Category Archives: Books – Contemporary

“Goodbye, Columbus”


I came to “Goodbye, Columbus” a little late in the game: I’d already read most the Zuckerman books, “The Plot Against America,” “Portnoy’s Complaint,” and maybe five or six random Roth novels, but I’d never really had any strategy for reading them. If one looked interesting, and I had access to it, I’d get started. So my experiences in reading Roth have been a bit like watching a television show out of order, starting with the 6th season and then going back to the 2nd, and then jumping ahead again. I see different themes fading in and out of his work, growing in intensity, sometimes just starting, other times just ending.

“Goodbye, Columbus,” as Roth’s first book, is still a nice piece of work when read in this particular way…but I do wish that I’d at least read it before I read “Portnoy’s Complaint.” This collection is interesting as an introduction to Roth and the controversial portrait he paints (and will continue to paint) of Jewish Americans and of Newark, New Jersey. Apparently, it caused quite a stir in the Jewish community, and the exclamation-overload of “Portnoy’s Complaint” was a direct reaction to the criticism he continued to receive for a full decade. In other words, I read the reaction before I read the initial statement.

The novella itself (“Goodbye, Columbus”) is a piece of work that also seems to have echoes and parallels in later Roth novels; it reminded me quite a bit of “The Ghost Writer,” which is probably of similar length. Roth keeps both stories very uncomfortable by placing his protagonist in someone else’s home, keeping the timeframe short, making everyone around the protagonist a potential source of conflict…it’s the original “Meet the Parents,” really.

Still an engaging and interesting read, many years later, but do be warned that it is more affecting if read before Roth’s more intense later novels.


“Netherland” is one of those books that sits in tall stacks on the “Buy 2, Get 1 Free” table at Borders or Barnes & Noble, and it’s right next to one of those other books that you’ve wanted for awhile: “Into the Wild,” perhaps, or “Empire Falls,” or even “Persepolis.” It’s got a striking cover, filled with impressive blurbs and awards and best-seller accolades, and so you get the impression that you should have read this by now, that it’s an important book, that you better get it, too, while it’s on the sale table!

And with blurbs that told me that, in my hands, I was holding onto the 21st-century Great Gatsby, I was pretty excited to not just purchase “Netherland,” but to actually sit down and read the thing. Maybe in one frenzied weekend. Maybe it would be as absorbing and all-consuming as “Middlesex” or “White Teeth,” one of those rich social novels whose prose pours over you like thick syrup over pancakes. Mmmm.

But “Netherland” felt like an Oscar Bait movie, one of those films released around December/ January that features a big star in an unusual role and garners lots of buzz, but then you see it and the movie just feels forced and soulless. From the very opening sentence, “Netherland” tries to set itself up as a deep and retrospective first-person story about immigration, love, community, sub-cultures, and even (of course!) murder. But in the end, it really winds up as a bland story about people who love the game of cricket.

No, scratch that. It’s about one man who loves cricket, and one who is fascinated by the man who loves cricket.

The protagonist is a dull Dutchman living in New York and dealing with his separation from his wife, and we are supposed to feel a sort of emotional vacancy because he is dealing with 9/11, but the emotional vacancy is undone by the character’s articulate nature. In other words, we don’t feel the weight of emotion; we only feel that he seems like a bit of a prick. Difficult. Snobby. European, looking down on various American cultural traits.

There’s an undercurrent of a love story here, but it never really takes center stage until the final 30 pages or so, and because I never wound up caring for either the narrator or his wife, it just felt like one of those tacked-on scenes at the end of an Oscar Bait movie that’s supposed to make me feel like the entire experience was worthwhile. Oh my God, it was all leading to this! Etc. But again, it just felt forced, insincere.

