Do you remember when you first broke away from the familiar rituals and warm safety of your parent’s home?
Before your departure, every person you’d ever known was a rural, midwestern white person or a second generation, Americanized Mexican. After 18 years of this arrangement, you began to believe that unworldy, small-town folks with a blue collar frame of mind amounted for the entire spectrum of human lifestyle and personality.
It was as if those special and far-away people – the artists, the intellectuals, the fashion models, the exotic foreigners, the upper-crust suburbanites, the big city hipsters, the brilliant professors and all the ones living sexy, dynamic, metropolitan lives – the kind of lives that are a source of inspiration for novels and movie scripts – those people were like sasquatch. Mere legends. Not really real. If they were real than why hadn’t you met a single soul who could show proof of an encounter with one of those incomprehensible beings?
And what were you to make of these castle-in-the-sky cities? Places with names like Chicago, New York City and L.A. that one could allegedly visit if one were only to drive for a sufficient amount of time in the right direction? Might as well have been Narnia! Like a Hobbit whose innocence had been safeguarded by the holsom homogeneity of the Shire – with it’s cheerful indifference for the rest of Middle Earth – your unspoiled, little mind could only wonder what life was like beyond the walls of leafy corn stalks acting as bulwark between your sleepy farm life and “out there”.
Then, you went to college. Within the span of a year, an intoxicating succession of novel experiences blessed you with a fresh, new identity and added countless, permanent amendments to your personal ethos.
You turned your back on God. Drugs became your master key for admittance into formally unreachable psychic realms. You raised hell on Greek row. Your first real English Literature class was the impetus of your still-remaining love of fiction. You’ll never forget the smell of 600 horny 18-year-olds living on top of each other in a dormitory hall. Nor the inebriation of your first tastes of independence.
More and more you saw yourself as a very cool person. You talked politics and watched avant-garde films and drank espresso and read post-modernist literature and smoked hookah. You had your fist college party hookup. The waning light of dusk turned the ivy cloaking of campus into beaming sheets of gold and you knew that this was the bloom of youth. The parties were pageants of debauchery. The girls were Asian and African and Russian some had red hair.
Remember? Well, probably not. That’s what happened to me. You’ve probably experienced something similar even if the details differ. It was a time in your life when the world invited you to travel uncharted territory. When you emerged from the journey, you were a different person from when you began. It may even feel appropriate to speak of this time of change as a stark demarcation line for your life. Old you becomes new you.
They call it coming of age.
Bright Lights, Big City is a coming of age tragedy.
When we met our twenty four-year-old, upper class protagonist he is in the prime of his life, clubbing it up in early 1980s New York City. On paper, he’s sitting pretty. Good education. Good family background. Attractive, interesting friends with cool names like Tad Allagash. Manhattan apartment. He’s also living every liberal arts major’s dream, because he landed a gig at a famous literary magazine fresh out of college.
As the story progresses, however, the set of circumstances that the self-effacing narrator finds himself in can been seen in sharper focus; Life has been playing rough with our poor protagonist. Barely in his mid-twenties, he’s already suffering from what I can only think to call bachelor burnout. All of the parties that he attends feel so similar and unstimulating that a night out on the town is like a very dull and prolonged episode of devaju. What he’d really like to do is split the big apple with a beautiful bride and start a new life in a country house in a sleepy hamlet far away from the dirty chaos of NYC.
As the story unfolds, we learn that party fatigue is but a slight hiccup when weighed against the growing lineup of grim milestones hurting this young man.
On the love and relationship front, his wife, Amanda has dumped him like a hefty bag. This shouldn’t be a shocker when the sexual value of each half of the couple is considered. Amanda, is a young, beautiful supermodel. Our love-dumb hero followed Amanda to New York City amidst a powerful bout of oneitis. Then, while Amanda is in Paris for Fashion Week, she calls him to coldly explain that she’s leaving him to focus on her career and to – of course – date a more attractive man. Devastating news. So devastating that our narrator copes with the pain by pretending that the separation never happened. He can’t bring himself to tell his family that his wife walked out on him.
