The Rules of Attraction takes place at New England’s Camden College – the starting point for many characters in Ellis’s later novels. The novel is written in the epistolary fashion – each segment is a different character’s journal-type entry. Sometimes these segments match up with what other characters are saying and sometimes they don’t (intrigue! mystery!). The novel begins in the middle of a sentence and ends in the middle of a sentence, the author intending to make the reader believe that the story is cyclical – no beginning, no end, just boring repetition of the same mindless, emotionless patterns, themes, and events.
There were a few things I enjoyed about this novel, though I wish I would have read the Ellis books in sequence. Still, I suppose this segment almost works well as a “prequel” to the other novels.
I enjoyed the self-indulgent way that Ellis begins the story in the middle of the story (as if the reader is suddenly thrust into this group of “friends,” without prior knowledge, but with full, unsurprised acceptance) and then ends the story in the middle of a sentence (the reader fully knowing that, though these characters are going off for summer, Camden College will be the same when everyone returns – no surprises, no expectations that things will be different). This very much reminds me of college – of the dreams and compromises we all have and make when we “go away” to school. The lives we lead away from our family, parents, home towns, and the way we drift away, back into and out of it as summer comes and goes.
Another aspect of this novel which I found appealing was the epistolary style. Each segment is written by a different character (though the same group of people throughout). You don’t exactly get the feeling that these are journal entries, though, except for those italicized entries of perhaps the most tragic character – and these are particularly set apart so as to make the distinction from the rest of the group. The rest of the entries seem to be brief insights into the character’s thoughts – none of which can be entirely trusted. Sean, for instance, seems to be having an affair with Paul throughout the novel; yet, while Paul is open about it in his segments, Sean never mentions their “goings-on” nor does he ever even allude to it.
Finally, I enjoyed and appreciated, as always, the honesty. The brutality and pointlessness – the exposed wounds of these disillusioned, dishonest, self-centered, superficial bunch of rich, drugged-out nobodies, all of whom are certainly flunking out of college, but who will somehow graduate and go on to run companies, banks – drive expensive cars, travel Europe. Those not so lucky – the scholarship kids – are the minor characters, the nothings, the nobodies with real problems, and the ones who are most slighted and damaged by this group who couldn’t really care less. It brought my college experience hurtling back, full force – and I imagine many people who had the opportunity to go away to college, to live in the dorms, to go to frat parties, local townie bars, to ditch class, pile into cars, wander around on cold nights just looking for something or someone to do. Brilliantly realistic – and, as Gore Vidal put it, “wonderfully comic.”
Too much sex and too much drug-induced nonsense. Part of what makes this novel so great (the honesty) is also it’s downfall. The sense of trudging through (not really trudging, since the pages turn so fast and the story is rather interesting, if morbid and sad) a book with no point, no purpose, no meaning. And, yes, that is Ellis’s point – the lack of purpose and meaning to any of these people’s lives. But there is no sense of redemption for any of the characters. No revelatory moments, really. No chance that any of these characters were in any way changed, that their experiences might have imbued them with a certain sense of reality – of growth. Even if much of what Ellis is getting at in The Rules of Attraction is true, it’s still hard to believe that not one person would have learned anything about anything.
I also can’t help but compare this to Ellis’s other novels and while this one may stand out more than, say, The Informers, it certainly does not compare in depth or breadth or impact as, for instance, Glamorama. The story is good – but not great. The point is well-taken, but not exactly revelatory or astonishingly executed. The style is interesting, engaging, and perhaps even a bit “cutting-edge” (very 80s), but all of that doesn’t add up to a Glamorama or an American Psycho both of which were truly revolutionary and exposed the 80s and 90s for what they were: decades of decadence, disconnect, self-indulgence, and frightening pointlessness.
The Final Verdict 3.5 out of 5.0
I truly did appreciate what Ellis was trying to say and I think The Rules of Attraction is a great prelude to what Ellis did eventually accomplish with Glamorama. Still, while I think the story was interesting and engaging, the characters fairly well-developed and understood, and the setting more than familiar to those who have had the “college experience,” I do not think that there was much ground-breaking revelation. No real distinction in style or language. There is much allusion to William Burroughs and, perhaps, a bit of Kerouac blended in for good measure. All-in-all, I enjoyed the book but I can’t help compare it to Ellis’s other works and, in doing so, find that this one falls just a bit short.