Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney
rating: 3 of 5 stars
In her Reading Like a Writer, Francine Prose says in the 1980s the success of Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City led to a “brief vogue, which has not entirely disappeared, for writing in the second person.”
Hemingway, of course, used second person fairly often, mixing that point of view with third and first person, to achieve what seems a distancing effect, the narrator talking to himself, thinking out loud to no one in particular.
And if you’ve read a lot of Hemingway, and Hemingway’s imitators in journalism, the “vogue” of second person, its novelty, seems less novel, even in a sustained novel-length narrative like Bright Lights. At first, as Prose notes, it reads like a “distracting tic,” but that seems to soon fade away as you read.
Indeed, as you read the novel, the second person seems appropriate to the character, who you discover is quite distant from his true self, and the use of second person is not a trick of style over substance.
“Like the one-sentence paragraph, the second-person point of view can also make us suspect that style is being used as a substitute for content,” Prose says.
You run into the danger of slipping into style over substance when using second person, Prose says, if you make “you” seem like a direct address to the reader. She says second person works best if “you” addresses “someone in particular, an individual to whom the story . . . is being addressed.”
At first you feel McInerney seems to be using this trick when he opens the novel with the following 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, although the details are fuzzy. You are at a nightclub talking to a girl with a shaved head.”
McInerney, though, develops the character and his situation, and it becomes clear the narrator is addressing himself. At one point in his life, the narrator wasn’t the kind of guy who inhabited nightclubs fueled on Bolivian Marching Powder. He was, instead, the kind of guy, who, in a touching though melodramatic scene, would hold his mother’s hand as she lay dying of cancer.
He becomes the club-hopping, coke-tooting sort of guy, however, very quickly after his wife Amanda, a model, leaves him, and he hooks up with party animal Tad Allagash, an Ivy League, upper Manhattan version of Kerouac’s Neal Cassady (aka Dean Moriarty in On the Road.) At the same time, the narrator recognizes his fall into Allagash’s superficial world, and that world’s hazy shade of nihilistic winter undercutting the bright lights, big city appearances.
And though some critics have taken the book to task for its seeming nihilism (especially John Aldridge in Talents and Technicians, the novel has its darkly funny, Tom McGuane-ish moments, as when Allagash and the narrator trash the office of the narrator’s boss after the narrator gets fired from his job as a fact-checker at a prominent New York magazine, or when the narrator, in the novel’s final scene, bloody-nosed from snorting cocaine, pounces on a bag of hard rolls tossed to him by man loading a bakery truck.