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  • Joshua Britton

On Bret Easton Ellis

Quite a few years ago now I noticed that The Rules of Attraction was on Netflix and I instantly sat down and watched it in the middle of a summer afternoon. I had first seen the film when it was new to video. The girl I was dating at the time had rented it, thinking it was a romantic comedy based on the cover and the fact that Jamer van der Beek was the lead actor. I’d made that assumption, as well, although the tagline “from the twisted minds that brought you Pulp Fiction and American Psycho” piqued my interest. She and I watched it that night with a group of her friends (it may have been her birthday), and, wow, was she ever wrong about it being a romantic comedy. I found it very interesting but everybody else was slightly enraged and confused (“but what are the rules?” they kept bemoaning), and it was hard to fully take the movie in with the constant chatter. I offered to return it to Blockbuster for her, which I did, but not before watching it once without her. Re-watching it on Netflix perhaps seven or eight years later was a joyous reunion, and it has remained one of my favorite films since. I believe this was the first summer I’d begun taking writing seriously. As a result of taking writing seriously, I was taking reading more seriously than ever before, and I was actively searching for more contemporary authors to read, having mostly read Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Updike at that point. So, during the closing credits of Rules, I was interested to see that the movie had been based on a novel by Bret Easton Ellis, the twisted mind who had previously brought us American Psycho (the other twisted mind was screenwriter and director Roger Avary, who had shared a writing credit for Pulp Fiction), whom I hadn’t yet heard of. I immediately went to Barnes and Noble and bought a copy. Reading The Rules of Attraction was perhaps the start of my casual fascination with the film adaptation process—what to leave out, what to rearrange, what do add, etc—which I’ve written about before. It is not a literal adaptation, like the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter movies, but I suppose it’s faithful enough. It’s an experimental second novel, I would soon learn, and Ellis himself has said he thinks Avary’s adaptation is better than the book. But I liked it enough to read more by Ellis; his writing style and Less Than Zero in particular became a heavy influence on my own writing for a time. I did not read his most famous novel for a long time, and for a kind of stupid reason, too. I liked the Vintage paperback edition of The Rules of Attraction that I’d acquired, as well as the matching Vintage editions of Less Than Zero, Imperial Bedrooms, and The Informers. But the paperback edition of American Psycho, though also published by Vintage, did not match the others, nor was it as nice. I generally like hardcovers better, anyway, so I thought I’d hold out for a hardcover edition. That proved hard to come by, impossible, really. I felt certain it would receive a hardcover repress, being such a cult classic, or an anniversary edition, but one never came. So, roughly thirteen years after reading Ellis for the first time, I caved and bought that “lesser” edition of American Psycho while on a spending spree in Target due to recently receiving several gift cards as presents. One of the reasons I so abruptly caved is that in the previous month or two I’d seen American Psycho on two separate lists: one was a list of the best “New York” novels that include The Great Gatsby and The Age of Innocence, and the other was a more generic 1000 books to read before you die, or something like that. My father had also read it a few years earlier, having developed a fondness for Ellis after I pushed Less Than Zero onto him, and he spoke highly of it. I had also seen the movie many years earlier, although I didn’t remember it very well. Despite all this, I have to say, I was not the least bit prepared. When it comes to books and movies, I don’t think that I am easily shocked. While not requirements, I do like dark, depressing, and twisted. But the level of violence and mutilation in American Psycho was unlike anything I could’ve imagined in “serious” fiction, published by a major publishing house, or widely accepted by the “literary” community. I’m genuinely in shock that it was published when it was, and I’m doubtful it would be published today. While reading, I’d had to put the book down and watch a bit of Seinfeld to cleanse the pallet before returning to read the next chapter. I’d be at the dentist’s office (it’s foolish to go anywhere without a book) and I’d have to keep my thumb over certain chapter titles in case someone happened to look over my shoulder. I’d never been so uncomfortable reading a book; I’m not sure I’d ever before been uncomfortable reading any book. The writing is exquisite, though. And, knowing of its reputation, I remember being confused that I was a hundred pages into the novel and there was barely more than a hint of violence in the main character’s stream-of-consciousness, though the attitudes of all of the main characters toward women was something difficult to wrap my 2023 head around. And another thing about Ellis that I admire is that he seems to embrace more than any other writer capturing the extreme detail of the present—characters drinking Tab soda and watching Betamax tapes in Less Than Zero, or the absolute most up-to-date late-80s trends in fashion and technology in American Psycho and the characters’ obsession with anything involving Donald Trump. Reading Ellis is really like entering a time capsule, much more so than the efforts other contemporary novelists put into their work to make it feel “timeless” (not to put them down, however; I think I fall more into this latter category). It’s been more than a month since I finished American Pscyho, and I’ve read Jonathan Franzen, Graham Green, and Thomas Hardy since then (I have an alphabet theme going with my reading this year, influenced by my wife: Ellis preceded Franzen, Ishiguro is next), but it’s still haunting me. It’s effective, you can’t deny that, though not for the faint

of heart.

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