This past Sunday The New York Times ran a piece in the Fashion & Style section on author Jay McInerney. It was a human interest story that chronicled the writer's personal life rather than a book review (his latest novel, The Good Life, was released on January 31, 2006). One of the main focuses of the article was how McInerney's life mirrored that of his characters, a persona first created in his first novel, the infamous Bright Lights, Big City.
The book reveals the exploits of a young man, an unnamed protagonist, buzzing through life on one long alcohol and cocaine fueled bender. He works as a researcher in the Department of Factual Verification at a major magazine (resembling The New Yorker), although the term "works" should be used loosely in this context as the protagonist rarely makes it to work on time sans hangover, and attends party after party, usually accompanied by his co-conspirator Tad Allagash and sometimes with a beautiful woman on his arm, which is just fine as his model wife has mysteriously left him. He knows his life is unraveling before his very eyes -- his boss has it out for him, his family is worried about his habits, his personal life is in shambles, the memory of his mother's death still haunts him -- but he just can't seem to get it together.
Bright Lights, Big City encapsulates the zeitgeist of New York City in the 80s. It inhabits the world of young, beautiful and privileged urbanites. A world, like a piece of meta-fiction come to life, that the author found himself very much a part of after the novel's publication and enormous success. It was as if McInerney wrote himself into the world he created. Or did the world just assume that it was himself he was writing about?
The author's use of second person contributes to this sense of memoir rather than fiction.
An except from the first paragraph:
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. The club is either Heartbreak or the Lizard Lounge. All might come clear if you could just slip into the bathroom and do a little more Bolivian Marching Powder. Then again, it might not.
Is he writing about himself or a fictionalized character; the boundaries are blurry. At the time he wrote Bright Lights, Big City, the author was a graduate student at Syracuse University but soon after, much like the unnamed protagonist, he was living it up in NYC. Life was beginning to imitate art.
McInerney is one of a string of writers who embody the personas they create in their novels. His good friend, Bret Easton Ellis, for example is famous for chronicling the exploits of his peers. In the The Rules of Attraction Easton was writing about students at his college while in Less than Zero he was writing about his friends in L.A. Granted the people are probably somewhat fictionalized but the author is still much very a part of the scenario.
Look at writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway or even Hunter S. Thompson. At what point did their personal life end and the fictionalized worlds they created begin? Did they become that which they wrote about or did they write about that which they were? This question reminds me of the ridiculous yet brilliant premise created in the film Adaptation, whose protagonist writes himself into a screenplay only to find himself a part of the world he had created.
The fictionalization of memoir has even become a selling point. Take the work of J.T. LeRoy, for example. Or, in contrast, the controversy of James Frey and his "memoir" A Million Little Pieces. LeRoy used his/her life as a marketing tool for his/her work; pity the writer, buy his work. James Frey simply wrote about his own life and...embellished a few points to make it more exciting.
What happened to creativity? What happened to imagination? What happened to actually making things up? Does writing about you and your friends really measure up as "fiction" in the most literal sense? Ultimately, as a reader you have to ask yourself: does the author's persona and personal life really matter in a work of fiction? Is that why you're reading the book? Does his real life make the work more interesting or better crafted? Shouldn't novels be judged on their own merit? I think so.
Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney
Paperback, 208 pages