Bright Lights, Big City; Model Behavior; Story of My Life
by Jay McInerney
Vintage, 1984; Vintage, 1998; Grove, 1988
buy from Powell’s
1. This winter I read/reread McInerney’s Bright Lights Big City and Model Behavior, and because of (sorry, Jay) certain undeniable narrative overlaps I decided to review them and Story of My Life together to shake loose some of the cocaine-infused cobwebs and move forward.
2. A. The first is written about a young man working at a highbrow New York magazine (McInerney himself worked for awhile at The New Yorker after being educated by such legends as Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff at Syracuse) and is one of the first novels brought up when discussions of ‘2nd person narrative’ take place.
B. The second is a bit of a mess. Connor Mcknight is a journalist working at a NY magazine called Ciao Bella! that interviews starlets and although it features moments of hilarity or depth the book itself is marred by a stylistic indecision; perspective shifts (from 1st, to 2nd and 3rd person) abound and although it seems an interesting quirk it seems more likely that this ‘novel’ was crudely assembled by a halfway-decent craftsman of the drug story. I’m hard on it because I’ve believed in McInerney’s work while he’s been left in Bret Easton Ellis’s wake and his first book absolutely saves my life and reinvigorates my feelings for the personal narrative several times a year.
C. This book is a fucking work of art. Written in the perspective of a ditzy NYC twenty-something female named Allison Poole (a character based on Rielle Hunter, John Edward’s notorious lover and a recurring character in Bret Easton Ellis’s novels as well), it’s a distinct achievement regarding voice. Several of Carver’s stories are told in a female voice, and are difficult to believe even in a much shorter landscape, yet McInerney pulls off the lilts and preoccupations of a confused city girl with something like a magical control over language.
3. I once had a brief exchange with a person about my feelings toward The Strokes, to paraphrase: “They’re sort of a one-trick pony,” I said. “Yes, their one trick is being The Strokes, and they do it fucking well,” he replied; and although a part of me feels like taking a bite out of his cheek for a second even mentioning this again because I’m an idiot with issues, I feel it’s transferable to the aforementioned ‘overlaps’ throughout McInerney’s career and these books. He’s a New York writer, or at the very least an East Coast writer, and these are the sort of novels you pick up when you want to have fun, laugh a bit, and feel a slight inclination toward literary seriousness. They are good, they are fucking good, but something about them seems too damned similar to call one much better than the other without biographical considerations.
4. His first novel is obviously worthwhile and impressive because it’s his first book and was published in his twenties. It shows a sincere command not only over storytelling and plotting but also style and certain choices one can make in that realm of the ‘new literature’ then burgeoning in the states. I like the 2nd person here, which might be enough for most readers to decide it’s a decent book. 2nd person is difficult, you’re bound to come to the same tough decisions of identification with the characters and it’s because of the setting (NYC high society, drugs, literature, models, etc., yet also squalor) that McInerney’s ‘you,’ is so transferable. These are observatory environments, situations where you don’t necessarily need thick paragraphs a la John Irving or Stephen King to conjure up a scene in the typical sense; and when the protagonist finds himself (yourself) trapped in the calamity of the city as it was in the 80s the frenetic energy of ‘your’ story being told needn’t be hammered down your throat, which may lend itself to the shortness of both the chapters, and the novel itself.
5. As I said, Model Behavior is the least impressive. Like his Brat Pack fellow Ellis’s ‘The Informers,’ it strikes me as something probably assembled from youthful ramblings and attempts at literary savvy. The best parts of this book are those moments when 3rd and 2nd person fuck off for stretches and 1st person—a perspective that, I think, makes sense for your typical frantic ‘city/drug’ novel—is at the helm. Fans of this sort of minimalistic, energetic literature will absolutely enjoy what’s happening here, but don’t expect to be floored, and don’t use this as your gauge of McInerney’s potential because, frankly, as far as I can tell it’s his worst book.
6. Story of My Life is fucking funny, and the kind of fucking funny book that people who read and enjoy serious, even somber, literature can probably enjoy. It’s funny because the female voice is nearly flawless and imagining McInerney with his thick eyebrows and strict yuppie demeanor geeking out on this early on is simply refreshing. I’d call the voice something on the order of ‘valley girl’ and I think that’s accurate, however when I gave the book to my father to swap notes at one point he interpreted it more like Tony Soprano.
7. I took a shower later that night and laughed for a really long time about my dad’s mistake. Dads make mistakes a lot, I think, unless they’re not the sort of fathers you really perceive as fathers and then are they even dads?
