How to Discuss a Book (helpful discussion tips)
Generic Discussion Questions—Fiction and Nonfiction
Read-Think-Talk (a guided reading chart)

Also consider these LitLovers talking points to help get a discussion started for The Rules of Attraction:

1. What kind of world does Ellis describe in The Rules of Attraction? Does he is glamorize it? Does he seem to approve or admire it...or something else? What do you think?

2. Is this the world of real college students? Would you consider the novel a work of "social psychology" as some have? Others call it a "dark comedy." What do you think (actually, what is a dark comedy)?

3. The story begins and ends, intentionally, half-way through a sentence. Why might Ellis have done so? What effect does it create?

4. Do you come to sympathize with, or like, any of these characters? If so, who—Lauren, Mary, Sean, Paul, or Victor? How would you describe them?

5. In what way do these students represent a culture of conspicuous consumption? How do they use (or abuse) their privilege?

6. What is at the heart of these young peoples' lives, anything? One character writes, "I am very tired. That's what I am. Tired of everything." What's the significance of that statement? Are they vacant individuals, or do they long for something underneath their shiny, rich exteriors.

7. What is the larger picture Ellis attempts to suss out for us in The Rules of Attraction?

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution. Thanks.)

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