Thursday, May 22, 2014

Bright Lights, Big City

This won’t be news to anyone: I’m behind on Project 84. I had this thought that on vacation I would have all this time to read and post blogs…and that was very far from the case.  I did finish 2 books on vacation, but, for the most part, I was running around, catching up with people, and generally too busy to work on Project 84. And then, after vacation, I started in a new position at work, and I’ve been trying to get into the swing of that. Reading/blogging just hasn’t been my priority.

But I don’t want to let this blog become an afterthought. Whether I get to 84 books or not (and I still have every intention of reaching my goal), I want to at least be reading and posting to the very last day.

With that in mind, book 18 of Project 84 is:

Bright Lights, Big City

Bright Lights, Big City
by Jay McInerney

Bright Lights, Big City was yet another book sitting on my shelf, just waiting for me to finally read it. With this one, however, I can trace the origin.

My favorite (modern) author is Bret Easton Ellis. It’s no secret, I recommend his books to anyone who will listen. Every time I read a disappointing book, I find myself frustrated that I didn’t just reread Lunar Park for the umpteenth time. As an Ellis fan, I am regularly asked two things – “have you read Choke?” and “have you read Jay McInerney?” McInerney and Ellis were contemporaries, friends (?), rivals, and part of the annoyingly-coined “literary brat pack” in the late 80s, early 90s.

So I picked up Bright Lights, Big City somewhere along the way, and every time I tried to start it I found myself annoyed by the structure and the format (it’s written in second person…), and I would put it down after about 20 pages. I thought it was a poor substitute for Ellis, and actually became a little frustrated that the two of these books were put in the same category.

But, I was wrong. I was very, very wrong.

But first, the plot. The narrator (whose name we never learn) works as a fact checker at a magazine (the title of which we never learn). After a recent divorce from his model-wife, Amanda, the narrator pours himself into the New York City party lifestyle. Women, alcohol, cocaine, and night clubs cloud his nights and affect his days – eventually leading to his termination from the magazine.

The novel centers on the narrator coming to terms with his unhappiness, and gradually retreating from the shallow, superficial world he no longer enjoys.

The key to me enjoying this book was to separate myself from the notion that it is “Like Ellis”. It isn’t. I try not to guess at an author’s intention, but Bret Easton Ellis tends to delve into our seedy underworld and demonstrate a certain hopeless soulessness that simmers below the surface. Lunar Park departed from that construct, but it’s part of what I responded to about all his books. You feel for the characters, but they almost become symbols. I’d never call an Ellis book an allegory…but it’s related to what I mean.

I thought that Bright Lights, Big City would be similar, and, to be fair to me, it seems that way! Within the first 10 pages of the book the narrator is partying at a club, doing coke, breaking down the attractive and unattractive qualities of the women around him. It reads like an Ellis book (except for the second person narration…), and I was bored by the “mediocre imitation”.

The problem is that Bright Lights, Big City isn’t American Psycho. This novel is much more of a character study, much more about the narrator himself than about society in general. The partying in the book is a treatment, it’s a way for the narrator to medicate himself so that he can come to terms with the events of his life – his divorce…

And the death of his mother, which is a plot point that comes later in the book. In fact, reading it, I ultimately came to the conclusion that the entire novel is really about the death of his mother,and every distraction – Amanda, the partying, the coke, the dating – are symptoms of how he tried to hide the pain of his mother’s death.

I’d be lying if I said the second person narration didn’t distract me from my enjoyment of the book. It initially felt pretentious – I’m still not sure that it isn’t pretentious – and it isn’t how I’m used to reading. That being said, it took me about 50 pages to get used to it, and after that I didn’t mind it so much. I wouldn’t say that it added to the narrative, but I would categorize it as unnecessary, and not quite as distracting as I thought it would be.

If you couldn’t tell, I would recommend this book. It’s a quick read – coming in just under 200 pages – and it’s worth it for such a satisfying novel.

Whew, that wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be! I’m still reading – I have about 12 books ready to be reviewed – so I’m hoping the blog posts will come fast this next week, at least one every other day (if not every day). My goal is to catch up by the end of June – 42 books both read and reviewed – so I have to get to it! Expect heavy posting coming up.

Next Review: Was by Geoff Ryman (Estimated Posting Date: Saturday, May 24th)

**All quotes and annotations refer to this version of Bright Lights, Big City, published by Vintage Books in 1984**