Really liberal arts

I originally wanted to name this post Sex and Drugs and House (itself inspired by this*) but couldn’t because I already had a post with that name. Because I am awesome. (To the non-clicker-throughers, that post is a review of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. …Just so you don’t miss the opportunity to understand that I am mad cultured.)

[*Note: For some reason that now escapes me, my friends and I were like, obsessed with this song for a period in college, in a way we had probably convinced ourself was 100% ironic but was maybe only 89% so. Nearly ten years later, I get a headache after listening to it once. Sigh, age.]

Anywho, the reason for my naming conundrum is that sex, drugs and various houses basically sums up in full the plot of Bret Easton Ellis’ The Rules of Attraction, which should come as little surprise to fans of BEE, who, fun fact: is kind of obsessed with, and legitimately wanted to write the screenplay for Fifty Shades of Grey. (How fucked up would that movie have been! In the best way!)

Okay, so the novel centers on, and primarily alternates between the perspectives of, Sean, Paul, and Lauren: the hapless slacker, the bisexual hopeless romantic and the somewhat sensitive slut, respectively. All three are upperclassmen at Hamden, a New Hampshire liberal arts college that is clearly meant to stand in for any New England liberal arts college.

Sean, Paul and Lauren have various love triangles and pseudo-relationships—including, arguably, the most important one: between Sean and Paul—but ultimately their “feelings” serve as a backdrop to the overall picture of life at Hamden: an endless parade of parties and alcohol and weed and maybe some cocaine and maybe some pills and mostly just figuring out who you’re going to go home with tonight and avoid in the cafeteria tomorrow. Rarely are Ellis’ characters in class, or discussing knowledge, or participating in extra-curricular activities. These things are just tedious stopovers on the road to Fucked Upness, a nightly destination. Any seed of real interpersonal connection—between friends or lovers—is doomed, steamrolled by convenience, impulsivity, alcohol and sheer youth.

Overall, I found The Rules of Attraction painfully honest, and consequently bleak. (I read it in less than six hours, so this whole post comes with the stipulation that I enjoyed it.) I wasn’t personally as promiscuous or chemically open-minded in college as the characters in Ellis’ novel, but then again I went to a Jesuit school—where every year the pro-life club put up dozens of tiny crosses with baby shoes to represent all the aborted fetuses—so maybe there wasn’t room for all that sexing and boozing with Jesus in the way.

Generally, I don’t find Ellis’ characterization of college as a period devoted to—for some people—the pure pursuit of pleasure to be all that far off. After all, Sean, Paul and Lauren aren’t emotionless (although Sean’s last name is Bateman and we are briefly introduced to his brother Patrick, I don’t think there’s meant to be any significant relationship). Rather, the trio struggle with their emotions: what they are, how to act on them, whether to act on them. And with some regularity, it’s much easier for them to simply exist in the moment, to do what everyone else is doing and go where everyone else is going, to drink the fullest beer and sleep with the closest freshman. I’m not saying that’s what college is all about but….it’s not necessarily not what it’s about.

One thing I did enjoy about The Rules of Attraction: Ellis’ characterization of the liberal arts school ethos felt, to me, equal-opportunity. Which is to say that both men and women hurt people and were hurt, used people and were used. No one escapes this novel without looking occasionally pathetic; a few characters are consistently so. But these are some of the most progressive schools in the country, and it’s nice to know that women have earned the right to be over-intellectualized hedonists, too.

I tend to think that you have to like Bret Easton Ellis to read him, which is a bit of a paradox since how could you know until you try? Well, The Rules of Attraction might be a good place to start. No one’s murdering anyone, and there’s only like a teeny bit of possible rape (like the smallest bit!) Mostly it’s a commentary on the bizarre state of innocence today (or in 1987, when it was written) and how uniquely freeing it is to be in college, life’s peak balance between privilege and responsibility. It’s true that Sean, Paul, Lauren and their fellow students aren’t the most likable people in the world, but when’s the last time you overhead a conversation between NYU students that didn’t make you want to scream? Don’t read this book for your college experience; read this book for them.


TITLE: The Rules of Attraction
AUTHOR: Bret Easton Ellis
PAGES: 326 (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: American Psycho, Less Than Zero
SORTA LIKE: American Psycho meets I Am Charlotte Simmons
FIRST LINE: “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, and it was, she thinks, her first year, or, actually weekend, really a Friday, in September, at Camden, and this was three or four years ago, and she got so drunk that she ended up in bed, lost her virginity (late, she was eighteen) in Lorna Slavin’s room, because she was a Freshman and had a roommate and Lorna was, she remembers, a Senior or a Junior and usually sometimes at her boyfriend’s place off campus, to who she thought was a Sophomore Ceramics major but who was actually either some guy from N.Y.U., a film student, and up in New Hampshire just for The Dressed to Get Screwed party, or a townie.”

PS: There is a movie adaptation of this book starring James van der Beek and it’s on Netflix. I haven’t watched it, but I suspect it’s probably amazing/awful and only NC-17 because of the gay stuff.

PPS: The aforementioned link to Brave New World is extra appropriate considering this plot summary I gave of it: “The novel is set in a future society where women no longer give birth biologically; couples aren’t married, ‘everyone belongs to everyone else.’ On the social level, this means that everyone sleeps with everyone else, women and men are discouraged from forming relationships longer than a few months (and should never be exclusive).” Sounds like college to me.

2 thoughts on “Really liberal arts”

  1. This book rocks. I love that Sean is American Psycho’s brother. I love that the guy in the Wayfarers who works in the cafeteria is Clay, the narrator of Less Than Zero. College wasn’t like this for me. But it sort of was.

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