Bret Easton Ellis’ characters have an odd resemblance to Beatrix Potter’s.
True, they drink, get high, get tranquilized, spend a great deal of their parents’ money, and practice junk-food sex. The comparison with the chaste Miss Potter may seem far-fetched. Furthermore her rabbits and squirrels are more human than Ellis’ college kids, and livelier.
But the resemblance is there. Both groups live snugly in burrows, do their things, pay each other visits, and have infrequent contact with the outside world. Adults appear rarely, and, when one does, it is a Mr. MacGregor, whose vegetable patch is briefly and perilously raided (Ellis’ is a rich parent appearing now and then to moo and be milked). Afterward, they scamper home for tea (Ellis: cocaine and tacos).
Of course, Potter’s point is the coziness of small, furred things who set their table with real Spode. Ellis’ point is the bleakness of a lost generation with platinum credit cards. But both the coziness and the bleakness are laid on; neither is earned.
It is only human to prefer unearned coziness. It is harder to accept Ellis’ post-adolescent bleakness, subsidized--if you cost out the tuitions and the consumption of expensive goods and services--at five or six grand a page.
Ellis’ first novel, “Less Than Zero,” was set in Los Angeles, though its protagonist was a New England college student back home for the summer. “The Rules of Attraction” is New England college life on the spot.
College life, in a manner of speaking. We actually catch a glimpse of one professor--though we hear about two or three others--and he is asleep on his office couch and reeks of pot. The tutorial he was supposed to give--only one student shows up--is “The Postmodern Condition.” Ellis’ pegs in “Rules” tend to fit into familiar satirical holes. One student changes his schedule from “Flute Tutorial” to “Advanced Video.”
Classes and term papers have barely the force of a premonition. The function of college is to provide a setting, free of past, future or an external reality. One student may or may not have lost her virginity to a townie--there were several revelers present--if so, it is a faintly embarrassing social misstep. Within the setting, the barely distinguishable inhabitants grasp at each other with a form of desire that is briefly urgent and permanently hazy.
There are no parties, there is only partying. There are no real characters; there are only names, supplied with clothes, activities--mostly sexual--and a kind of sated neediness.
One of the names cuts her throat in the bathtub, which is no great surprise since she has been flitting in and out with a plain case of schizophrenic dementia. The subsequent color of the bath water is more vivid than she is.
Ellis supplies three of the names with rudimentary feelings and a story of sorts. One is Paul, a handsome homosexual, with a passion for exploring bisexual possibilities among the better-looking men students.
His main interest is Sean, who drifts among serial encounters--as many as four on one particular night--with the women. Paul’s narration proudly recounts his success at seducing Sean. Sean’s own recital mentions only the most casual meetings with Paul, whom he regards as a pest.
The reader inclines to believe Paul, although he is vain and foggy enough to be making it up. On the other hand, Sean is equally foggy, what with drugs and his own delusions. More important, Ellis suggests that the characters in “Rules” are so cut off from their own as well as others’ feelings that the reality or unreality of any particular relationship is irrelevant.
Sean’s delusions concern Lauren, with whom he imagines himself to be having a passionate affair. For her part, she has sex with everyone, including Sean, but her own obsession is with a student whom she no longer sees. At one point she has an abortion, as shadowy as everything else.
Ellis’ theme, traditional to social satirists, is “How We Live Now” or, given the anomie of his young people, “How We Fail to Live Now.” His ear and eye for the patter and drift of his contemporaries in the rich college set are sharp; his surfaces are sometimes, though not always, convincing.
But he never departs from surface. Satire needs contrast; an alternative or at least an innocent standpoint to let it register. Without Gulliver, Lilliput would be meaningless; without George Winston, “1984" would be noise. Ellis, both here as in his first book, lacks the strength--or perhaps the courage or desire--to precipitate his swirling materials.
The materials themselves are not of the first water. Ellis’ sketch of a pretentious literary gathering is a tired cliche; someone actually murmurs: “Seminal, seminal.” A gay student, taken to the hospital after overdosing himself, argues groggily with a doctor who insists that he is clinically dead.
The scene tries for absurdity; it is no more than dumb. Even the French in a French student’s love letter is clumsy and dotted with mistakes.
Ellis is a graduate of Bennington College, and the affluent and free-form student body in “Rules” is presumably based on his own recollections. I doubt that Bennington will sue him over its portrayal as a marsh of plaintive hedonism. Perhaps he, or whoever paid his bills, could sue Bennington for a spotty education.