Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Bonus Quote of the Day (Jay McInerney, on Being ‘Intimate With Loss’)

“Feeling his wife's head nesting in the pillow below his shoulder, he is almost certain that they will find ways to manage. They've been learning to get by with less, and they'll keep learning. It seems to him as if they're taking a course in loss lately. And as he feels himself falling asleep he has an insight he believes is important, which he hopes he will remember in the morning, although it is one of those thoughts that seldom survive translation to the language of daylight hours: knowing that whatever plenty befalls them together or separately in the future, they will become more and more intimate with loss as the years accumulate, friends dying or slipping away undramatically into the crowded past, memory itself finally flickering and growing treacherous toward the end; knowing that even the children who may be in their future will eventually school them in the pain of growth and separation, as their own parents and mentors die off and leave them alone in the world, shivering at the dark threshold.”— Jay McInerney, Brightness Falls (1992)

It’s hard to think of Jay McInerney—born on this date 60 years ago in Hartford, Conn.—as being in the last stage of middle age. He burst on the scene 30 years ago with Bright Lights, Big City, a novel written entirely in the second person, in the consciousness of a twentysomething driven to seriocomic extremes by cocaine addiction. A bestseller, it was soon adapted to film, with Michael J. Fox in the lead.

At a lecture appearance at New Jersey's Fairleigh Dickinson University (FDU) n the early 1990s, McInerney recalled, he had not been initially forthcoming about how well he understood cocaine use. He could only admit the full extent of his problem now, he said, because at the time of the book's publication, there was still a stigma associated with this addiction.

Surviving success so immense at so young an age is difficult, and McInerney’s private life (notably, four marriages) has made him rich fodder for literary gossip, as evidenced in this 2000 article by Lynn Barber in the British newspaper The Guardian. The unkind literary consensus seems to be that he peaked artistically with his first book.

McInerney disagrees. At that FDU appearance, I asked him afterward which of his books was his favorite. “I think this latest,” he answered, pointing to the copy he had just autographed for me of Brightness Falls. I wondered at the time if this was the type of thing many writers would say, in pride over giving birth at all to their latest piece of fiction after so much intense labor, amid so much self-doubt and after challenging themselves with a new ambition, no matter how well or badly executed.

But all these years later, McInerney continues to believe, as he notes on his Web site, that it is “my favorite of all the novels.” I’m not sure if I agree with him, but I understand perfectly why he feels this way. 

Brightness Falls is not so wildly daring as Bright Lights, but it paints a far bigger social canvas—New York on the brink of the Wall Street Crash of ’87—and to be able to maintain control over such sprawling material is not as easy as it looks. It may not be quite the Balzacian picture of its time that McInerney hoped to achieve (that honor still goes to Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities), but it is certainly accomplished.

I have another reason to like Brightness Falls: its echoes of my favorite writer, F. Scott Fitzgerald. McInerney’s two chief characters, husband and wife Russell and Corrine Calloway, are the envy of their social circle, in much the same way that Dick and Nicole Diver are in Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night. Both novels deal with how an American couple chooses to live amid their country’s giddy economic spree. Both books are ironic, at points brutal summaries of capitalism (Corrine makes her living as a stockbroker, while Russell gets caught up in a leverage-buyout scheme against the company where he works as an editor).

While Fitzgerald delineates the dissolution of a marriage, McInerney chronicles one in which the union, while surviving, has been shaken to the core. (Indeed, in a later book, The Good Life—written after 9/11, McInerney’s divorce from his third wife and a bout of writer’s block—readers find out just how perilous the state of their marriage is.)

Both novels are also, inescapably, about loss. That sense is expressed most vividly, in Tender is the Night, when Dick Diver tells his group of friends that the French battlefield they are visiting represents the disintegration of an entire civilization. Brightness Falls climaxes in a death that is part of  a similar turning point for those caught up in it: the AIDS crisis. The vision of loss in today’s “Bonus Quote of the Day” begins with that generational loss, then widens out to the eternal problem of aging, ailing and dying parents, the “dark threshold” that haunted the protagonist of Brightness Lights, Big City as well.

It took a while for the excellence of Tender Is the Night to be appreciated.  I hope that Brightness Falls will find similar levels of appreciation now that time has removed us further from the events that gave rise to it.

(Photograph of Jay McInerney taken on April 21, 2010, by David Shankbone.)

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