Is Bret Easton Ellis sympathizing with his “lost” generation? Perhaps – because he was showing their lamentable situation, purposeless, spontaneous, divorced from the ground, from the outer skins of life. In “The Rules of Attraction,” Ellis showed us the nature of the American youth of the late 80s – gratifying itself with temporary things: one-night stands, drug binges, several puffs of smoke. This is a generation of youth that has perhaps lost interest in participating with issues their predecessors have fervently engaged with, the Vietnam War, most notably. All throughout the novel, I saw how Lauren, Paul and Sean tried to find purpose, tried to find activity in sex, drugs amidst perhaps the perceived boredom surrounding them, or the impinging issues, albeit more personal, asking for serious responses, actions from them. For instance, there was the divorce of Paul’s parents which he took lightly, pretentiously or otherwise. Are Ellis’ characters rebelling? If yes, against what? Against boredom? Against the miseries of life? Against loneliness?
Overrated things. But all of the above could be valid. The much storied late-teenage to early twenties phase that teems with drama and sophomoric philosophizing, adventurism and forced maturation, coupled with a social atmosphere that succeeded in placating everyone but those from the lower class by keeping the pressing social issues from erupting – this is their upshot. A bunch of college students hovering in mid-air, detached from anyone but themselves, calculating tomorrows, searching for places to spend (or splurge) their moneys on, searching for disco bars to dance nights away and places to fuck. And what rules Ellis took a hell of a book to talk about? Precisely the rulelessness of things, the classic negation that paradoxically satisfies a wanting. The rule is waywardness, aimlessness. The rule is not merely to break the rules, but to not be governed by rules. Lauren would “have four overdue art books from the library” (40) Tony would “come back from a student council meeting, stoned” (45). Paul would smoke in front of his mother. And Sean, obsessed with Lauren, would tell her, out of paranoia, to wear sweater before they visit her old Poetry teacher, because he thinks the old teacher likes Lauren and he “didn’t like the idea of Vittorio (poetry teacher) staring at her tits (189). There is no commitment here, no perspiration, no diligence. All I saw here is indolence, appetite, obsession – these kids seem to need to hark back to the world. But what if what the world has become has inspired them to be those? Trouble.
They call this bourgeois-decadence
For those who are too clingy with terms, this term would be fit for the lifestyle depicted in Ellis’ work: bourgeois-decadence. Middle-class up to rich kids getting into the cusp of life through what they deem most pleasurable, most gratifying. And perhaps there is the factor of peer pressure as well, of conformism, of wanting to be trendy. And what was trendy is for the boys to get laid before he finishes college, for girls to get a free beer or two from a guy who would screw her in the morning, for students to leave their book for their pots. These behaviors, as they would say, need discipline. And we know whims and discipline are not like yin and yang, not the same but obversive; neither just like chivalry and the modern world, for these can be still fashioned as a bricolage, an un-match that still works, even still pretty (like in the French comedy “Les Visiteurs”); but simply just oppositions, hardly workable.
Everything they wanted were just those
Because everything they want now is not what they wanted then; worse, what is now is far imaginable from what is then. The whims of these kids make them hard to guess, calculate. But as I read through, the characters’ sudden wishes become unsurprising. Where could we put the blame for this undecidedness, for this lack of commitment? Perhaps they were hearing too much, getting exposed to too many voices (Ayn Rand, Talking Heads, The Smiths, Rebel Without a Cause, One Hundred Days of Solitude, The Supremes, A Clockwork Orange, and the hippies too) that they first implode and when already uncontainable and unbearably meaningless, had to part with, had to be expressed outwardly. And so the turning to the temporarily meaningful. This generation is not sick; this generation was claimed to be shielded from any malaise. But everything was a pretense. They were lulled into dormancy, severed from the similar, bigger miseries that haunt their world and which roused the consciousness and earned the commitment of their older sisters and brothers, perhaps parents. That is why that is where we locate them, in mid-air, hallucinating, not asking, even immaturely, “Who am I?” “Where am I going?” “What is my purpose in life?” not asking even anything, because for the hell of the world, they do not care, they were not made to care, or: the things to care about were veiled, and veiled masterfully from them.
I won’t say Ellis is a genius because of this. But I can definitely say he was something for bringing this silently horrifying temper into print. And that cinches a future read from him for me.