Weekly Geeks: Reading from the Decades
Tell us about a book that came out in the decade you were born which you either loved or hated. Is is relevant to today? Is it a classic, or could it be?
The 80’s, in my opinion, were not the best decade. Off-the-shoulder sweatshirts and skinny jeans aside, the best things to come out of the 80’s were My Little Pony, “Don’t Stop Believin'”, and The Princess Bride.
Oh, and Bright Lights, Big City, a novel that consistently makes the list of my absolute favorite books. Author Jay McInerney was a hot new name in literature back in 1984, and the quintessence of the hip literary scene; he was married to a model, then a writer, then lived with another model before marrying another writer and finally leaving her and marrying an heiress.
He was a fact-checker for a magazine before he became a novelist, and therefore it’s really no surprise that Bright Lights, his first novel, features as a protagonist a very young, hip, fact-checker who is wildly active in the cocaine scene. The narrator, who is never named in the book, has just been left by his fashion-model girlfriend (McInerney also dated a few fashion models) and is struggling with how to make his life how he wants it to be.
The novel itself is incredible for a few reasons, the first of which being that it is entirely written in the second person. This dates the book a little, as second-person is not really vogue anymore (first-person plural is more avant garde), but I think this point of view is a little like skinny jeans — after a while, you start to see why it was so popular. It’s remarkably intimate and engaging, and it’s a neat little trick for getting the reader to identify with the protagonist. Take the first few sentences:
You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, though the details are fuzzy.
Already, McInerney has tapped into the almost universal fish-out-of-water feeling. Reaching out to everyone who has ever found themselves in a strange bar at some indeterminable hour, McInerney only needs two sentences to convey that his character is not only in a sketchy nightclub at an odd time, he’s high on something, and not entirely in control of his own life.
The second thing that makes the book amazing is the sheer range of settings and characters. There are not that many characters, but they run the gambit from motherly co-worker, sleek ex-girlfriend, metro-sexual deskmate, Nightclub Girl with the shaved head, and the much-cooler-than-you best friend.
The novel begins at about 4 a.m. in a cocaine-fueled night club; it ends at approximately the same time outside a bakery, with the narrator trading his Ray-Bans for a loaf of freshly-baked bread. Somewhere in the middle, there’s a flashback to the narrator’s hometown, a scene where the narrator passes out in the motherly co-worker’s home, and allusions to Paris and London.
After the publication of this novel in 1984, McInerney was hyped as young, fresh, and the voice of the yuppie culture (or, I suppose, those who were disillusioned with it.) He was even part of the ‘literary brat pack’ that included Brent Easton Ellis, and though his popularity fell off a little bit in subsequent decades, he’s still amazingly successful. Though I would argue that none of his other works compare with Bright Lights, Big City, McInerney is undeniably the voice of the 80’s.
Is the book relevant now? Of course. It was probably more relevant a few years ago, before the recession did away with bored twenty-somethings who would risk their livelihoods for one cocaine-fueled binge. However, the popularity of Bill Clegg’s Portrait of the Addict as a Young Man would suggest that even if no one is willing to put their jobs at stake for pleasure, they still like to read about people who do.
Will this book become a classic? Sure, but I think it’s going to take a little more time. It’s more a classic in the way that Margaret Atwood’s early work is just becoming classical, in the way John Cheever is respected because of the way his stories encapsulate the mood of the 50’s and 60’s. But regardless of its official status, I am of the firm opinion that this book is, and always will be, a Book Worth Buying.
Have you ever read this book, and if so, what did you think? Will it become a classic? What books written in your birth decade do you think are worthy of “classics” status?