Book Review: “Bright Lights, Big City” by Jay McInerney
A word about my reviews (if you’ve read this before, skip to the review!):
My reviews are intended for those specifically who have read the novel and are looking for a place to read another’s take on the book and to also share their own thoughts. I don’t particularly like to read a recap of the story’s premise and who is who, etc, in reviews (I can easily find out a synopsis on Amazon or Goodreads) so you won’t find anything like that here. Unless I must explain a bit of premise detail in my review to give context to a thought or idea, I keep recaps to a bare minimum, if at all.
My thoughts on the books I read are by no means meant to be objective. I try to give an accurate portrait of what I experienced from reading this novel, what themes came to surface, in addition to what I liked and disliked about the book.
If you are curious about the book without having read it and would like to read my review- by all means! But please be forewarned that my reviews may contain spoilers.
“Bright Lights, Big City”- Jay McInerney
I know I’ve mentioned it before in a few of my reviews on Goodreads, but I am a big fan of books set in the 80’s. “Bright Lights, Big City” belongs up there with Bret Easton Ellis and Tom Wolfe if you are also of the same mind-set and love exploring the sterile and cold, drug infused heady days that were the 1980’s.
This is a novel designed to make you uncomfortable. Just the author’s use of the second person narrative (making you, the reader, as much of a junkie on a lonely and confusing journey as the main character) is jarring enough. It’s a witty, sad, vacant, poignant- and at times, infuriating-read. You don’t know if you should sympathize with the unnamed main character or hate him. In my case, I did all of the above and then ended up pitying him with a soupçon of hope that he gets his life together. This novel is awfully similar to the themes and tone explored in several of Bret Easton Ellis’s novels, which makes me fairly certain that much of what we’ve heard about the 80s- the coke, the greed, the onset of technology, the loneliness, the violence, the absurdity, the overabundance, the fear- is very true.
The characters in the novel are on the cusp of something, they just aren’t sure what. Things are changing fast and it requires enormous effort and stamina (and lots of cocaine) to keep up. Reading the book for the first time nearly 30 years later after it was published, I recognize that the “cusp” is technology. The main character works for the Fact Department at a prestigious magazine and is looking up details and facts via encyclopedias or calling to verify information over the phone. Now that we have the internet as our main tool, these former research channels are virtually unheard of. I just saw an episode of “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” with Tom Brokaw as the guest where he very astutely points out that with the advent of fast internet and technology we demand everything at the touch of a button and often cannot even keep up with what pops up on our screens within seconds, leaving most of us feeling frustrated and unfulfilled. In the novel, the main character faces a similar situation in which he and another customer cannot get an ATM (newly installed by the bank) to work, driving him to cry out and threaten to punch the screen. Too much information, not enough time, and no real sense of what is fact or fiction. As much as the book feels “old school”, it also resonates with everything we experience today.
McInerney subtly reminds us that in the present day of the novel the rules of yesteryear no longer apply. It’s a new age. Even though the main character is all of 24 (a detail that took me some time to grapple with, until I remembered my own quarter life crisis), he in some ways yearns for the simplicity he had come to expect out of life. You get married are happy. You get a great job and you move up the ladder. You move to NYC and you experience a sense of belonging. You cruise through your childhood, learn French, get a great education and the world is your oyster. None of this proves true, however, and the end result is a downward spiral into ANYTHING that remotely resembles happiness, usually via the normal vehicles of self-medication: drugs,alcohol, and meaningless sex.
Is this a unique story? Absolutely not. It is a satire, a little biased (both McInerney and Ellis appear to have grown up with affluent backgrounds), and possibly not representational at all of the collected experience? I would say yes to all. Is it a cautionary tale? Perhaps. The problems and sufferings that plague our hero have been torturing young souls probably since the dawn of time. It is just another shared experience, but it is probably one we need to have over and over. One day, soon I hope, we all catch up and catch on.
For more 80’s love, check out National Geographic’s mini-series “The 80’s: The Decade that Made Us”. Absolutely fabulous! I believe you can rent or buy on iTunes.