The Power of Oomph
Jay McInerney's true claim to fame isn't what you think.
Bright Lights, Big City tells the story of a fact checker at a magazine that is, in every respect but name, The New Yorker. He has been abandoned by his fashion-model wife. By day, he makes a travesty of his job title; by night, he huffs cocaine ("Bolivian Marching Powder") at downtown clubs, in the company of a wholesomely depraved Peter Pan figure named Tad Allegash, who is purportedly based on Fisketjohn. The novel is justly famous for its use of the second person—of You instead of I. Some readers find the device gimmicky, even grating; but it absolutely makes the book. Where I acts as an integrating force in a typical narrative, You has a splitting effect. "You" is clearly the narrator—we are reading his own story—but it is also that part of the narrator that remains coldly dissociated from his own debauchery. You is a richly ambiguous style of address to begin with. It is admonitory, accusatory, commanding. It can be singular or plural. In "You," McInerney knew he was addressing in aggregate a new creature, the yuppie. (Zeitgeisty!) It was also a dispatch from a future self, from an author who, recollecting in tranquility, cannot quite believe the degree of his own former self-abandonment.
You is caught between a world of clubs, drugs, and fashion, which You recognizes as an active emptying out of aesthetic standards, and his magazine, which, in upholding such standards, has become a crypt for the over-finical—a place where young fogies go to never die. He knows his avenue out is to write. But writing is out of the question:
You wanted to skip over the dull grind of actual creation. After a hard day of work on other people's manuscripts—knowing in your heart that you could do better—the last thing you wanted to do was to go home and write. You wanted to go out. Amanda was the fashion model and you worked for the famous magazine. People were happy to meet you and to invite you to their parties.
Writing is a grind. Why bother when the party people are happy to accept its token—your menial daytime presence at a "famous magazine"? Why sit alone and "commit literature" (You's rich phrase) when you can exit your front door and, catching the comet by the tail, ram a little stardust up your nose? Bright Lights, Big City would be an inane document if it weren't for its terrifically finely drawn lines. (That Soho House card?) The New Yorker set pieces are witty, the portrait of a city beginning to lease its soul to the New York Post are canny, and, most of all, the book delivers on a beautiful surprise: It is a grief memoir. We discover, in the end, that being awake all night, administering drugs, and lamenting the come-on of a beloved woman—none of these are what we were led to believe they were.
You wasn't a twerp trying to have it both ways. He didn't sea and ski with the beautiful people and then, to win over the Book Review, claim it was for research purposes only. You was a personality split along lines of genuine confusion. Which impulse to obey? To push ahead, into something synthetic and disposable and therefore thrilling in its power to reject the past? Toward Tad Alleghash, and into childhoodlessness personified? Or to reach back, to childhood, to the comforts, if not the prerogatives, of a stable, affluent, largely white, midcentury middle class? (You describes his mother, the unexpected hero of the story, as "the Last Puritan.") For here is the key to McInerney: Without the oomph, without the euphoric possibility that all social memory, that all context, can be obliterated in favor of The Moment—the moment the cocaine uploads to your septum, the model succumbs to your advances, the trade goes in your favor—he is mostly an MFA taxidermist and a self-puffing bore.
It is as possible to damn with hyperbole as it is with faint praise. Let's not burden the poet of no context with Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Let's not even burden him with Raymond Carver and A Fan's Notes. His path to immortality runs directly through the oomph, through The Moment, through the golden archness of Yuppieback and McWriting.
Stephen Metcalf is Slate's critic at large. He is working on a book about the 1980s.
Photograph of Jay McInerney by Scott Gries/Getty Images.