I Am Charlotte Sometimes

Back when men were boys and bisexuals existed — in 1985, I guess — it was OK to write about rich kids. I don't know when this stopped — The Official Preppy Handbook was in print for a while there — but in this economic climate especially, the last thing I want to do is ponder how a bunch of prep school jacktards perceive the world.

Such is the milieu that greets those who crack open Bret Easton Ellis' The Rules of Attraction.

I always love the book review trope that sketches out [blank] [blank] and [blank], takes a paragraph break to let you take that in, then introduces the title of the book with a word like "such." Maureen Corrigan's NPR reviews hew to this cadence exactly, which is probably where it first sunk in.

Attraction follows some rich kids during their fall term at a fictional(ized) Northeastern liberal arts college where they sex, drug and abort fetuses. I seem to remember a time, not long after 1985 even, when it wasn't cool to reveal oneself as a rich kid. Maybe it was the rough-and-tumble neighborhood I grew up in, or maybe my peers had a sharp sense of self-hatred, but I just don't remember that being a thing.

Now maybe Rules actually exemplifies this psychology, which is why the characters are written as such jabrones. That's a take I haven't thought of until just now, except I'm still not sure why we should waste time thinking about them in the first place.

I should step back a little: My initial response to The Rules was wondering whether all the culture that existed in the 1980s came from rich kids, and well, what's that about? because fuck these people. It makes it look like everyone during the Reagan era acted like the cast of Gossip Girl or something. It just seems nutty to construct novels about teenagers. Today we have Lauren Conrad for that.

But Ellis (or Easton Ellis?) isn't enamored with the characters, and Of Attraction exposes how meaningless the characters' lives are as they pinball through their fall semester. The novel has this mid-1980s "grittiness" to it, where sex scenes are "painfully real" and rich people use the N-word in jokes (seriously, was that joke in the James Van Der Beek movie adaptation?). But he's also got this Evelyn Waugh-type satirical streak happening, which often gets lost amidst the full-frontal vérité. I was flipping through the book looking for one particular part that was actually funny and couldn't find it, though if you squint there are some other parts that qualify.

Part of the problem is the first-person conceit: The chapters, such as they are, flit around from the first-person perspectives of three main characters (with some extra characters thrown in there). We already know they're all clueless twats, so there's a built-in obstacle that obscures a lot of the satirical moments. Ideally, this would be third-person — or at least follow one character in the first person — so the satire would shine. As it is, it reads like a thought experiment, or maybe a first draft: Good background for the main story.

The story itself, such as that that is, has a few mysteries that emerge but which are never answered. Which, in my layman's opinion, sucks donkey dick: I know it's a "thing" to screw with our "expectations" about "literature," but come the fuck on — give us an ending, for reals. Because he was building up to it and then let us down worse than a French film, except then you're supposed to skulk out of the theater thinking you "got" it.

A final word about the morality in Rules Of — if you take away the first-personness (which you have to, unless you want to go down a rabbit hole of semi-autobiographical sleuthing), it's kind of incredible how heavy handed it all is. The drugging, sexing and fetus aborting is so over the top that you kind of start gravitating toward Flannery O'Connor, thinking that BEE is telling us something about this lost generation.

Now perhaps kids at Bennington really did do that many drugs — it was the 1980s, I suppose — so maybe he's not telegraphing anything about that. But the discussion about abortion comes off as so grisly and uncaring that you can't help but think that he's moralizing a little there — which makes it a fundamentally conservative work (like Flannery O'Connor). I only saw American Psycho, and slept through most of it (me, not him — I drank sangria beforehand), but that's the point of that satire, right? That a logically hyperbolic extension of American culture is that . . . [Wikipediaing that book] oh yeah, totally.

So ultimately it comes to this, BEE. Come on board with "consumer culture"! You do have an iPhone, right? It's high time you overpaid for coffee, rent or whatever else you have with you that makes life bearable in Texas, because it's 2012, baby, and the only middle class people left are in the Mountain or Central time zones.

Posted: September 27th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Books Are The SUVs Of Writing | Tags: , , , , , ,