The bright stuff
Tom Lappin speaks to Jay McInerney, the former reluctant voice of a generation about his latest novel which refers more to midlife crisis than teenage nihilism.
‘Superbrat Grows Up' claimed the Independent headline. voicing a rough critical consensus on Jay
‘ McInerney‘s new novel Brightness Falls. The
chronicler. in Bright Lights Big City and Story Of My Life. of the drug-ridden anomie oflate-teens New York has supposedly written his first ‘grown-up‘ novel. and reviewers have pegged it as a cross between Bonfire Of The Vanities and thirtysomething.
What’s changed is that now he isn’twriting about nightclubs, bands, casual sex and Bolivian marching powder, but about board meetings, media lunches, (in)fidelity and expensive wines.
Brightness Falls is the story of Russell and Corrine Calloway, a publisher and his stockbroker wife whose marriage gets battered around in the financial boom of the mid-80$. Russell finds his literary principles and his relationships with his wife and his best friend, demi-monde writer Jeff Pierce. are submerged in the excitement of the
have wished me to remain a chronicler of youth forever. There would be something kinda pathetic about it after a while.’
Brightness Falls is McInerney‘s ‘farewell to the 805‘ and is very much pinned down in terms of time and place. What it categorically isn ’t is an assault on New York’s social mores. ’I like Bonﬁre Of The Vanities certainly,‘ McInerney says, of Tom Wolfe’s definitive (and prophetic) portrayal of 803 New York, ‘but I don’t think the comparison is too helpful. Wolfe is really a satirist and satire wasn’t my primary aim in this book. I‘m more interested in the characters. Having said that. i did bring the culture at large more into the foreground for the first time. The economy and society and that kind
1’ A . of macrocosm are certainly more visible. I suppose
I wanted to wed the domestic novel to the 19th century social novel. But, much as I like satire, ultimately I think we learn more about an era when we view it through three-dimensional
, '1’ characters.’
Jay Mclnemey: 'I don't think anyone would have wished me to remain a chronicleroi youth lorever.’
market, where the ‘emperor‘s got no clothes, but at the moment he’s got a pretty good body.‘
It’s McInerney’s most rounded novel to date, but certainly not as marked a departure as critics have implied. McInerney is still more attuned to the personal than the political. What‘s changed is that now he isn‘t writing about nightclubs. bands. casual sex and Bolivian marching powder. but about board meetings. media lunches. (in)fidelity and expensive wines. ‘lt’s about characters who have actually signed the social contract.‘ McInerney readily admits. ‘The characters in my earlier novels were sort of standing on the threshold of society and saying they weren’t sure they wanted to sign on. My characters have grown older, as I have. My concerns haven’t necessarily changed, and anyway I don‘t think anyone would
One of McInerney‘s characters expresses it more eloquently in the prologue to Brightness Falls: ‘Begin with an individual and you‘ll find that you’ve got nothing but ambiguity and compassion. Ifyou intend violence, stick with the type.‘ ‘I suppose that‘s a little guidepost stuck in early on,’ McInerney admits. ’lt’s actually a take-offof
. something Fitzgerald said: “ifyou begin with an
individual, 1’” tell you a story”. It also seems to me a bit ofa reference to a possible notion of people like Russell and Corrine as smart yuppies. I suppose. We’re all subject to these caricatures, but what’s more interesting is to put yourself into those kind of people‘s shoes.‘
The contrasting characters ofJeff and Russell are, McInerney admits, different aspects of his own personality: the writer possessed with a need to embrace drug culture (something McInerney more than ﬂirted with in the past) and the married man doing his darnedest to stay decent in the face of temptation. Russell doesn't quite succeed but you get the impression he’s the character the 37 year-old happily-married (third time lucky) McInerney would feel most comfortable with. ‘We‘re gonna have Tom Cruise for Russell in the movie,’ he says. ‘No, I‘m kidding...’
Brightness Falls is published by Bloomsbury on 21 May, price £15.99
version of Genesis.
watches from a tree. All very Freudian.
Fratricide and fornication
‘l’ll buy a copy if you can promise me there are sex dreams in it.’ Having heard Howard Jacobson reading from his latest novel, The Very Model of a Man, the potential purchaser was concerned that the book’s subject provided few opportunities for the author’s customary bonk-and-lrolic scenes. After all, this being the story oi
, Cain and Abel, there would appearto
be only four characters: Adam, Eve and the lratricidal siblings, although God and a couple of angels also put in an appearance.
Jacobson twists the tale, however, by placing Cain in the sophisticated and decadent city of Babel (yes, that Babel), following a centuries-long sojourn east of Eden in the land of Nod.
Howard Jacobson: ‘I like thinking onthe perversity of the first and greatest of all creative minds.‘
The first man born of woman, and first murderer, naturally commands a rich and powerful audience as a professional storyteller, enabling a host of other characters to spill from Jacobson’s typewriter while Cain recounts a decidedly unauthorised
‘li you take the story on, just as it is, before you colour it with your own view of things, it is extremely vexatious about sex,’ says Jacobson. ‘We want to believe thatthere is such a thing as good, harmonious sex, then we have the first great story saying that sex is so problematic; it wasn’t what God seemed to want from us.’ To bolster his own ideas on the subject, in the novel Jacobson quotes all manner of Calnites, from rabbis to the Romantic Poets, from Korah - who opposed the trivialities of God’s law, plotted to depose Moses and was swallowed by the desert—to St Augustine who agonised over the fact that his sexual organ rose of its own volition.
‘Cain himself is the child of sin, but which sin?’ asks Jacobson. ‘Some people say the reason Cain goes onto kill his brother is that Cain is the fruit, not of Adam's intercourse with Eve, but of the Serpent's.’ To add to the complexities, Jacobson’s tale has Cain excluded from his brother's birth by being tied up like an animal and describes Eve doting on God while Cain
* In consequence Cain, it must be said,
is not a happy camper.
Neither is God, whose role in the novel, as the title implies, is justas important as Cain's. ‘You have to think of him as this isolated figure with no one to talk to,’ says Jacobson. 1 love the idea of the Jewish God who is angry every day. l was able to model God on my wife, because she’s Australian and she is angry every day. I enjoy trying to think about what it would be like if you’d set creation in motion . . . how you would itch to destroy it; I like thinking on the perversity of the first and greatest of all creative minds.’
While there are no sex dreams, The Very Model of a Man is certainly a perverse novel, and the lascivious fan is unlikely to have been disappointed. It the subject were not so immense, Jacobson would be open to accusations of bombast, but despite knowing Abel’s end, I, for one, wanted to find out exactly how he would meet it. (Thom ledin)
The Very Model of a Man is published by Viking at £14.99.
l 54 The List 22 May - 4 June 1992