Literature / The Rules of Attraction

"No one ever likes the right person."

The Rules of Attraction is an 1987 novel, a Black Comedy Satire by Bret Easton Ellis about students at an East Coast liberal arts school in the USA. Set during The '80s, with Ronald Reagan still in power, there's boatloads of sex, drugs and booze (as per every Ellis book ever), as well as rampant disaffection and angst.

Though it occasionally detours to other people, the story switches mainly between the points of view of three different characters:

  • Paul Denton: A bisexual who seems to favor men over women. He's probably the most intelligent and eloquent of the narrators. Considering how many people compliment him on his looks, he's apparently quite foxy. Paul used to sleep with Lauren...
  • Lauren Hynde: A painter/poet who's pining for Victor, her boyfriend who's off traveling in Europe. Not that that's stopped her from sleeping around a little bit. She finds herself dating Sean...
  • Sean Bateman: Brother of Patrick Bateman, and a dense and usually drugged out/drunk frat-boy type. He deals drugs for a local townie to whom he owes money. Though he's very involved with Lauren, he might be sleeping with Paul...

See where this is going?

The book explores a Love Dodecahedron or two amid a thick mire of substance abuse and seemingly endless parties. The story is told through three distinct voices and though this book fits the Ellis mold, it offers up some great twists and does intriguing things with the narrative device of POV-switching. A must-read for anyone who likes Ellis' work. Given its subject-matter, it isn't nearly as gruesome as Ellis' other works, though it is still dark. As such, most events - including the suicides of background characters - are played for laughs as college students being melodramatic.

There was also a movie adaptation of the book in 2002, from Roger Avary, which Ellis names as his favorite of the adaptations of his work.

Tropes in both works:

  • Alpha Bitch: Lara, Lauren's roommate who's manipulative as hell - under the disguise of helping Lauren, she's actually undermining Lauren. This culminates in Lara seducing Sean even though she knows Lauren has a crush on him, and Lara herself doesn't even seem to genuinely like him and to do it more For the Evulz.
  • Bath Suicide: Sean's admirer who sends him anonymous love letters. In the book she's at least called Mary, in the movie she doesn't even have a name and is only credited as "Food Service girl". She does this in reaction to realizing that Sean doesn't feel anything for her (or even realize she exists) and hooks up with other girls.
  • Bookends: The film begins and ends at the "End of the World" party; both the book and the film begin and end mid-sentence.
  • Boy Meets Girl: Sean and Lauren. Sean is surprisingly sweet about it.
  • Bungled Suicide: Sean tries to off himself because Lauren doesn't want anything to do with him anymore after he slept with Lara; the book does it semi-dramatically, but the movie plays it for laughs with Sean trying three different times and waking up with damp trousers.
  • Catch Phrase: Sean constantly spouts "Deal with it" and "Rock and Roll".
  • Crapsack World: You might be pressed to find a harsher depiction of the life in and around college.
  • Depraved Bisexual: Paul, who's also beaten for coming on to another man and has an unrequited note  crush on Sean. Arguably also Sean himself is this, more so in the book.
  • Jerkass:
    • Sean Bateman, who consciously or unconsciously strings Paul along even though he must at least suspect Paul has a crush on him. And who has no qualms sleeping with the roommate of the girl (Lauren) he supposedly has a crush on himself.
    • Lara, the girl he sleeps with, herself is even more this (see Alpha Bitch).
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Lauren is based on author Donna Tartt, who attended college with Bret Easton Ellis.
  • No Ending: The book and movie end the same way they begin: in mid-sentence.
  • One-Hour Work Week: The story follows students at a college campus during a Fall semester, but none of the characters ever seem to attend any classes or do any coursework. Even more remarkable, the one teacher who makes an appearance in the movie, cancels his class he was about to give in the beginning of the movie, and is never seen teaching - but is seen attending his students' college parties.
  • A Party, Also Known as an Orgy: Played more or less straight, so much so it's lampshaded with the "Dress to get Screwed" party.
  • Popular Is Dumb: Sean is highly sought after as a sexual and romantic prospect by other characters. He's also both Book Dumb and almost fatally Street Dumb, and in general just not a very bright guy.
  • Rape as Drama: Lauren in the opening scene, while she's drunk passed out; and it's being videotaped by another guy watching. Disturbingly, it's how she loses her virginity. Both book and film come within a whisker of playing it for comedy.
  • Stalker with a Crush: Sean's admirer (called Mary in the books). Her chapters about her desperation for Sean in the book, and her letters to him in the movie, are practically poetry. Sean thinks Lauren is the one writing him, is disappointed when Lauren reveals she isn't; and he doesn't even know who Food Service girl is.