No doubt Joseph O’Neill is a terrific writer, but it feels like “Netherland” is a short story about cricket players in New York…and he simply expanded it into a novel, added one outer layer about a broken marriage, then another outer layer about a murder, just to try to spice up a pretty thin conflict at the book’s core, and in the end it winds up being the type of book about which many readers will say, “Oh that was beautiful,” but they don’t really mean it. They’re only repeating the blurbs from the cover because they think they should like “Netherland.” In five months, though, when someone asks them about the book, they’ll probably have forgotten what it was about (except maybe a vague recollection of cricket), forgotten the character and his struggle, forgotten even the writing quality. And listen, I’m wrong about a lot of things, but about this one fact I am not wrong: if a book is fantastic, you will not forget it

From Bauhaus to Our House


Tom Wolfe’s nonfiction works best in essay form, I think. “Hooking Up” was a great collection, and “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby” was a great collection, and even “The Right Stuff” (supposedly a nonfiction novel) felt like a collection of short nonfiction narratives pieced together to tell the story of America’s fascination with the Space Age. His fiction, of course, works best on the gigantic sprawling canvas of “the social novel,” told over 600-800 pages, but his nonfiction needs to be constrained…give him too much space, and he’ll write “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,” a nice experiment but not a very compelling narrative.

So if these were the opinions I’d already formed before ever cracking open “From Bauhaus to Our House,” it should come as no surprise that I thoroughly enjoyed this slender 110-page volume. Each chapter again feels like an individual essay that tells a short narrative about America’s surrender to bland socialist architecture, and taken together, they trace a half-century of art and architecture theory and conflict. And it works brilliantly because it is so brief.

Tom Wolfe, as a nonfiction writer, is a bit like an intellectual stand-up comedian. His writing style (or the method of delivery, in the case of a stand-up) and his stories and anecdotes are both funny in small doses, but because he’s usually detailing the stories with incredulity, not with the sensitive and compassionate eye of most fiction and memoir writers, the shtick grows old. Imagine listening to a stand-up comedian for three hours; what was once funny now begins to wear on you; the shock-value jokes now feel mean-spirited; this guy suddenly feels less like a funnyman and more like an asshole. That’s Tom Wolfe. When he writes about America’s architectural inferiority complex, the country’s eager adoption of all things Europe, he is writing with an I-can’t-believe-these-idiots-did-this tone. And if the book goes on too long, it just sounds cruel.

But “Bauhaus,” of course, is the perfect length, and read today (decades after its initial release) it still holds up very well. In fact, I’d love to see a sequel. Wolfe holds a PhD in “American Studies,” a degree created in the 1950s as a result of the American Inferiority Complex, and so a great deal of his work targets America’s silly reactions (and unquestioning loyalty) to European art and thought. But I think that this is a very 20th-century concept, an attitude that has now turned by 180 degrees. Now, I think that the average American frowns upon all-things-Europe, believes American culture to be vastly superior (an opinion formed, no doubt, by the simple fact that Hollywood is the undisputed center of the Film World), believes European thought to be pretentious, and holds that view of “American Exceptionalism.” We are #1! Etc.

This book, then, documents a strange little-brother period in our history. Definitely a contrast to the current “bully” period in which we are living.


I learned about “Fatherland” after reading Philip Roth’s “The Plot Against America” and Michael Chabon’s “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union,” both of which were alternate histories that re-imagined the circumstances (and outcome) of World War II. Before reading either book, I’d never really given much thought to the idea of an “alternate history novel,” but Roth’s book in particular opened my eyes to how such a book could match all that we love about literature (complex characters, complex themes, intense imagination) with all that we love about nonfiction history (intense research, the complex relationship between the smallest conversations and the largest events/battles/tragedies, the cause-effect connections that we might never have considered). “The Plot Against America” was rich indeed, and what made it such a remarkable work of literature was that it could make us interested in the characters and their fates on the first page, and then interested in the specifics of the imagined world on the next…and it all seemed so creepily real.

“Fatherland” doesn’t quite achieve the same heavy characterization as Roth’s novel, but then again, if we compare every other author to Philip Roth, nobody’s got a chance. This is a much different book, written from a much different perspective: whereas “Plot” took place in America and focused upon the Jewish perspective, “Fatherland” takes us directly into post-war Germany, where many years after the Nazis have won World War II, a detective begins to notice a strange series of murders and suicides of state officials, a mystery that will eventually lead him to some startling revelations about the entire Fatherland. It’s a murder-mystery, so it’s actually got a great deal in common with Chabon’s “Yiddish Policemen’s Union,” and here’s the good news: it never felt like a cheap mystery novel or a cheap Patterson-style paint-by-numbers thriller. Harris is a strong writer, painting vivid descriptions of his world and populating it with characters who rarely feel as if they are going through the motions of the plot. This is literature, not pulp.

