Confession Time – Though my real job (as opposed to this, the head of an online magazine that infrequently and irregularly posts semi-incoherent content) is in the publishing industry where it is assumed I’ve read all books ever published, I haven’t read a lot of what other people have read and am therefore painfully shy/ embarrassed/ hesitant to engage in conversations about books at hip parties and other fashionable social gatherings. Name your favorite book, good chance I haven’t read it. Name a book that everybody else, even the non-reading public has devoured, not so much over here.
I’ve been on a mission (low bar) to read at least one book a month in 2015. Might be non-fiction, might be the novel everybody has talked about forever, but it can’t be something I’ve had a hand in publishing.
The first book in this, admittedly, non-ambitious quest, was Jay McInerny’s Bright Lights, Big City. Here’s what I knew going into it.
(1) It was around in the 80s.
(2) I think Michal J. Fox did a movie based on the book
(3) One of the authors I published (John Galligan) was favorably compared to McInerny in a Daily Yomiuri book review back in 2001.
So how did it go? Well, that’s a mixed bag. I read the whole thing in a few days, but, I was not a fan.
The book is a big love song to cocaine. Cocaine may be an old lover who gave the protagonist emotional gonorrhea and there may be some regret present, but the protagonist is very earnestly standing below cocaine’s bedroom window tossing handfuls of gravel and pitching woo. Just like if you were a neighbor watching from your own house, it is sad to watch, and you wonder if you should call the authorities for some type of intervention.
As is the case with listening to stories from addicts and alcoholics, there’s a huge element of “Well this would be much funnier/moving/poignant if you were there!” And I wasn’t there. And if I had been there, I probably would have avoided people like the protagonist any time they showed up anywhere I was, because even though I guess he’s supposed to be likable, he pretty much comes off as a total asshole and the “lol, yeah, but isn’t this funny?!” bit misses the mark totally with me. No patience. No resonance.
Another thing about Bright Lights, Big City is that the book is written in second person, an unconventional device for long form fiction. The reader, I think, is expected to feel more a part of the action with all of the “You did this, you did that” but since reading the exploits of our “hero” makes me feel like I need a shower (and not in a good way), I kinda get disappointed in myself and look for something to clean the bad taste out of my mouth.
Now, inevitably, some fan of the book is going to stand up right now and say, “That’s the genius of the book! It makes you confront these negative things in yourself. The reason you feel uncomfortable is because you’ve seen your reflection…”
That fan of the book is, of course, wrong.
Here’s why—In professional wrestling, the bad guy (commonly referred to as the “heel”) is supposed to generate anger from the audience. He’s an archetypal nemesis, the traits of which we see in our boss or our romantic rival or a foreign leader we think is out to harm us. This angry response from the audience is called “getting heat.” The audience is supposed to see this guy, get frustrated, and want to see him get punched in the face repeatedly by the good guy (us, by proxy). That’s good heat. It’s what we strive for when we illustrate conflict in whatever medium.
However, there’s another kind of heat. In casual parlance it is called “Get off my television” heat. It’s when a character is pushed down our collective throats and we don’t want him there. Not because we hate him, but because he annoys us. It is the Jar Jar Binks/Poochie type heat, and though there may be some controversy birthed from its ill-advised loins, it is ultimately not about seeing the bad guy get his comeuppance, but is much more about changing the channel. We don’t want to see him get punched in the face, we just want him to leave, and if he’s not going to, then we will. Because fuck that dude.
Our unnamed protagonist of Bright Lights, Big City generates, in this reader, a strong feeling of “please get off my television.”
His antics and his self-destruction are eye roll inducing, but not emotionally compelling. We’ve seen this behavior in our real lives, and we know it’s frustrating to bear witness to and so when we’re asked “Look at him pinball through NYC in his madcap dash to salvage his shitty life held together by privilege and duct tape! Will he make it?”
Who gives a fuck?
The problem may be that I wasn’t hanging out in Manhattan in the early 80s, that I wasn’t then and never later, part of the cocaine crowd. That could be why I don’t get the hype around this book. But seriously, this is some painful shit to read, not because it digs at the heart of our emotional core.
Did I misread this? Is there a hidden genius I’m missing? Were you there in the 80s and you need to share an anecdote about some dude you knew who was like this, and there was this one time he…? Comment section is waiting for your megaphone.