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Thursday, November 3, 2005

The Casual Critic — Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City

Jay McInerney continuously breaks one of the most basic rules that I ever learned about writing with Bright Lights, Big City. When my high school English teacher told the class she never again wanted to appear in any of our stories, we all held our breathe wondering who crossed what line, and how we could get to read that story. The anti-climactic realization that all she meant was that using “you” in narration was a bad idea didn’t make it any less true.

Surprisingly, McInerny’s constant use of second-person narration wasn’t all that distracting. But it also didn’t really add anything — the reader just adjusts to “you” instead of “I” and moves on. I’m guessing the point of “breaking the rule” was to emphasize the rebel that struggles to live within the main character. His pursuit of all the cliches of the night life — clubs, drugs, sex, and, well, more drugs — is finally getting old even to him. It seems to have been at the heart of a failed marriage to a model now thriving and still living the lifestyle, and finally costs him a mundane job at an artsy magazine that offered him some credibility with the trendy.

Ultimately the story reveals that our anti-hero is coping with the anniversary of his mother’s passing. While personal experience leaves me easily touched by death-bed scenes, and I must admit McInerny’s was no different, this whole aspect of the story seemed forced. For two-thirds of the story the guy is just a jerk throwing his life away, then with no warning an aspect of his story that makes him sympathetic is thrust on the reader.

Even worse, the family part of the story only seems to be an attempt to justify the protagonist’s current lifestyle. In fact, there’s no real indication that he was any different prior to his mother’s death, and a judgemental brother hardly needed any urging to take a walk on the “wild side.”

Solid writing almost overcomes a bad choice of a literary device that is merely a cry to be noticed. McInerney’s attempt to be edgy weakens what could have been a good novel. At best read it while looking for something better.

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