Review: Bright Lights, Big City, by Jay McInerney

Who hasn’t heard about Bright Lights, Big City—the book renowned for its depictions of upper-class New York City life in the eighties (pre-Giuliani/Bratton); for its creative use of the second-person; for its roman à clef revelations about life at The New Yorker (McInerney, like his protagonist, worked there as a fact-checker). So much lore surrounds this novel that it’s hard to know what to say about it that will seem even halfway inspired, but with that caveat, the book does hold up. It’s more than just a relic of 1980s New York club and cocaine culture; it still applies to new-millennium life, and contemporary readers (I was a year old when the book was published) should keep in mind that what seem now like well-worn cliches were invented by Bright Lights, Big City.

Which is not to say the novel doesn’t fail in some big ways. McInerney seems to suffer from what I’ll term the The Beautiful and Damned syndrome, or maybe the David Brooks syndrome (which will be familiar to all you Bobos in Paradise lovers out there). Simply put,  you can’t adequately satirize or depict a world into which it’s abundantly clear you buy wholeheartedly, no matter how archly you comment on your characters’ activities with such practiced, detached irony. In Bright Lights, Big City, McInerney assumes we should just believe him when he tells us his main character bemoans the meaninglessness of his day-to-day life, while the sentiment behind all his other words indicate only the contrary.  

Brief synopsis: Bright Lights, Big City takes you through a week in the life of “you,” a fact-checker at an unnamed prestigious magazine (read: The New Yorker) by day, New York club-hopper and cocaine-snorter by night. You’re not as promiscous as your hobbies might suggest, though, and that’s probably due to the fact that your wife, Amanda, has recently left you now that her modeling career has taken off.

It’s unclear just what, exactly, drew “you” to Amanda in the first place, other than her beauty and the fact that “you” didn’t think “you’d” have ever had a chance with her until she came up and talked to “you” first in a bar in Kansas City. This is the part where McInerney should have something interesting to say about the whole modelizer culture, about the male ego, about men that desire beautiful women not for beauty’s sake, or the woman’s, but for what the ability to get a beautiful woman says to the world (and, significantly, to other men). But he doesn’t. Amanda’s portrayal almost utterly vapid is used more to showcase the protagonist’s romantic insecurities (how could he not have seen that she never really cared about him, that she’d used him as her ticket into the glitz and glamour of New York; poor, cuckolded him) rather than the fact that he is just as shallow as she is, if not more so.

Why, exactly, did “you” marry Amanda to begin with? Well, there’s a little bit about how “you” wanted to take care of her, blah blah blah, but it mostly seems to be about how “you” wanted a gorgeous wife because “you” wanted to be the kind of guy who has a gorgeous wife, complete with all the myths that such a coup entails. McInerney never bothers to delve even slightly into Amanda’s side of the story. Is this because models, beautiful women, or women in general (or all three) don’t have minds worth even the most cursory glance? Yes, I realize I’m someone who looks for hints of misogyny at every turn (or at least that’s what my friends tell me), but in this case I think it’s warranted. Especially considering the plot twist in which “you” meet the anti-Amanda, a Princeton philosophy student. Get it? The smart one and the dumb one, battling it out for “your” affections.

While the previous paragraph seems to hint at a deep-seated hatred of the novel as a whole, that’s really not the case. I quite liked it, in fact, and I admire McInerney’s undeniable talent as a writer. I just don’t think the book’s waters run very deep. It’s short, but it’s surprisingly unnuanced; while I “got” the ultimate message—that despite all the on-the-surface accoutrements (the prestigious job, the crowd of well-connected friends, the beautiful wife), “your” life is basically empty—the whole point just seemed sort of obvious. Who ever believed that having a model wife or a job that looks great on paper is a recipe for happiness? And are we really meant to believe that “your” impetus for marrying Amanda turns out to have been as simple as mother issues? Semi-spoiler alert: The reader is told that the revelation that “your” mother has recently died accounts for “your” behavior and “your” decision to marry Amanda, but again, I think that’s a simple out that obscures the more interesting issues at play. Certainly, the inability of the protagonist to deal with his mother’s death played some role, but this particular narrative device allows McInerney to skirt the possibility that maybe this guy just buys into the whole idea that his manhood depends on having a wife every other man desires. Again, Amanda is shallow because she “uses” the protagonist for his NYC connections, but what’s never emphasized is that “you” are using Amanda in an equally insidious way. It’s a true testament to the resilience of the male ego that McInerney, who’s own life is almost definitely the inspiration for this book, is unable to examine himself even when he’s fictional.

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