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Thursday, 24 February 2011

The Rules Of Attraction - Bret Easton Ellis

"What does she like, I was thinking. Questions raced through my mind - does she go wild during sex, does she come easily, does she freak out about oral sex, does she mind a guy coming in her mouth? Then I realize I won't go to bed with a girl if she won't do that. I also won't go to bed with a girl if she can't or won't have an orgasm because then, what's the point? If you can't make a girl come then why even bother? That always seemed to me to be like writing questions in a letter."  SEAN.

Bret Easton Ellis is the master of American Fiction, in my opinion. In his few books he has managed to upset, disturb, arouse, entertain and scare me in equal measure. And each emotion his writing provokes in you makes you ashamed to be feeling that particular emotion at that particular piece of writing. When I read Ellis' work I feel transported to wherever the book may be happening, often high-end 1980s. The characters chew me up and spit me out, exhausted and feeling dirty. There are few authors who are able to tickle such a feeling from their readers. Chuck Palahniuk is another, though his gritty tales tend to wear their grimy hearts on their sleeve. Ellis manages to paint a picture that makes you want to join in - despite knowing you shouldn't want to at all.

Probably the most unnervingly aspirational work Ellis has penned is The Rules Of Attraction (1987), an 'incisive, controversial and startlingly funny tale of student sex, expectation, desire and frustration on an affluent 1980s New England college campus', but it's so much more than the cover would suggest. 

The three main characters - like most of Ellis' creations - are morally grey. I found myself liking each character for their horrible faults rather than despite them. More than any other author, Ellis manages to make you sympathise - indeed, disturbingly, empathise - with the characters. Is Sean a horrible, womanising prick or a delicate, lost soul struggling to find meaning in his shallow life? Is Lauren as pristine as she makes out or is she kidding us and herself? Can you really believe a thing Paul tells you or is he cruelly ignored, viciously misrepresented and deserving of our pity? And if so, do you want to give it to him? Or any of the others? Are they deserving of anything at all? These questions are almost never answered... It's your call.

I find myself believing and liking Paul over the other characters, though it's "the girl" - with her senseless, doomed infatuation with Sean - that really holds up the mirror to most readers, I would have thought. Although the truth is that we are, all of us, all of them. We all exaggerate, we all try our luck yet believe ourselves to be morally above our actions. We all crave something, something, that we can't quite reach and would stand a better chance of getting hold of if only we knew what it is we wanted.

Don't be put off by the graphic sex, the drugs, the parties. Read each telling as a sad insight into the lives of others - and pretend you don't see yourself, if you want to. I did. For too long. I've read The Rules Of Attraction many times; first, at school aged about 15 or 16, then again in my early twenties - over and over. Now I'm reading it again and it's breathtaking just how "fresh" it feels, even when you know just what's coming. I highly recommend this book.