9. I’m going to now refer to Bright Lights Big City and Story of My Life as ‘the bread’ and Model Behavior as ‘whatever’ for convenience because for the most part I’m done insulting that book.
10. I like to get lost in the bread, they are the sorts of books that allow for that sort of thing. The first piece—his first book, Bright Lights—wraps you up like the first reading of Catcher in the Rye and lets all the angsty shit in your life fall by the wayside.
11. I say ‘fall by the wayside’ a lot when writing about books, I think. Maybe I should eat my own shit. Lol. Cops.
12. THE SECOND PIECE—Story of My Life (/I smell terrible right now)—of bread is like driving around NYC with Blair from Ellis’s Less than Zero and your only concern is whether or not the thirty-four bottles of Diet Coke in the trunk of her ’85 red BMW will be enough to last you through a night of cottonmouth and weird sex. Maybe less so with the weird sex, and bad shit happens, family troubles, financial troubles, girl troubles, but for the most part McInerney’s stylistic prowess cushions theses blows and gives a smooth ride through several nights in the city where everything’s kind of, a little bit, fucked up.
13. I CAN’T READ.
14. I feel like everything’s kind of staring at me right now but I also really love the Vintage editions of these books. I love all Vintage paperbacks with the author’s name in a certain color along the side. I wish a Tumblr existed where every single one of these ever published was stacked atop one another for this, like, endless scroll.
15. I think Zachary German had some Jay McInerney on his shelf when someone evaluated the shit he’s read/is reading on here awhile ago. I also know that he and Tao Lin spoke about it once in an interview. German mentioned wanting a career more like Ellis’s than McInerney’s and I think that makes sense. Something about Ellis being more a literary novelist and McInerney being more of just a writer, something along those lines, which I think makes enough sense to preclude googling it and inserting quotes where they’re really not necessary.
16. McInerney writes about wine now and lists obnoxious names of bottles he’s drinking and meals he’s eating on his twitter. I feel like that’s stupid, isn’t that stupid? I feel like any real ‘angst’ in Jay McInerney went away a long time ago. He’s had several fucked-up relationships with women, which is pretty interesting, but for the most part I wouldn’t care if he never published anything ever again. Is that awful?
17. His 9/11 novel The Good Life kind of sucked. I guess it was bound to be steeped in sentimentality and stuff and I appreciate that—even DeLillo’s Falling Man had its very un-DeLillo moments—but the Calloway’s (characters from his earlier and far more impressive novel Brightness Falls) seemed to lose something amid all the rubble of New York with respect to their ability to impel a story forward as opposed to merely fester while McInerney documents history.
18. I seriously smell fucking horrible and I want to put my head in a vise.
19. This character who’s obviously based on the Sex and the City writer or the Gossip Girl lady says, in The Good Life, that Paul Auster needs to take a lesson from John Grisham in matters of plotting, which is probably the last little flare-up of angst in Jay’s work.
20. I’m calling him Jay because he probably likes baseball and that’s the sort of thing ‘males’ do when they see each other/like baseball.
21. I don’t like baseball and I’m never going to and I’ve failed at every sport I’ve ever attempted aside from eating or smelling like a fucking burning tire.
22. I SUGGEST YOU CURL UP WITH SOME OF MCINERNEY’S BEST WORK SOMETIME SOON BECAUSE HE’S THAT KIND OF AUTHOR. YOU CURL UP WITH HIM.
23. Best books, in my opinion (from my favorite to least favorite): Bright Lights Big City, Brightness Falls, The Last of the Savages, the early stories in How it Ended, and Story of My Life.
24. McInerney wrote a review of Infinite Jest that seemed like an opportunity to talk about how he once played tennis with David Foster Wallace rather than a piece of serious literary criticism. Then again, this is anything but a piece of serious literary criticism I’m writing right now so maybe I’ll just go cut my fingers off.
25. *Cuts fingers off.* *Calls your dad.*
Tags: 25 Points, Bright Lights Big City, Jay McInerney, Model Behavior, Story of My Life
I thought Bright Lights, Big City was quite an accomplished performance–voice conjuring emotion through pretty slender/hackneyed action. I also enjoyed the humor of Story of My Life–what fool thinks humor is easy?–but the privileged sadness of it affected me less. (Didn’t finish one other mentioned here that I really started. Liked Ransom until its ugly stunt-ending.)
I think McInerney’s meta-theme–the story of his stories–is not having the integrity to write good novels despite writing well. Doubt in communicative effectiveness and even self-doubt are, sometimes, strong artistic modes or ‘homes’, and even sickness can be healthily artfully discursive, but it’s hard (for me) not to be a middle-school teacher-scold towards McInerney: You had such potential, Jay.