Sunday, September 16, 2012

Book Review: Bright Lights, Big City, by Jay McInerney

Once upon a time, in the sixties, there was this group of male actors called the "Rat Pack" because they were manly and roguish and did caper films. Then, once upon a time in the eighties, there was this group of young actors called the "Brat Pack" who made teen movies. Critics who remembered the "Rat Pack" of their own youth presumably 1) lacked the originality to come up with a non-derivative title for this group, and 2) liked the patronizing way "Brat Pack" contrasted the young, whiny 80s stars against the old, tough 60s stars. Finally, once upon a time in the slightly later eighties, an article in The Village Voice called a couple of young writers "the literary Brat Pack" and the name caught on.

One of these authors was Brett Easton Ellis, who at the time had published Less Than Zero (about being young, hopeless, beautiful, sexed, and coke-addled) and went on to write one of the most important and controversial novels of the nineties, American Psycho. (I review American Psycho here.)

PLOT SPOILERS AHEAD. Another was Jay McInerney, who'd written Bright Lights, Big City. It's the story of a young, educated writer struggling to come to terms with--we eventually discover--spousal abandonment. This struggle, plus some unresolved stuff with his family, which complements the wife-thing nicely, constitutes the emotional core of the story.

The plot is kept in motion, for the most part, by the unnamed narrator's bad decisions and his attempts to escape their consequences. This is a classic, effective comic technique: a hapless protagonist struggles against absurd problems, and the reader simulatneously laughs at his frantic efforts and sympathizes with his predicament. McInerney applies it well: he's good at keeping an ax hanging just above the protagonist's head, using the resultant humor as a sort of intro or condiment to the story's meaty pathos. McInerney's also just stunningly funny in some of his descriptions. For example:

You don't tell her that nothing would surprise you now. Her voice, for instance, which is like the New Jersey State Anthem played through an electric shaver.

Most of the narrator's bad decisions include partying rather than doing work or maintaining relationships; the guy's perpetually numbing himself to keep his grief at bay. See for example the first paragraph:

You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy. You are at a nightclub talking to a girl with a shaved head...The night has already turned on that imperceptible pivot where two A.M changes to six A.M. You know this moment has come and gone, but you are not yet willing to concede that you have crossed the line beyond which all is gratuitous damage and the palsy of unraveled nerve endings. Somewhere back there you could have cut your losses, but you rode past that moment on a comet trail of white powder and now you are trying to hang onto the rush. Your brain at this moment is composed of brigades of tiny Bolivian soldiers. They are tired and muddy from their long march through the night. There are holes in their boots and they are hungry. They need to be fed. They need the Bolivian Marching Powder.

 As you can see from these excerpts, 1) McInerney's grasp of language is impressive, 2) he's funny as hell, and 3) Bright Lights is written entirely in the second-person. No "I," no "he." Just "you." This technique is a little gimicky and weird at first, but as one settles into the work, you get used to it. And it gets the job done.

While Ellis' success has outstripped McInerney's, the parallels between the authors are striking. Both began as young, minimalist critics of American hedonism. Ellis cemented this association by using McInerney in a character in his fake memoir Lunar Park and by using Allison Poole, the protagonist in McInerney's Story of My Life, as a character in American Psycho and Glamorama. That is to say: like Batman and Superman, Ellis and McInerney's characters literally exist in the same universe. But whereas Ellis' work is rarely redeeming (his characters usually begin in desperation, maybe gain a little hope briefly, and then accept the futility of their struggle), McInerney's work is...also rarely redeeming, with his characters desperately striving toward hip nihilism. Sometimes they fail, sometimes they succeed. The biggest difference that I can see between the two authors is that Ellis is just bigger: his despair deeper, his depravity harsher, his themes more grand. McInerney, on the other hand, writes short, tight, crafted, conventional stories. Another way of putting this: McInerney emulates Hemingway, while Ellis emulates Dostoevsky.

The biggest problem with Bright Lights is that McInerney neglected to write an ending. The narrator has an emotional climax wherein he accepts the fact that his wife is lost to him and broken in general, and he wraps up some baggage re: his mom's death that he'd been (evidently) carrying around with him for some time. But there's not much of a denoument: the protagonist faces the trauma he's been hiding from throught the novel, and then stumbles hungover through the Manhattan morning. Last paragraph of the book:

You get down on your knees and tear open the bag. The smell of warm dough envelops you. The first bite sticks in your throat and you almost gag. You will have to go slowly. You will have to learn everything all over again.

So he hits bottom. The End.

Personally, I was disappointed: I felt like both the author and I had invested enough into the characters and story to get a little more payoff than the protagonist's fleeting recognition of how screwed up he is. The reader already knows he's screwed up. That's obvious from the first page. And while this recognition of the protagonist is essential to resolving the tensions in the story, simply resolving that tension in the last two sentences of the book is anticlimactic.

Still, it's an excellent piece of writing, not to mention one that's historically relevant for anyone seeking to understand America in the eighties. I give it seventeen thumbs up.

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