Tropes found exclusively in the book include:

  • Bilingual Bonus: The book contains a brief chapter that follows the thoughts of Sean's roommate, Bertrand. Since he's French and the book follows the inner monologues of its current protagonist, the chapter is written in French.
  • Canon Welding: As per usual with an Ellis novel; both Clay and Patrick Bateman get a chapter from their perspective. Inversely, Victor, Lauren and Bertrand "The Frog" make appearances in Glamorama, and Sean appears in American Psycho. One character refers to something they were told by a Vanden Williams, who later appears in American Psycho, where (in the book) she's still said to be attending Camden.
  • Crossover: It's implied that Ellis' books share a verse with Donna Tartt's The Secret History, since The Rules Of Attraction mentions "that weird Classics group... probably roaming the countryside sacrificing farmers and performing pagan rituals." Ellis and Tartt were at college together and read first drafts of each others' books.
  • Five-Finger Discount: Allegedly Sean engages in this for fun if Paul's accounts of their relationship are to be believed.
  • Good Bad Girl: Arguably Lauren is an example. She gets around despite pining for Victor, but seems to be a genuinely good person, if emotionally wrecked and disaffected.
  • Gossipy Hens: Nearly every chapter refers to a handful of minor characters who are heard gossiping about everyone else.
  • Queer Romance: Possibly Sean and Paul, depending on your interpretation. A section of Paul's chapters details a budding sexual/romantic relationship between the two of them, but Sean's don't mention it at all. Is Paul merely fantasizing or is Sean hiding their relationship?
    • Word of God declares that Sean is in fact gay/bi. That being said, it could be that Sean never mentions Paul simply for the fact that Paul is nothing but free sex, his only true aim is Lauren. Or Ellis could be fucking with us, he's kind of ambiguous with his own sexuality.
  • The Rashomon: Paul and Sean tell conflicting, contradictory accounts of their relationship.

Tropes found exclusively in the movie include:

  • Background Music reappears later as Source Music: Verdi's Aida is first heard during the opening titles as Background Music, and later Lauren's teacher plays it on LP record when he's in a room with Lauren.
  • Cluster F-Bomb: Technically a Cluster MF-Bomb. A drug dealer goes on a tirade against protagonist Sean, who owes him money, and he manages to utter Motherfucking / Motherfucker 8 times in 16 seconds (plus, a "fuck" and a "shit"). Probably helped by the fact that he was high on cocaine himself.
  • Compressed Adaptation: Enforced Trope: Director Roger Avary explained to The Guardian in an interview, "There are a number of missing scenes, some intentional, some actually shot and removed for practical purposes of running time - or flow. I purposefully approached the school year within abrupt jumps of time. All the narrators are unreliable, and the scenes you don't see are meant to be like blackouts, the failure of memory - or perhaps the idealism of imagined false memories, something I've long been interested in. It's all perception and reality."
  • Downer Ending: By the end, everyone is single, broken, and miserable. Paul is rejected by Sean and bashed by a closeted gay; Lauren finds Victor has forgotten her and loses her virginity in a rape; and Sean loses Lauren and leaves the college in a voice over:
    Sean: I started driving faster as I left the college behind. I didn't know where I was going. Someplace unoccupied I hoped. At first I thought there were things about her that I would never forget, but in the end, all I could think about (beat) was—
  • The Film of the Book. It is the movie of the same-called book, a largely faithful adaptation (except for some Compressed Adaptation / Pragmatic Adaptation).
  • Get Back in the Closet: Despite Word of God and Paul's account (as well as a comment from Lauren), the whole Paul and Sean relationship is severely downplayed in the movie by comparison, and Paul and Mitchell's relationship is completely cut.
  • Pragmatic Adaptation: The film cuts numerous minor characters (and merges some), and removes several plot lines.
  • Shout-Out: The sleazy film student in the beginning is talking about a certain movie that everyone says is "just a Tarantino film."
  • Would Hit a Girl: When Lara acts as a catalyst for ruining everything between Sean and Lauren, she proceeds to try and rub it in, only for Sean to punch her in the face.

Alternative Title(s): The Rules Of Attraction