Bright Lights, Wounded City

Dust and debris cover the dishes and silverware on the table of an apartment in lower Manhattan, Sept. 23, 2001.
Dust and debris cover the dishes and silverware on the table of an apartment in lower Manhattan, Sept. 23, 2001. (Quyen Tran/ap)
Reviewed by Dan Chaon
Sunday, February 5, 2006


A Novel

By Jay McInerney

Knopf. 353 pp. $25

Last September, Jay McInerney wrote a wonderful, nuanced essay about the impact of 9/11 upon fiction for the British newspaper the Guardian. He was writing in reaction to V.S. Naipaul's claim that the novel is dead -- that it's inadequate to address the post-9/11 era.

McInerney's response was thoughtful. "Most novelists I know went through a period of intense self-examination and self-loathing after the terrorist attacks. . . . For a while the idea of 'invented characters' and alternate realities seemed trivial and frivolous and suddenly, horribly outdated." McInerney elaborated an impassioned defense of the novel as a mode of communication. His essay made me excited about his new novel -- which indeed involves the impact of 9/11 upon the lives of a group of McInerney-esque Manhattanites. Unfortunately, the book is a disappointment.

In the Guardian, McInerney describes his struggle to create a fictional work that encompassed the catastrophe. "At the very least," he writes, "certain forms of irony and social satire in which I'd trafficked no longer seemed useful."

This lack of irony, however, is a big problem for The Good Life . McInerney has always been at his best in the comic mode. He has a great eye for satirical detail and social foibles. His novels are often slightly confectionary, a little trashy even, but with the saving grace of soft-heartedness and an elegant, plummy descriptive style, which can be seen in the early pages of this novel: "The elevator doors opened on Luke's floor, revealing a tuxedoed Tupper Carlson, ruler of a downtown brokerage house and the president of the co-op, descending from the penthouse with his great blue heron of a wife, notable for her stick legs and prominent beak."

So the novel starts off promisingly. We meet Luke, a fortysomething banker who has taken a sabbatical from work in hopes of finding himself and connecting with his socialite wife and rapidly maturing 14-year-old daughter. We are also reintroduced to two characters previously seen in McInerney's Brightness Falls , literary editor Russell Calloway and his wife, Corrine, who live in TriBeCa and attend parties with Salman Rushdie and Nan Talese and struggle to make ends meet while Corrine stays at home with the children. "Russell had initially supported her maternal ideal, though, as the years went by and their peers bought vacation homes in the Hamptons, he couldn't consistently disguise his resentment over their straitened finances."

It's all very fin de siècle, funny and rather spooky. At one charitable affair, Luke is reminded "of the figures he'd seen . . . in Pompeii and Herculaneum, frozen in their postures of feasting and revelry" -- a remarkable foreshadowing image, particularly if you take it with a grain of irony.

Once disaster strikes, however, irony and humor are not too much to be seen. (There is one amazing little sequence in which wealthy mothers discuss whether Marine Corps or Israeli gas masks are better, and the difficulty of acquiring Cipro, the antibiotic for anthrax: "I was at Minky Rijstaefal's for dinner -- you know Minky; her husband's Tom Harwell, the plastic surgeon -- and it was so sweet: Folded inside the name cards at the table, we all had prescriptions for Cipro.") For the most part, though, such wonderfully, darkly comic moments are banished, and an earnest solemnity takes hold. The novel narrows its focus, and the plot follows a budding romance between Luke and Corrine. They're working for a makeshift soup kitchen that has sprung up near Ground Zero. Both have unfaithful spouses, both are soul-searching, both think a lot about wanting to be good people. Sadly, both are also pretty dull. You keep hoping that Luke and Corrine will get more interesting or sympathetic, but they do not. After a while, a lot of their self-examination and guilt and so on starts to come across as self-pity. Neither has lost anyone who is particularly close, and the catastrophe begins to seem more and more tangential, a romantically tragic backdrop.

And Tragedy and Romance bring out bad things in McInerney. He has always had a sentimental streak, and in certain ironic and satirical contexts that has worked to his advantage. Here, however, he has nothing to counterbalance it. Corrine gushes out things like, "How are you, my angel?" and "I just needed to hear your voice. To verify my existence." The author tells us that Luke "wanted to be a student of her goodness and decency, a slave to her whims," and that Corrine had "never felt such craving, such desire to be possessed and filled, never known she had so much desire inside of her, so urgent a need. . . ."

One doesn't really know what to say.

Honestly, it seems McInerney doesn't know what to do with this material. He skirts the complex observations and deep feelings discussed in his moving essays on 9/11. Perhaps the tragedy feels so sacrosanct, so enormous, that he has chosen not to apply the skills that are closest to his true talent, and what's left is this odd, stilted, earnestly tremulous book. But it's kind of scary. If Jay McInerney can't bring himself to write a Jay McInerney novel about New York during 9/11, then maybe Naipaul was right. ยท

Dan Chaon is a novelist and short story writer living in Cleveland.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company