The opening line of the book reads: ‘you are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning.’
So, what kind of guy are you? You’ve read the classics set in those American sprawls of sin, NYC, LA; the uncomfortable and infamous American Psycho, and its lesser-known sibling Less than Zero. These are books by Bret Easton Ellis that reveal the sickness that plagues the human condition, leaving only a sense of queasiness and disenchantment in their wake. You understand and appreciate Ellis’ contribution to society, but you look more lovingly upon Salinger’s composition and decomposition of the American Dream in The Catcher in the Rye, which features some of the human heart that was distinctly lacking in Ellis’ novels. Despite those organs that may have featured during American Psycho Pat Bateman’s butchering, on an emotional and spiritual level at least, there was no such heart to communicate to the reader.
They are all classics in their own respect, but how did you find yourself here exactly? Reading about a book from the 80s, about a sad and lonely narrator who doesn’t even have a name, a ridiculous and hedonistic best friend that does, wasting his time working in factual verification, the unequivocal hell for any budding fiction writer.
Well, there is a certain 80s time warp opening up in modern culture, so in that way, it makes sense. It’s set in New York City, like so many novels of the same vein, which is a constant fascination for any small town reader with an idealised image of America in their head. It features an anti-hero that is lost, depressed, and not altogether Prince Charming. The guy has made some mistakes, but like the quote at the beginning of the book, you understand and connect with his tragedy gradually then suddenly, becoming increasingly intimate with this young man’s lament to his own dreams and life in the capital.
McInerney’s choice of narrative seems distant and anonymous at first (you may get annoyed at the second person narration, you may not, but this article is as good a way as any to test the waters), and yet, it has more heart than all of its peers. You are caught, just like its narrator was in the bright lights of the big city, mesmerised by the prose constructed and the text that is in equal parts funny and devastating. The humour you find at the start of the book, and the mythical narration he bestows upon all his colleagues at the magazine firm, morphs into the realisation of the pain he is suffering for his estranged wife and troubled family life.
It is the composition of a failed fiction writer after all, so you revel in the style and sophistication just as much as you feel for his predicament. Even the descriptions of his assigned articles in need of factual verification feel like satisfying and fanciful wanders through unadulterated fiction, described lovingly as exciting journeys, as opposed to factual black holes.
‘Facts all come with points of view/ Facts don’t do what I want them to.’ – Talking Heads.
Facts will never feel real to him; they are whimsical constructs within his world of uncertainty and intangibility. You understand, as the novella unravels your many questions, that this book is his indulgence and his escape from the sore facts of life he has been omitting. Jay McInerney manages to craft both a romantic and realistic novel as these conflicting themes feed parasitically from the protagonist and his broken dreams.
It’s ephemeral and bittersweet, an easy and indulgent read for any unabashed lover of fiction and postmodernist literature. It makes you examine the romantic outlook and beauty of the city, and the scathing hangover of reality that becomes apparent after it all.
Bright Lights, Big City was written by Jay McInerney in 1984.