In fact, the strongest point of “Fatherland” is not necessarily the mystery that the characters work to solve (once the clues start piling up, you’ll easily be able to solve it yourself), but instead the overall tone of the book. Victorious Germany is a scary scary place, dark and cold and wet, and every character is deeply repressed. If the question that this book poses is, “What would have happened to the Germans if they’d won the war?” then the answer is, “They’d all be miserable.” This is a country where murders and suicides are frequent, a country whose borders are subject to frequent terrorist attacks, a country of concrete and stone edifices built to honor leaders who have long since lost their humanity. And what’s worse? Germany is a respected world power, and the shining beacon of the U.S.A. is dimmed by their cooperation with Germany, and their own forgetfulness of Germany’s atrocities. It’s almost a dystopian world, as chilling as any post-apocalyptic novel you’ll ever read.

But there’s one other reason I’d recommend “Fatherland” for interested writers/readers alike: this is also a striking example of mixed-media fiction, as Harris intersperses the final half of the narrative with memos, letters, and other documents that help show the Fatherland in greater detail. In fact, the inside cover of the book provides a map of the novel’s great set piece, including visual renderings of the structures that Hitler would have built had he won the war. The memos and letters, though, are not simply the disturbing products of Harris’ imagination, but instead are the real textual artifacts of World War II Germany. In other words, Harris uses real documents in his novel,. While I’ve seen dozens of authors create fictional letters, memos, etc., and incorporate them into a narrative in order to create a greater sense of realism, or in order to move the plot in new and interesting ways (or in order to better reveal character), I can’t remember ever seeing an author incorporate real artifacts. Some novelists use real song lyrics, or real telecasts, or real speeches, to place their characters into a real world where Lenny Bruce is giving his stand-up routine, or the Doors are performing on stage, or someone is watching Ronald Reagan on TV…but real documents that the audience has likely never read, that were revealed in court proceedings after the war, but (in this novel) were imagined to have been lost/ hidden? It’s a brilliant use of “mixed-media fiction,” and it elevates the novel and the novelist and further immerses us in a world that feels too real.

“Fatherland” is a quick read, filled with dark descriptions and a fast-paced plot that always relies upon the characters’ motivations rather than the standard plot formulas of thriller novels. No, it’s not “The Plot Against America,” but (for my money) it’s much sharper than Chabon’s attempt at alternate history. If the description of this book interests you in any way, you won’t be disappointed.

Refresh, Refresh

I remember reading a couple stories from Benjamin Percy in Esquire awhile back, and each of them was haunting, the type of short story that stayed with you long after you finished reading. For my money, at least, that’s the sort of story that I love: the kind that is not easily dismissed, that kind that might seem simple or innocent or easy on the surface, but that…just…won’t…go away.

So when I found Percy’s collection, Refresh, Refresh, while on a several-hour-long tour of Powell’s Bookstore in Portland, Oregon, I decided to give it a shot. Usually, though, I don’t buy very many short story collections by authors with whom I’m not too familiar; I tend to stick with The Best American Short Stories or just read the full collections of authors whose novels I’ve already conquered (or I’ll borrow the collection from a friend, take it on a test drive). Same goes for albums. The more I hear and the more I like, the better the chance that I’ll buy an album from a new artist, but I’m not the type that wanders record stores searching for something I’ve never heard. So I’ve got to tell you: I was extremely happy that I took a chance with Refresh, Refresh.

The stories here are dark, many of them horror-influenced:we’ve got stories about bear attacks, stories about a potential Big Foot stalking an Oregon forest, stories about undiscovered caves expanding below ordinary residential houses, stories about post-apocalyptic landscapes…Refresh, Refresh has all the creepiness of House of Leaves, but all the sparing poetry of Cormac McCarthy and all the empathy and patience of an Andre Dubose collection. The title story seemed to be the piece that garnered Percy the most attention (it was collected in a Best American anthology, and won a Paris Review prize), but there were several others in this book that proved even more resonant, including one short story about a married couple stranded in a gas station during a hail storm. Some of the images from that story…wow.

