Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #271: Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney

It's not every day a literary generation arrives. (If you want to be pedantic, it only happens roughly every twenty years.) But, in 1984, literary Generation X -- my generation, the ones who were the losers and slackers who could never be as special as the Baby Boomers, before that generational burden passed to the Millennials -- was suddenly on the map, young and snotty and complaining like all of the other new literary generations before them.

Tama Janowitz and Bret Easton Ellis and many others would come later -- and some of them would eventually be from the actual demographic Generation X -- but what kicked it all off was one slim novel about an unnamed second person narrator having one very bad week in early '80s New York City. Like all smash-hit artistic works, it wasn't as groundbreaking or different as it was billed, but Bright Lights, Big City still is a fizzy, conversational novel with closely examined characters and a tight grip on the zeitgeist of the time.

Jay McInerney's first novel is probably more Catcher in the Rye-manque -- with its sad-sack hero moping around New York for a few days, dragged here and there by his own indifferent uncertainty and the influences of others -- and less a roman a clef about McInerney's own life, but the latter was the story that helped put it over the top in 1984. McInerney was a former fact checker for The New Yorker; his cocaine-abusing protagonist had a very similar function at a teasingly unnamed highbrow Manhattan magazine. And so all of Bright Lights' early readers speculated how much of the other details of the protagonist were true of McInerney -- the runaway model wife, that unremarked addiction to any substance he can get his hands on, the tragic backstory that finally comes out at the end of the book. But even without knowing for sure, those elements all feel fictional: they're the stuff of a thousand mid-century novels and late-'70s writers' workshops, the stew McInerney was simmering in as he worked on his own version of all those ideas.

Frankly, Bright Lights should not be as good as it is: it's very much a first novel, with a hero who is all yearning and passivity, a sequence of frankly familiar scenes, and a tattered heart firmly stuck to its sleeve. It works because of McInerney's sentences, two or three steps away from really colloquial, and because of its setting, the collision of high art and low culture as its hero's days shade into nights and vice versa. For it to work at all, it needs a reader who can sympathize with that hero in all his neediness and unfiltered emotion, who can take scene after scene of him thinking about things and not doing them, who wants to hear more about that world and the people in it. 

The story is that old stand-by, the week in which everything falls apart. Our hero has been screwing up at work since his model wife left him -- in another cliche, she did it on a phone call from Paris -- and running around every night through a succession of neon-lit clubs filled with people he doesn't like, dragged by the inevitable confident, sharklike friend, Tad Allagash. He burns the candle at both ends, and this is the week it burns him back.

Bright Lights probably won't be read in a century, at least not in a literature class -- I can easily see it, Slaves of New York, and Less Than Zero being the core of a cultural studies course -- since McInerney didn't have the brilliant career expected of him at the time, and because the best things about Bright Lights are from other, better books. But we're still close enough to its world that it has a crackling energy, and I expect a lot of people will keep reading it for a while for much the same reason I did: to remind them of when they were young and invincible and at the center of the world.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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