Tag Archive for 'Bright Lights Big City'

Bright Lights Big City

Our reading choice for May was Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights Big City, described as a comic morality tale of a young man making a hash of his life in 80s Manhattan. Bright Lights Big City taps into the zeitgeist of 80s fast-paced, drug-taking city living with all its glitter and glamour, but the reader who thinks this novel is just about drugs and hedonism would be way off the mark as McInerney’s novel is beautifully and cleverly constructed; a tale of how facing up to the truth can hurt and just how far an impressionable young man will go to bury his feelings.

The group almost uniformly enjoyed this book, with one person who couldn’t get past the characters and the Bright Lights‘preppy, annoying’ quality of the content as she saw it. This book is clever and funny with a smart engaging style, and the narrative voice its most important and revealing feature. McInerney presents us with a nameless second person narrator, a literary device that is different, takes some getting used to, and which is employed to devastating effect. The narrator is a self-pitying young man who can’t seem to get over his model wife leaving him. He has a questionable but dynamic and charmingly coercive friend Tad Allagash, who he hits the bars and clubs of Manhattan with most nights and where he does a lot of drugs. He just can’t seem to resist and is on a downward spiral of destruction.

He works as a Fact Checker in the Department of Factual Verification at a magazine, probably the New Yorker where McInerney himself once worked in the same role. There are so many wonderful characters, wittily and cleverly observed by the narrator in a Chandleresque facetious style, many of whom are chasing the ‘American Dream’, including Megan, who’s moved to New York to better herself but who has a son living back home with his father, and Tillinghast with her

Vassar vowel-sounds, but who’s sensitive about hailing from Nevada.

While he’s being bitingly funny about his colleagues, the narrator suffers from a malaise that prevents him from doing his job which annoys his boss and eventually gets him sacked. He has a susceptibility that makes him a sucker for street vendors who sell him dodgy drugs, a car, a ferret; they seem to sniff him out in his downward spiral. He’s fiercely intelligent, doesn’t seem to fit in at work and has an honesty and self-deprecation that makes the reader wonder where his story is going and what he’s hiding.

Big CityThere are telling themes in the book including the story of the Coma Baby that newspapers are reporting and which the narrator follows assiduously, and his brother Michael who turns up unexpectedly and from whom the narrator runs although we don’t know why. We learn that the Coma Baby’s mother has died and the baby lives, and we also learn that the narrator’s own mother has died from cancer a year previously and that Michael has tracked his brother down to help him stop running away both physically and metaphorically from the reality of the loss of their mother.

As the story moves towards it conclusion, the final moments are beautifully created and the story ends with the narrator walking through the early morning streets, exchanging his sunglasses for a bag of warm bread and experiencing a damascene moment; the smell of the freshly baked bread evoking a memory of his mother baking – and burning – a loaf of bread that they shared together over talk in the kitchen back home. He finally falls apart:

The smell of warm dough envelops you. The first bite sticks in your throat and you almost gag. You will have to go slowly. You will have to learn everything all over again.

We had great sympathy for the narrator, whose lack of name in the book and second person narration showed his disassociation from reality, his separation from his authentic self which stems from his unfinished relationship with his mother. We loved the symbolic nature of bread as a representation of the security of home, the love of his mother, and we felt that the exchange of sunglasses for the bread suggests the shedding of the narrator’s old destructive life for a new, more honest one. It’s an almost religious moment, an allegorical telling of a young man’s descent and re-birth, as one group member concluded

not the shallow book I was hoping for.


Rachel Orange