Steven Wu's Book Reviews
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Bright Lights, Big City
by Jay McInerney

A book review by Steven Wu
January 02, 2002

Rating: 9 (of 10)

I first encountered Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City in a book about writing fiction. McInerney's book was upheld as one of the few novels to ever be written in the second-person: it begins, "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." It was also noted for its poetic final paragraph: "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." In between these two there is an amazing book, a character sketch that does not give up on narrative, a narrative that pulls no punches as it chronicles the life of a shattered, self-destructive man through several coke-filled days in New York.

The man is the nameless "you," who works for a prestigious magazine (which is never named) as a fact-checker. His wife has left him, his magazine job is boring him, and his nights are filled with cocaine, futile romantic pursuits, and depression. When he thinks about the possibility of leaving a club without a woman for the night, he panics:

"You know for a fact that if you go out into the morning alone, without even your sunglasses--which you have neglected to bring, because who, after all, plans on these travesties?--the harsh, angling light will turn you to flesh and bone. Mortality will pierce you through the retina."
With passages like these, McInerney gives vivid portrayals of the protagonist's clubbing nights, upping the rhythm of his prose with every snort and bleakly chronicling the inevitable post-rush depression. Some of the more memorable passages in the book are almost unbearably intense, especially whenever the protagonist's world begins falling apart.

McInerney's prose is spare but effective; despite some too-clever moments, his style was a joy to read. I was afraid that the second-person point of view would degenerate into tiresome whining and overly self-aware posturing, but McInerney avoids both of these problems. His style gives a wonderful portrayal of the protagnist, with all of his sarcasm and self-pity intact. And, despite the intensely personal effect of a second-person point of view, McInerney does not scrimp on the other characters. Megan, Tad, even the ever-absent Amanda gain flesh and blood as the narrative progresses--seen through the narrator's eyes, of course, but just as obviously having some independent existence.

I found particularly amusing McInerney's integration of philosophy into the narrative. In a note from Tad to the protagonist, Tad writes: "Described you as cross between young F. Scott Fitz-Hemingway and the later Wittgenstein, so dress accordingly." Any book that mentions the later Wittgenstein automatically gains an extra point in my ratings. Again, when the protagonist finally meets a nice girl, "You have talked about work, money, Cape Cod, breakfast cereals and the Mind-Body Problem." And finally, "Last night Vicky was talking about the ineffability of inner experience. She told you to imagine what it was like to be a bat." McInerney clearly knows what he's talking about here, and it's a real pleasure to see him casually (but not ostentatiously) throwing these around.

I knew that this book was a keeper the moment I began to get really, really angry at the protagonist. He is, in every sense of the word, a real ass, completely self-absorbed and self-destructive. He meets plenty of nice people in New York City, including a wonderful co-worker named Megan and a Princeton philosophy student named Vicky. But for most of the book he treats them terribly: he forgets to buy lunch for Megan repeatedly and misses an appointment with her, and he fails to follow up on a nice date with Vicky since he'd rather go clubbing. He also treats his brother badly, for no reason whatsoever. But the book is about redemption and finding hope despite despair, and so the anger and frustration I felt at the protagonist in the beginning only fueled my amazement at the depths this novel reached by the end.

The only reason this book fails to attain a perfect score is that I didn't think the mother episode fit at all. While it was well-written and affecting, it also came out of nowhere and threatened to offer an overly pat resolution to the protagonist's depression. Fortunately McInerney avoids the overly pat resolution; unfortunately, he still doesn't tie in the mother episode too well, and it sticks out like a short story that was meant to belong somewhere else.

This book is the first "mainstream" novel that I've enjoyed in quite a long time. I began reading it late one night when I had insomnia and stayed up well into dawn until I finished it. It is that rare book where everything works: the plot, the characters, the writing style, and the deeper meaning that underlies it all. I wish I had written it.

Copyright © 2002 Steven Wu

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