The humiliation of being abandoned should have taught our narrator that he’s going to need to grow a sack to succeed in the bloody battle field of love. He doesn’t get the memo. Instead of replacing her with one of the hundreds of thousands of datable women in NYC, he pines for the woman that burned him. In a moment of peak cringe, the protagonist tracks Amanda down at a fashion show, making an ass of himself by calling out to her as she performs on the runway. His sorrowful pleas for attention earn him no more than a quick, indifferent glance from his former beloved.
So, his love life has reached rock bottom. At least our narrator has a fulfilling job doing what he loves at an esteemed literary magazine, right? Well, that’s not exactly how things stand. Firstly, our narrator is working in the department of factual verification. His job is to verify the veracity of the claims made in articles by corroborating them with microfilm and stacks of dusty, old encyclopedias. So, a little less exciting and romantic than being paid to write widely read short fiction.
Alas, our brooding storyteller is about to learn that being creatively unfulfilled is a long way away from being one of life’s most grievous blows. He’s also going to learn that the only thing worse than a shitty, low-paying job, is no job and no money. After phoning in his fact-checker responsibilities when he’s assigned to work on an article about the French elections, the narrator is fired by his harpy boss, Clara Tillinghast. At this stage in the story, the protagonist is neck deep in an existential funk. He simply can’t be bothered to care that he’s lost his only means of support.
Broke and loveless, a pop-in visit from his little brother, Michael, unearths more tragedy. It turns out that it is the one-year anniversary of the painful death of the narrator’s mother. He actually sat bedside as she died in front of him. Michael and the narrator’s father want him to visit home to acknowledge the joy-dead holiday. This conversation exploring the passing of the narrator’s mother and his avoidant response is like the crescendo of a mystery novel. The author drops the curtain and – all at once – the murky proceedings of the climax can finally be understood comprehensively.
The Bolivian marching powder, the metaphysical jitters, underperformance at work, his loathsome emotional dependence on Amanda. This is a man traumatized. The narrator is a wounded gazelle running on three legs. The pack is breaking away. The necessary grieving period has not taken place. Yet, our shell shocked narrator is attempting to grit his teeth and muscle his way through career and romantic relationships as if no life-changing tragedy has occurred. He’s been unsuccessful in this venture.
This is the big emotional payoff point in the novel. Once the reader learns of the burden the protagonist has carried since we first met him, his weakness and aimlessness is forgivable. We stop judging him harshly. The narrator’s behavior all makes so much sense when the circumstances that formed the last year of his life are brought into the open.
What’s equally noteworthy is the style in which Bright Lights, Big City is written.
Before you finish reading the first sentence of Bright Lights, Big City, you will learn that the novel’s most distinguishing feature is that it’s written entirely in the second-person POV. What does that mean? Well, instead of seeing the world of the story through the eyes of the main character like in the first-person POV, and unlike the third-person POV where a disembodied narrator tells you what is happening, Bright Lights, Big City is a story that is being told to you from your perspective. The protagonist is you. Okay, but what does that mean?
The opening few sentences of the book are a good introduction to McInerney’s style:
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.
Maybe your eyes are rolling. It is kind of easy to write off McInerney’s unique take on perspective as a cheap gimmick. It is probably easy to underrate this aspect of the book. You may think of it as a contrived USP to increase book sales instead of an effective storytelling device that adds literary value.
I personally believe that you would be wrong to think such things. McInerney’s decision to tell his story from the perspective of the reader is part of what makes Bright Lights, Big City a successful novel. The second-person perspective is soothing and ingratiating like the incantations of a hypnotic guru. It works as a shortcut to empathizing and rooting for the main character, because you are one with him.
The final scene of the book shows the protagonist trading his Ray-Ban sunglasses for some fresh loaves from a bread truck. Cotton mouth makes swallowing difficult. Slowly, he chews his food and it’s like he has to relearn how to eat. The metaphor isn’t exceptionally brilliant, but it’s fitting. Experiencing the lose of a parent at a young age along with big time career and relationship failure has altered our protagonist’s core character. Time heals scars. That doesn’t mean that scars aren’t permanent. I have a lot of affection for the main character of Bright Lights, Big City. So, I hope he uses the setbacks of his youth as fuel to capture future glory.