And after reading, I actually think Percy will become one of the more respected voices of Millennial/ Gen-X literature. He’s actually doing the same work as Michael Chabon, attempting to mix “genre fiction” with “literary fiction,” taking the horror genre and imbuing it with the thematic complexity of true literature. But Percy is doing it better. With Chabon, his attempts at “mystery novel” and “adventure novel” seem to be mere curiosities, side projects. With Percy, we get the sense that he’s on a mission to carve out a real place for horror literature. He’s got a novel on the shelves now (The Wilding), and another in the works, so this is definitely an author we’ll have to watch. In ten years, he might be the next Jonathan Franzen or Michael Chabon, the voice of a generation.

Benjamin Percy: Home Page

Stories/Essays Available Online:

The Photographer

“The Photographer” is quite possibly the most inventive book I’ve ever read, and it’s a testament to the author(s) that it stands as an amazing example of a memoir, a piece of literary journalism, a graphic novel, a book of photo journalism, and (most accurately) a piece of “mixed-media literature.”

I’ll get back to that idea of “mixed-media” in a moment, but first, I’ve also got to say that…well…I’ve grown very weary of books and stories that are born entirely of white/middle-class/American guilt. Books that seem to exist to make a social statement (and often, they actually make a good social statement), but that find themselves sold at Barnes & Noble and on Oprah, and marketed to people with money and good homes and stable families, etc., who want to feel bad about the world around them, but whose activism generally stops after the final page of the book is finished. They are books that, yes, raise social consciousness and expose terrible injustices (drug abuse, epidemics, child soldiers, rape), but the publishers themselves don’t really care about those injustices…the publishers just know that these books sell a LOT of copies…and the readers only consume them in order to feel like they are a more responsible world citizen.

What’s wrong with this line of thinking? Well, it’s not dangerous. It’s just annoying. Often, it devalues books that do not attempt to raise social consciousness (trust me: I’ve heard readers remark about how they will only invest their time in this single genre), and it devalues the “art” of the book itself. For example, there’s a review right below mine on Shelfari which states, “I loved learning about the Afghani people…It was a great reminder that despite its many flaws we are very lucky to have access to any medical system…While I understood [the protagonist’s] desperation to get home [at the end of the novel], I was disturbed by his selfishness and lack of consideration.” The art of this particular memoir, the brilliance and honesty with which it crafts a complex narrator who will not always behave well, is discarded by this reader when he/she sees that the book has become about the character and not the social issue. And that’s a style of reading that winds up constraining what great literature is able to do, and what publishers are willing to publish.

In any case, though, I’ll just say that I was wary of “The Photographer” for this simple reason. It seems like a preachy social consciousness book, as if it was published just a year or two ago in an effort to protest the continued military action in Afghanistan.

And I’m so happy to say that, while the book does illuminate Afghani life and culture, it’s about the narrator’s journey…his understanding of that culture, his difficulty in adapting, his need to leave, his desires, his aspirations…yes, it contains real social commentary, but that isn’t the “purpose” behind this book. “The Photographer” is a memoir, first and foremost, and fulfills all that we expect of great life narratives. It isn’t preachy. And it’s far enough removed from the Afghanistan of 1986 that we have additional perspective, and our emotional attachment to the events isn’t so strong as to cloud our reading experience (imagine reading a 9/11 narrative two weeks after 9/11…you’re going to cry no matter what…now read it in the year 2020…chances are, you’ll be better able to appreciate it as a piece of literature).

But because this was written by a photojournalist, it’s also got a unique style of narration that does indeed feel educational. So there are moments when it feels like literary journalism. (In a way, it bears a striking similarity to “Maus,” which relies upon the transcribed interviews and stories of the narrator’s father to shed light on events that the narrator does not recall, or was not present at). Technically, you can read this as memoir or journalism and still be satisfied, so long as you realize that it is a piece of literature that creates complex characters, and often does not give easy answers.

