I got around to starting Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney this weekend, passing the time during some especially lengthy subway delays. I feel a little strange reading a book that depicts the World Trade Center towers on the cover but isn’t actually about them. It’s like a piece of historical fiction in a way. During the ’80s, this book was touted as tapping into the zeitgeist of the era – and is almost always classified by that word.
I’m sure it was mildly controversial when it came out – or perhaps shocked, shocked the literate masses – but the whole prevalence of cocaine throughout the novel feels a bit precious to me now. Not necessarily because it’s any more or less prevalent or more or less mainstream (I’m innocent enough of the whole scene as to not know for sure), but the incessant joking references to “Bolivian marching powder” aren’t as funny anymore. These days, late-show hosts make fun of President Bush “meeting in closed session with the President of Colombia,” and we don’t bat an eyelash. Maybe at the time they seemed fresh, maybe this book actually sparked the jokes: I can’t say.
Other things that are a bit dated are the main character’s tools of the trade as an employee of the Department of Factual Verification for a New-Yorker-like magazine: nary a computer in sight, just lots of books and yellowing already-underused archives and lots of phone calls. This was of course 1983-4, before even the introduction of the Macintosh, so it’s understandable. It’s just strange to read a book that’s ostensibly so contemporary, and yet harkens back to a pre-digital age. On a related note, I kept figuring the euphemistic title of his job and his department would eventually devolve into “fact checker,” but neither the narrator nor his co-workers seem ready to call a spade a spade. Perhaps this too is meant as a bit of light satire.
One other historical note: Being a fan of Philippe Petit, I had to laugh when I came across the passage where he makes an unnamed appearance. The narrator (referred to in the second person: “you”) happens upon a tightrope walker in Sheridan Square, and a member of the crowd turns to the narrator’s companion to say: “He did that between the towers of the World Trade Center.”
Keep in mind, I’m only halfway through the book, so I’ll have to see if any of my observations fall apart or change by the end. With any luck, I’ll write a part 2 to this.