Jay McInernay’s Bright Lights, Big City became one of those “talked about” literary novels in the mid-’80s, a piece of literature that–perhaps because of its thematic content and its accessible or interesting voice–transcends the snobbish categorization of “literary fiction” to simply become “mainstream fiction.”
McInernay himself became a sort of celebrity (as much as a literary author can be, at least), and along with Bret Easton Ellis (who was also young and hip, and whose novel Less Than Zero tackled similar themes) found himself as a member of the literary Brat Pack. (Ellis, by the way, does a great job embellishing this sequence of events to highly satiric effect in Lunar Park). They were the Hemingways, the Kerouacs, the Bukowskys, of Generation X, kids who were writing about the crazy-adventurous-tragic things that other twenty-somethings were doing. Destined to be loved by the scores of other young writers and hipsters (mostly male) who would encounter their work for the first time in their mid-to-late teens, and who would say things like, “This totally, like, speaks to me!”
And it is for this reason that I had mixed feelings about reading McInernay for the first time, now at that not-so-youthful age of 29. Often, with this type of novel, you need to be the sort of person who still thinks it’s cool to drink beer for breakfast, not the type of person who–with every beer I drink at night–thinks about the headache he will have to conquer the next day.
But Bright Lights, Big City was a great novel, and it was great not just because of its gimmick (it uses the second-person point-of-view: “You walk into a club. You grab a beer.” etc.), but because it used its gimmick skillfully, and–at a quick 180 pages or so–it did not allow the voice to overstay its welcome. Generally, we associate the second-person POV with Choose Your Own Adventure novels, or with instruction manuals, or with Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl,” so as a writing instructor, I’m happy to see another example of this voice in contemporary literature…but it could have fallen apart very easily. What makes the voice work, strangely, is that the character in the novel is not “YOU.” Just like in a video game where we see through the eyes of the shooter, but the shooter is actually a real character (i.e. James Bond), not actually “YOU”…McInernay gives us this second-person voice as a means of placing us more directly into the action, but we are never supposed to believe that we are actually this character, or that–like the Choose Your Own Adventure series–we are in control. And it works. The book winds up feeling like a tour of New York City, a tour of the nightlife, a tour of a deteriorating professional life, a tour of drug abuse and tragedy and heartbreak.
And like all good tours, it lets us off at precisely the right time…feeling enlightened by the trip, but eager to return to our own lives.
Because Bright Lights, Big City was made into a movie starring Michael J. Fox, I don’t think it is remembered in quite the way it should be, and–judging by the How To Make It In America-style cover to the new edition of the book–it looks like publishers are trying to find a way to market it and make it relevant to new audiences. Yes, the book gave us an amazing portrait of Gen-X youth in Manhattan in the 1980s, but I think the portrait not only captures the spirit of that time period and that generation, but could resonate with many young readers and writers of the Millennial Generation. It’s a daring book, and it seems as if the most daring literary novels (not the longest, or the most gratuitous, or the most philosophical) of the last decade–Eggers, Haddon’s Curious Incident, World War Z, Jonathan Safran Foer, Mark Danielewski–are those that achieve the greatest popularity with Millennials. And I have a feeling that this book will soon find a companion here in the 2010s, a new talked-about novel for young readers that some critic, somewhere, will inevitably say, “Feels like the Bright Lights, Big City of this generation.”