Now, about the “mixed-media literature” comment I made above. While Mark Danielewski’s “House of Leaves” might still stand as the most impressive example of a mixed-media novel, “The Photographer” isn’t far behind (if it’s behind at all). But this is a graphic novel, not a “text-based” novel, so we do expect that it’s going to graphic-based from the start. But the inclusion of real photographs interspersed with the hand-drawn comic art was absolutely brilliant, and our view of the characters and situations becomes so much richer for the twisting and bending of mediums throughout. And Guibert’s strategic placement of the photos also creates great tension and drama; sometimes the photos are sprawled out, tiny, like a roll of film; sometimes they occupy a full page, after the story has built to a tense crescendo.

Quite simply, “The Photographer” is one of the best books I’ve ever read. As a writing instructor, I would use it in a half-dozen different classes. As a reader, it’s the type of book that absolutely destroys the experience of the next three or four books that you’ll read (unless you’re reading “Bonfire of the Vanities” or “The Stand,” the experience just can’t compare). Though it isn’t an example of “Millennial Generation Literature” (most of the Millennial Generation wasn’t even born in 1986), I think it is an example of where the next generation of literature can and will go. Not just photos and comics and text, but blogs and photos and comics and text and diagrams and logos and…but I’m getting ahead of myself. Check out “The Photographer.” You won’t be disappointed.

“Indignation,” by Philip Roth

Philip Roth has made a career out of creating characters who put themselves through absolute hell. Nearly every one of his protagonists, it seems, could lead a fulfilling life, but they all seem to sabotage themselves with their own stubborn decisions and outbursts. In the world of Philip Roth, a happy and satisfying existence seems as if it is always within reach for the characters…if they could only just shut up for a little while. And therein lay the tragedy of each new Roth novel, an American Dream that is both visible and never attainable.

“Indignation,” of course, is no exception. In fact, it is the most efficient example of this type of storytelling. The protagonist, Marcus Messner, is an intelligent young man whose father has worked hard to send him off to school; he is socially awkward, sure, but he has all the potential in the world, and with the Korean War raging at the far end of the globe, he has even avoided a violent stint in the military.

But Messner allows his anger (and his “indignation,” heh heh) overrule his better judgment. For him, there is symbolism in every action and reaction, every gesture, every conversation, and so he eventually winds up crafting his own destruction. And in Roth’s trademark voice (pretension to the extreme, the very hyperbole of academia), the events are both tragic and comic.

Even several months after reading “Indignation,” though, I’m still undecided on the ending. We have a point-of-view shift and a jarring transition into a short epilogue that changes (in just a few final pages) the entire direction of the narrative, the entire tone, and our overall perception of the book’s central focus. It’s almost as if Roth had just finished reading or watching “Atonement” and thought, “Hey…I’ve never done a twist ending before! That might be interesting.” On the one hand, it felt like a sucker-punch (in a good way) that spoke volumes about the book’s overall theme; but on the other hand, it also felt very forced, and (like many twists) causes us to question how much of the preceding narrative was even necessary to get us to this ending…

Roth is such a gifted writer, though, that you do come to respect that decision simply because he is still trying out new strategies here on his 29th overall book. Maybe you like it, maybe you don’t. But Roth is essentially telling us, “Keep reading my books. You never really know what’s going to happen, and you’re always getting something new.”

A History of the Hip-Hop Generation

“Can’t Stop Won’t Stop” is a pretty spectacular undertaking, a book that attempts to chart the birth, coming-of-age, and growing pains of a so-called “hip-hop generation.” It’s always readable, always interesting, and surprisingly inspiring, but it isn’t without its issues.

