Fiction – hardcover; Bloomsbury; 240 pages; 1992.
What a joy this Bloomsbury classic proved to be. First published in 1985, I’d long written Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City off as a “drugs novel” — but how wrong could I be? Yes, there’s a little bit of cocaine use in it, but this is a brilliant and memorable novel about one of my favourite subjects in fiction: journalism. And, like many books of that ilk, it’s essentially a black comedy — and one that felt very close to my heart.
Going off the rails
The story revolves around a young man living a precarious existence in New York in the 1980s. He’s been dumped by his wife Amanda, a beautiful (and now famous) model, but is keeping this fact secret from his colleagues and family. By day he works in the fact-checking department of a prestigious magazine, by night he’s out clubbing with his friend Tad and trying to “lose himself” in drugs and (possibly) sexual encounters of the one-night stand kind.
The entire narrative is told in the second person employing a voice that is by turns self-deprecating and pathetic. For most of the time, he knows he’s pushing his luck — he often turns up late for work, struggles to carry out his work properly and is constantly harangued by his boss, the impossible-to-please Clara, aka Clingfast — but he also feels slightly aggrieved that he’s been passed over for promotion and isn’t able to use the full range of his creative talents in the (lowly) Department of Factual Verification.
When he’s given an article to check about the French election close to deadline you know things aren’t going to pan out well:
There is no way you will be able to get everything in this article verified, and also there is no graceful way to admit failure. You are going to have to hope that the writer got some of it straight the first time, and that Clingfast doesn’t go through the proofs with her usual razor-tooth comb.
I think it’s this aspect of the book that especially appealed to me. I’ve done my fair share of fact-checking for magazines and it’s not always an easy task — even with the internet at my disposal. But this is the 1980s. There is no internet, no smartphones. Instead there are “thousands of reference books on the walls” , “skeins of microfilm” and “transcontinental telephone cables”. For our poor old narrator, who somehow exaggerated his ability to speak French on his resume, there are dozens of phone calls to make to Paris to verify certain facts. Needless to say he has to “fudge it” a little.
At a little after ten, you put the proofs on Clara’s desk. It would at least be a relief if you could tell yourself that this was your best shot. You feel like a student who is handing in a term paper that is part plagiarism, part nonsense and half finished. You have scoped out and fixed a number of colossal blunders, which serves only to make you more aware of the suspect nature of everything you haven’t verified. The writer was counting on the Verification Department to give authority to his sly observations and insidious generalisations. This is not cricket on his part, but it is your job that is on the line. There has only been one printed retraction in the magazine’s history and the verificationist responsible for the error was immediately farmed out to Advertising.
It is, of course, all down hill from there…
Heartbreaking reasons for a life falling apart at the seams
Most of the lightning-paced narrative comprises a series of set pieces, most of which are very funny indeed, but the story is not all humour and lightness. Underpinning our narrator lurching from one crisis to the next are deeper issues relating to our need to fit in, to be accepted by our peers and society as a whole without fear of judgement. It’s also a good examination of how important it is to find meaningfulness in our work, play and relationships.
As much as it would appear that our narrator goes off the rails because his beautiful, social-climbing wife ran off with someone else (a metaphor for shallowness if ever there was one), there’s more going on than one might initially expect. As the story wends its way towards what looks like an inevitable conclusion we discover just why his life is crumbling all around him — and it’s heartbreaking.
Yes, this is a book set in New York in the 1980s, but forget any reviews you might have seen which paint Bright Lights, Big City as a portrait of excess or rich people doing bad things. This is a black comedy about a 20-something trying to find his way in the world, not always making the right decisions and paying the price along the way. There are a lot of painful realisations in Bright Lights, Big City, all rounded out by a redemptive, satisfying ending. I’ve read a lot of great novels this year, but this one has to be up there with the best.