Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Reader's Diary #966- Jay McInerney: Bright Lights, Big City

(Pre-scheduled post to appear while I'm away in NYC.)

Years back, I was watching CSI: NY, which is odd because I never watch that show, when a victim was found with a copy of Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City. As a true bibliophile, that's what I took away from the episode. I hadn't heard of the book until then, but I hadn't forgotten it since. Then, over the past couple or so years I've become a little obsessed with 2nd person narratives. I asked around for recommendations of books or stories told in this perspective when Bright Lights, Big City came up again. It bumped up nearer to the top of the of the TBR pile. Finally, for spring break this year, we decided to go to New York City. It was time to finally read the book.

With the stars aligning this much, I suspected that Bright Lights, Big City would alter the course of my life or something. For the most part I enjoyed it, but life goes on as normal. Whew?

Bright Lights, Big City ends super abruptly. To the point where I thought my Kobo glitched out on me. I reread the final scene a few times, but it still didn't offer much of anything in the way of conclusion. So I went online to see what others have said. It turns out that the ending is one of two major sticking points other readers have with the book. Some people see the ending as simplistically profound, others think it's too on the nose, while still others don't think it's on the nose enough. I fit in with that last group. There are moments earlier when McInerney is too on the nose; for instance, there's a scene when the narrator is talking to an unscrupulous journalist on the phone, when he notices a cockroach crawling up the wall. It reminded me of the infamous rat scene in the Departed. However, whereas some see the final scene in Bright Lights as too cheesily symbolic, they seem to extend it to also imply a major change in the narrator's attitude. I see where they're coming from with the "bread" thing, but I didn't buy that it was anything more than an insignificant moment in the narrator's life, perhaps a small glimmer of hope, but most likely nothing that would have have a lasting effect whatsoever.

As for the other major sticking point, the 2nd person perspective, I wasn't surprised that this had readers similarly divided. Some, predictably, called it gimmicky. I get that it isn't for everyone. But I'm a fan, and once again I thought the unusual perspective worked. First off, I should disclose that I've been having a somewhat difficult year. I've been re-prioritizing my life, trying to refocus, and all the typical middle aged crap (is 36 middle aged?). So, putting myself in the role of someone who's life plan seems to be going off the rails, did not feel like a huge stretch. When I discovered that I was supposed to be 25, however, that was a bit hard to digest. But if 30 is the new 20, then I guess it makes sense. Just 29 years after the book was first published, I don't think we even expect 25 years old to know what they want from life. What is supposed to be a crisis in McInerney's character is almost normal transition in 2013. Except for the cocaine. But it's the cocaine that makes the 2nd perspective work. At first when this nasty addiction raises its head, I was a little annoyed. I thought this would be a book about someone coming to grips with a life he's made, a fusion of psychological and sociological commentary. Now it's just a junkie story. But the more the narrator reveals about "you," and the more you resent it, the more the 2nd person works. Great, now I'm a junkie is exactly the disgusted realization such a character would make.

A final message to all the reviewers of Bright Lights, Big City that came before me: thanks for showing me that writing the review in the 2nd person would not have been as much clever as it would have been predictable. Sometimes, I guess, the 2nd person perspective doesn't work.


Loni said...

You obsessed with 2nd person narrative? I hadn't noticed.

John Mutford said...

Loni: Do I detect a hint of sarcasm?

Loni said...

Me? Sarcastic? Never.

Eric P said...

You find yourself accused of sarcasm? Do you take the high road? Hardly...

Couldn't resist ;)

Anyway, this reminds me a parody of Cliff Notes that covered Bright Lights, Big City, Slaves of New York and Less Than Zero. I had a copy but it has gotten lost. I am very tempted to get a used copy ( though it would purely be for nostalgia's sake, since I grew up in the era when this fiction was so big. I'd only buy one if I was sure that the plot-a-rama device was in there -- it was a kind of spinning wheel that allowed you to construct your own preppie fiction.