First, I can’t help but think of the idea (and subtitle) of the “hip-hop generation” as a bit of a gimmick. This book follows the growth of hip-hop over 35-40 years, and while Chang attempts to debunk the very notion of “generational theory” in his introduction, I just kept thinking that his arguments against easy generational classification were simply self-serving. In other words, he writes an introduction in which he states that “generational theory” is an inexact science, and that because of the sweeping generalizations of categorizing and organizing generational data, we can be loose when we define the nature of a single generation (i.e. when it starts, when it ends, who it includes, etc.). With this argument made, he lumps 40 years of hip-hop musicians and fans into a single “generation,” a problematic premise. 40 years is half a lifetime, not a generation. Of course, the subtitle “A History of the Hip-Hop Generation” is likely to sell quite a few copies, as generational theory–inexact though it may be–lines the nonfiction shelves of the average Barnes & Noble.

So, from the start, it felt to me that Chang was a little dishonest in his approach, that he had created a flawed angle from which to tell the story he wanted to tell. There are at least two generations of hip-hop culture-makers depicted in this book, and the birth of a third generation. But Chang seems to surrender to marketing, choosing a title and an angle that pretends that this entire movement brings together hundreds of millions of people (between ages 5 and 75) into a single generation.

That flaw aside, though, Chang is indeed a magnificent writer, and the story is uniquely compelling. Above, I mentioned that the book is “inspiring,” and this is why I think so: Chang captures the spirit of the movement, the many different elements that came together to give life to a culture, the (as cliche as it may sound) blood, sweat, and tears of thousands of different types of artists. To read about the passion of so many individuals, most of whom had no idea how this “hip-hop” thing would pan out, is incredible. They believed that something needed to be said, that a new art form needed to be created in order to give voice to the youth, and they worked tirelessly to make it happen. It’s the sort of story that makes you want to be part of a movement, and makes you wonder if/when it will ever happen again.

There are other issues with the book overall, of course, from the sometimes-over-the-top sympathy Chang shows for criminals and violent aggressors (as if their actions are excused by their circumstances) and the disdain he heaps upon all systems, institutions, and governmental agencies (as if all law enforcement officers are thugs and cowards, and all criminals are victims), and in the paperback edition, the font choice (a sans serif) seems better suited for internet reading than for printed text…but overall, “Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop” is quite the achievement. It’s a must-read for every youth who thinks that there is no culture to represent him/her, and it’s a must-read for every aspiring rapper or DJ who does not yet understand the decades of tradition that came before him/her.

Here’s a quick link to Jeff Chang speaking at the University of Arkansas:

The Best Creative Nonfiction Vol. I

As a strong supporter of the “Best American Short Stories” collections, I wasn’t exactly sure what to think of Lee Gutkind’s “The Best Creative Nonfiction.” After all, it seems like a lot of different publishers and editors are using “The Best” in their titles, even when they aren’t affiliated with “The Best American” series, in an effort to somehow associate themselves with the reputation of that long-running anthology. (I’ve seen “The Best Erotica,” and “The Best of the Web,” and “The Best New American Voices,” and a handful of others) So my immediate thought was: fraud.

But while the initial volume of this series still seems as if it is trying to find its voice, there are some great pieces of nonfiction here, representing a wide range of publications and mediums. In fact, by using blog posts and web stories, in addition to the traditional literary journal essays, this collection becomes far more inventive and far more accessible than “The Best American Essays” (which drowns in its own self-importance).

Creative Nonfiction is still such a big and all-inclusive term, though, that I’m not exactly sure what sets the material in the series apart from “The Best American Magazine Writing,” “The Best American Nature Writing,” and “The Best of the Web/Blogs,” and even “The Best American Essays,” which all seem more narrowed in focus, and thus are able to collect the definitive representatives of their genre each year. Can we truly say that the literary journalism here is better than that collected in “Magazine Writing,” or that the blogs here are better than those in “Best of the Web?”

As I said, I liked this collection, and I think there’s a lot of good stuff here, but can we truly say this is the best creative nonfiction, or just a really nice sampling of a lot of different types of creative nonfiction? Lee Gutkind’s introduction is fantastic, and the inclusion of the James Frey commentary definitely gives the reader a better understanding of the creative nonfiction genre…but then again, this isn’t a textbook. It’s supposed to be an anthology of the best representatives of the genre, and I don’t know if it’s possible to really accomplish what Gutkind is setting out to accomplish here.

The Brat Pack: “Bright Lights, Big City”

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.”