Jay McInerney's 9/11 novel.

Reading between the lines.
Feb. 20 2006 10:37 AM

The Trivial Life

Why Jay McInerney should embrace frivolity.

Jay McInerney. Click image to expand.
Jay McInerney

During an interview with Jay McInerney in 1992, I mentioned a magazine article deriding his second marriage (by way of expressing my sympathy, though I'd freelanced for that very magazine). McInerney told me of the villainy that had taken place behind the scenes, and then pronounced his anathema: The magazine's editors, he said, "will never be invited to one of my parties." For a moment I thought he was joking, but not at all. Parties, clearly, are important to McInerney and his set—deadly so—along with oenophilia (he writes a wine column), bespoke clothing, celebrity pals, and the right restaurants.

This is the same McInerney—a little warped by the hothouse atmosphere of celebrity Manhattan—who would have you know he is not (quite) the frivolous playboy he was in the '80s, or for that matter an artist who takes his cultural mission lightly: 9/11 has changed everything. As he recently wrote in the Guardian, "For a while the idea of 'invented characters' and alternate realities seemed trivial and frivolous and, suddenly, horribly outdated." It wasn't long, though, before McInerney picked himself off the mat and wrote his own 9/11 opus, The Good Life—the sort of big, earnest, topical novel that has characterized his oeuvre (with one happy exception) since Brightness Falls in 1992. "The coming-of-age novel is a great tradition," he said during our interview, "but I wanted to work with a larger canvas." This is a man who yearns to be taken very seriously indeed, and hence routinely repents of his reputation as a boulevardier (his word). Nor do I doubt his sincerity, any more than I doubt Fitzgerald's sincerity in declaring himself "Mature at last!" every time some fresh calamity befell him in the '30s.

The Good Life by Jay McInerney

Whatever his good intentions, The Good Life reminds me yet again that I much prefer the more trivial McInerney—the man who claims to identify with Pepé Le Pew and deplores his family's "lack of trust funding," who blithely admits to his reputation as a philanderer (or "modelizer") and doesn't apologize for his fame. This is the man, or the persona, who I like to think wrote Bright Lights, Big City—one of my favorite contemporary novels, and I don't care who knows it. It's not an ambitious novel, thank God, but it's warm and witty and well-observed, and like McInerney's own favorite novel, The Great Gatsby, it evokes a time and place with an almost incomparable poignancy. This is what Cheever meant when he called Fitzgerald "a peerless historian": "His greatest innovation was to use social custom, clothing, overheard music, not as history but as an expression of his acute awareness of the meaning of time." I also like McInerney's other light satirical novels—what Graham Greene would have called "entertainments," perhaps— Story of My Life (1988) and Model Behavior (1998). The first, I think, is a minor tour de force: Its narrative voice is nicely sustained, and there are some amusing bits as well as a few touching ones. Model Behavior is also a fun read, though it rehashes a lot of material from Bright Lights, Big City. But that's OK. When you've read (say) one P.G. Wodehouse novel, you've pretty much read them all, though I fully intend to read the other 60-some before I die.

Because The Good Life seems like the ultimate topical novel, and nothing if not a very serious business ("certain forms of irony and social satire in which I'd trafficked no longer seemed useful," McInerney wrote in that Guardian article), I kept my expectations low. Happily, the novel is nowhere near as bad as some of its detractors say, though it's not very good, either; indeed it's a curious amalgam of McInerney's two basic modes, witty satire and turgid social history. The first is most evident in the long opening section that takes place on Sept. 10, 2001, as we meet the characters whose lives are about to be changed forever: Russell and Corrine Calloway (from Brightness Falls), who are throwing a dinner party in their TriBeCa loft for some high-powered literary friends, and Luke McGavock, a retired investment banker, who attends a gala benefit in the park where his fellow uptown glitterati remind him "of the figures he'd seen this summer in Pompeii and Herculaneum, frozen in their postures of feasting and revelry." The early scenes are strewn with aperçus like this one, reminiscent of how deft and funny McInerney can be at his best—as when he introduces Luke's wife, Sasha, "a professional beauty" being primped by a corps of assistants: "The hairstylist was aiming a huge blow-dryer at his wife's skull, which was somewhat disconcertingly exposed and pink—memento mori—in the jet of hot air ... " The inserted phrase, a droll throwaway, resonates in the mind, and when McInerney can write like that, one becomes hopeful that perhaps this time he'll pull it off—that is, keep his satirical balance all the way, remain "within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life."

