There was a feeling during the 1980’s that the novel was dead. The golden and silver ages of Ernest Hemingway and Norman Mailer, respectively, had long gone as the search for the new Jack Kerouac, Evelyn Waugh and Scott Fitzgerald of the literary world continued. Just as it seemed all hope was gone, a sudden wave of new and young talented writers would emerge to bring about what Norman Mailer would describe as a ‘bronze age of literature.’Among those writers to breakthrough were Bret Easton Ellis, author of American Psycho (1991) and Jay McInerney, author of Bright Lights, Big City (1984).
Bright Lights, Big City
Speaking to Guardian members at The Guardian headquarters in Kings Cross (6th September 2016), McInerney remembers what American life was like for him and other youth during the 1980’s: “New York was in crisis,” he begins. “There were growing levels of bankruptcy, problems in the stock exchange and a heroin and cocaine epidemic. It was also an age of rock music and night club culture, full of energy and diversity.” It was these experiences which McInerney drew on when writing Bright Lights, Big City and although now published some 32 years ago, the author feels that its a book which is routed in a time and place with timeless elements. He says: “During the 1980’s people were saying the novel was dead but I believe I helped to refute that argument. I wanted the prose in Bright Lights, Big City to reflect the drug consciousness and rock period I was familiar with. Today, people question this notion of high and low culture while back then down town New York, notably Manhattan, was a quadroon of performance, music and night club culture – I was merely looking for a literary equivalent.”
McInerney was aged 26 when he wrote the novel and remembers it as a time of pain and confusion all too familiar to the youth of that age. “I struggled for years to write my first novel. It was about a moment when my life fell apart – I was fired from my job, my mother died of cancer and my wife left me. It took a while for me to revisit those events but they feature in the book.” As such, the book is semi-autobiographical with the minor characters drawn from different stages of McInerney’s life. It started as a short novel – the first three lines of which he wrote on a scrap piece of paper – which, in his words, “were the most authentic words I had ever written.” But the assumption that his book is merely just a reflection of the 1980’s is a claim he would clearly like to reject. “At the time, I didn’t think I was writing a book about the 1980’s but rather about my experiences during that time. Also, I was surprised by all the tags put on the book which seemed to suggest I was an advocate of yuppyism, cocaine and Ronald Reagan.”
It took a while for the book to be well received by the US but now some 32 years later has been hailed as a classic as a growing number of young readers are rating it because of the resonance of its themes, which McInerney is clearly delighted by. “I think its still readable now because it has this timeless experience of the disaffected urban drug addicted youth which is also a feature in the work of my compatriot and friend Bret Easton Ellis. Therefore, a younger readership would get this, hence the book’s popularity today compared to yesteryear.”
Jay McInerney’s latest novel – Bright, Precious Days (2016) published by Bloomsbury is available now in all good book stores.
(C) Copyright 2016, Darell J Philip