Whenever I’m the mood for fiction about first world problems, unloved rich kids and the fucked up lives they lead, I reach for something by Bret Easton Ellis. I get on a serious kick for this kind of stuff sometimes. Transgressive fiction, I’ve heard it called. Maybe it’s soothing to my soul to think that an abundance of money doesn’t necessarily alleviate our problems. Maybe I get a heavy slathering of schadenfreude by reading representations of the most fortunate among us enduring harrowing emotional torment. Whatever the cause, when I’m in the mood for this type of stuff, Ellis hits the spot perfectly.
As a teenager, Chuck Palahniuk was my go to when I felt the creeping dread of the unfairness of the world, the uncertainty of life and our lot in it. I quickly grew out of Palahniuk after his fourth or fifth book, I can’t remember precisely which one. He hit some truly brilliant highs from time to time that resonated deeply with my angst riddled teenage mind, but it quickly became apparent that he had already said what he came to say and wasn’t working in an interesting space any longer. Anyway, I feel like Bret Easton Ellis is probably who Palahniuk was most inspired by. They touch on a lot of the same themes, but Ellis does it with a lot more subtlety and grace. Where Palahniuk beats the reader over the head with a theme, Ellis writes his way around it, guiding them toward the conclusion he’s striving for.
“No one will ever know anyone. We just have to deal with each other. You’re not ever gonna know me.”
The Rules of Attraction is mostly told through a series of short, unfiltered, internal, first person POV narratives that often contradict one another. They read almost like journal entries or summaries of events. Where these disparate points of view don’t quite align, where they butt up against one another, something more interesting is revealed: how subjective everyone’s reality is, how deep the well of self deception runs within us. We simply can’t see through another’s eyes. Our accounts of reality, our retellings of history, will never align with anyone else’s. We are all fully alone within ourselves, but crave social connection and understanding. It’s a sick joke that we cannot escape.
I didn’t find this story nearly as disturbing as Ellis’ first novel, Less Than Zero, something that I greatly appreciated, however it’s still pretty messed up: The novel begins with what is arguably a date rape, and continues on to accidental overdoses, suicide, suicide attempts, and continual emotional manipulation. The most disturbing element for me though, was that none of these events seem to phase any of the characters involved. They’re all dead inside, lying to themselves, in heavy denial of something or other, and entirely self-centered. Their apathy is palpable, and drips all over every aspect of their lives.
My suspicion is that this novel is a reflection on the futility of love and relationships, the improbability of knowing one another well enough to communicate from within the infinite walls of experience and subjectivity that separate us from everyone else. We become trapped in our personal experience of the world, each of us wandering around in our locked down boxes, misunderstanding one another as we inadvertently help to reinforce their own boxes.
“What else is there to do in college except drink beer or slit one’s wrists?”
The unfiltered internal thoughts of these characters highlighted for me a youthful period of my own life, a time where my desire for belonging and acceptance within peer groups was paramount. I cared so much what others thought of me, where I stood in relation to them. These needs, only expressed internally, desperately hidden externally, or so I thought. I loved this glimpse into the characters’ emotional lives. It rings true for anyone who remembers being young and caring so much about things that matter so little. I imagine this book would read a lot differently in your twenties, than your thirties or forties.
I enjoy the shared universe in which Ellis’ novels take place. “That kid from LA” that is occasionally referenced in The Rules of Attraction is Clay, the protagonist from Less Than Zero. One of the main POV characters, Sean Bateman, is the younger brother of the titular American Psycho, Patrick Bateman, pro/antagonist of Ellis’ follow-up to The Rules of Attraction. Patrick even narrates his own short chapter near the end of the novel. From what I hear, there are little crossover moments like these peppered throughout all of Ellis’ novels, and the connections are not always limited to his own work, but occasionally those written by his contemporaries such as Donna Tartt or Jay McInerney.
I look forward to suffering through all of his stories, along with his coterie of broken, apathetic, wealthy, unloved characters… when I’m in the mood for them that is. Just like a quality psychedelic experience, set and setting are crucial elements with his writing. These novels can be a dreadful, disheartening experience if you’re not in the right state of mind. If you’re up for it though, they’re a blast.