But let's face it: McInerney—both the artist and the man—is a lot more enchanted than repelled by the rich and fabulous, and this skews his perspective somewhat. "He developed an interest in the arts as well as a taste for luxury," he writes of the character Luke, "and was never hence quite able to make the distinction between the two, so that his ambitions oscillated between the poles of creation and connoisseurship." Luke, who's made a killing in the Market, cherishes a "secret ambition" to write a novel; there was also such a character in Story of My Life, and one can't help but suspect McInerney's own great ambition is to make a killing in the Market now that he's written a few novels. That way he can go to better and better parties, and meet even more fabulous people, and maybe rival the later Capote as our pre-eminent literary name-dropper. "Did Salman have an excuse?" asks Corrine on Page 9 re a certain delinquent guest. Salman who? Salman Jones? Salman Harris? Mais non: "[Russell] liked to act as if having Salman Rushdie over to dinner was no big deal." Well, don't we all, to say nothing of Paul Auster, Betty Bacall, Oscar de la Renta, Susan Minot, John Guare, the late Bill Blass, Gay and Nan Talese, Alec Baldwin, and O.J. Simpson (who's really quite nice in person!)—to name a few of the big names with whom McInerney's fictional people have at least a nodding acquaintance. But then, one should add that the biggest star-chaser of all is the odious Sasha, Luke's wife, so perhaps we're supposed to deplore that sort of thing. "Like the last time I went to Bungalow Eight," says Luke's troubled daughter, "who do I run into but Mom. She's with, like, Courtney Love and that English painter Damien Hirst."

Besides privileged glimpses of the beau monde, the book is all but entirely concerned with an adulterous love affair between Luke and Corrine; it's the main reason they persevere with their nightly work at a soup kitchen near Ground Zero. Readers who are interested in sociopolitical ambience are advised to consult The 9/11 Commission Report. And while I myself have no problem, in principle, with the microcosmic approach—as McInerney points out in the Guardian, this is also (somewhat) the approach of Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, and "the majority of novels in the canon"—I do expect the lovers in question to engage my interest and make me reflect just a little on the big picture.

As ever, though, when McInerney daubs at his larger canvases, the principal characters are almost as blurry as the odd, offstage celebrity. Russell, for instance, is a man "who had 'Dover Beach' committed to memory and read Wittgenstein for pleasure and could happily while away hours [with his children] watching Daffy and Tweety and the Powerpuff Girls." I guess that means he's a pretty complex guy, but then so is Luke McGavock, what with his connoisseurship and latent literary ambition, and I couldn't tell one from the other (even Corrine, who should know, can't remember which man's penis is bigger)—this despite the fact that the two are meant to represent a certain lifestyle dichotomy. And therein lies a problem with McInerney's big social chronicles: The characters, as in Dickens, are little more than representative types of one sort or another, and rather silly types at that. What's missing is the sensitive, rounded, subjective narrator (whether first- or second-person) of the more satirical novels, and hence a lot of the emotional nuance and humor.

Indeed, there are times in The Good Life when McInerney seems to lose interest in the whole mechanical contraption. Of the (inadvertently hilarious) sex scenes I will say nothing, except that McInerney's prose goes badly off the rails, there and elsewhere, almost as if he lets his date do the writing while he checks e-mail or opens a bottle of Krug. Women are twice likened to gazelles, the second time a "tawny gazelle," whereupon a third character is described—on the next page—as "tawny and leonine." The word "tawny" should appear only once in a given book, if at all; at any rate not a page apart.

But enough. I agree with McInerney that 9/11 is a worthy subject for a novelist, though I wish he himself would dispense with such gravitas and larger canvases altogether and let someone like Philip Roth handle it (as he inevitably will). McInerney reminds me of the Joel McCrea character in Preston Sturges' Sullivan's Travels: McCrea (one may recall) plays a famous director of light comedies who longs to tackle more serious themes because there's so much suffering in the world, etc. In the end, though, after much travail, he realizes that his real calling is to entertain rather than edify. And so with McInerney. For what it's worth, I myself spent the days after 9/11 rereading my favorite Wodehouse novels.

Blake Bailey is the author of Cheever: A Life. He is working on a biography of Philip Roth.