This novel was released a year before Bret Easton Ellis’s “Less Than Zero” and its success is what actually made Ellis’s novel possible. It was considered an “unexpected” success, but having read it now for the first time, again nearly thirty years after the fact, it’s easy to look back on it and see what it was that made this novel the success that it was at the time. Both McInerney and Ellis are often lumped together, both being given the accolade of having produced a “novel of their generation” but the two writers couldn’t be more different from one another. Whereas Ellis’s style in his debut was more minimalistic and its theme more nihilistic, “Bright Lights, Big City” is a more stylized effort, not as nihilistic but more existential in tone. I imagine that the two writers are often lumped together because they both cover the same ground: young urbanites in the mid-1980s. In Ellis’s case it was Los Angeles. McInerney’s tale is set in New York City.
From page one the novel was not at all what I was expecting it to be. It’s style - written in the second person - was very interesting to me and not at all “distracting” as some who have read this novel before had warned be about. But more importantly, McInerney’s overall style was not what I was expecting to read. It reads more traditional than Ellis’s debut, and there’s a flow to it which mimics the popular culture of the day: fast, short, to the point - echoing an almost “MTV-Like” experience (that is, when MTV was actually a music channel). It is definitely a novel of its time and again, may seem a little dated to some. The New York City in which the nameless protagonist moves is a New York City that no longer exists; but it is a New York City that I remember well, being that I had just entered the workforce at the very time this novel takes place and it is a picture perfect representation of how the city was at that time.
The story is essentially a “slice of life” story. The nameless narrator and protagonist works at a prestigious magazine as a fact checker, barely holding onto his job due to his daily and nightly carousing, most of the time amped up on coke. His wife, a fashion model, had recently left him and his ambitions as a writer have stalled. Throughout it all he tries to put on a brave face to others, coming off like nothing is wrong but internally he is struggling with his failures and his sense of loss - not only losing his wife, but also his mother, who passed away the year before. He spends his time with his friends, jumping from club to club, thinking that this would be a way to avoid the unhappiness he feels. The irony is that he doesn’t find happiness and doesn’t enjoy himself and it only makes him more miserable. There is this constant feeling that he and his peers must keep moving but none of them ever actually “arrive.” He moves in a world where the idea of being in the “right” club is equated with being the most important thing one can do in life. It is a world where celebrities and fashion models are asked for their opinions about the world. It is a world where most people you encounter are bombed out of their minds on drugs, looking for the next person to bring home at night. Meanwhile, the real America is circulating all around them: the army of homeless people, the merchants selling stolen merchandise on the street, an older generation that had long lost its idealism and drown their perceived failures in alcohol, a world in which one mistake can put you out on the street in a heartbeat. It was “Morning in America” for some but not for everyone.
All in all I really enjoyed this novel. It is a portrait of a time and place in which I could easily relate to - and again not necessarily the characters in the story, who are essentially “Yuppies” - but being that I was working in the “belly of the beast” at the time this was enjoying its success, it brought back just how different the city was in those days and most importantly, after thirty years, how little, fundamentally, things have changed. Definitely recommended. If you haven’t read this, you should. A fine novel overall.