Sunday, March 2, 2008

Bright Lights, Big City, by Jay McInerney

jay mcinerney bright lights big city

You have just finished reading Bright Lights, Big City and what strikes you the most about the novel is not the parlour trick second-person narration (which you have all too obviously adopted in composing your thoughts on the novel) nor even the glamour and raciness of the slice of life you just consumed, but rather the geographic dynamics of the novel, particularly with regard to a Midwest/NY dyad integral to the plot and the personality of the novel. You realize that this line of thought is merely a consistent preoccupation with you, almost independent of what you read, but you also know that there is something definite to your thoughts, that there is a reality to your sense of a strong Midwestern presence in the novel.

Bright Lights does, of course, have an actual Midwestern presence—the protagonist's wife is from Kansas City, and he had been in a sort of sojourn there, working as a reporter before he moved to the City. But you feel there is more to it than that. Often read, as is a great deal of literature set in New York, as an insider's depiction of the city and its culture (or a segment thereof), the strangeness of New York, the alienness of it to the protagonist (and to a subtler extent, to the narrator) is often ignored. But more than that, what is most defining about the novel is the instability of the constant effort, displayed by nearly all characters you encounter, to displace this alien quality onto another. No one in the novel is definably a New Yorker, yet everyone is one in relation to someone else; everyone is more a New Yorker than their neighbor, co-worker, or friend.

The title gives it away—"Bright Lights, Big City" is an outsider's view of New York, but it is also the reaction New Yorkers ascribe to those emigrants fresh to New York. Derived from an old blues standard by Jimmy Reed, we see the meaning of the title quite clearly in the song's lyrics:

Bright lights, big city
Gone to my baby's head
Bright lights, big city
Gone to my baby's head
I still love you baby
Cause you don't know what it's all about

Bright lights, big city
Gone to my baby's head
Bright lights, big city
Gone to my baby's head

Although the singer is the one disoriented by his lover's actions, the bright lights have gone to her head—the disorientation is displaced. While this parallels the protagonist's experience (and psychological defenses) neatly and exactly, it is also the precise model of the novel's own narrative strategies. The second-person narration (which you really enjoyed) is an overt strategy of displacement, although not in the terms one would assume.

The second-person ploy is so un-coy, so (purposely) unconvincing in its effort to displace what are clearly very personal experiences onto you-the-reader that its real effect is not so much to separate the sentiments and the plot from an identification with the author, but to induce you to read the novel as if it were written in free indirect discourse, despite the pronouns. The displacement achieved by the second-person narration is indistinct from that which Austen achieves in Mansfield Park—you are given the sense that the author is wiser than his or her protagonist, but only by a bit, only enough for a limited evaluation of their actions and emotions. This often-vanishing margin of omniscience is, of course, captivating, taking you close enough to the characters to feel with them, to allow you to project your feelings onto them, but far enough away that you don't need to feel their sentiments projected onto you. You can see yourself in Fanny Price, but you never need to see Fanny in you. Similarly, because of the stylistic distantiation integral to modernist works playing with consciousness (e.g. Portrait, Sound and Fury) you do not need to see Quentin's or Stephen's foibles in yourself, but you can see your own nobility, pathos or intelligence in them.

What free indirect discourse and modernist stylization create is the grounds for controlling the circulation of identity that is a constituent part of the reading experience. Their particular conceits establish the framework for a particular kind of voyeurism. The second-person narration of Bright Lights, Big City establishes a similar circulation of identity, but one with a bit less control and with a bit more anxiety. The one-way mirror of free indirect discourse has become intermittently permeable—at times the second-person address is more real than others. Most of the time you are reading the novel indifferently with regard to pronouns (this is true for most reading, you think), but occasionally, the "you" strikes you as more direct. The smoothness of the narration is disrupted, and you notice the pronouns as something strange, disorienting. For that moment, you experience the novel as an exercise in displacement and the narrative displacement feels like your own actions as a reader.

This is not all that distinct from your experience as a person who has lived in, or at least in the orbit of, New York. Most of the time, you live with careful attention to your identity as a New Yorker, but indifferently to the appropriate pronoun that identity might take. Are you truly assertive to use the first-person pronoun when referring to New York in all situations? Don't you occasionally slip into the third person—"New Yorkers do x or think y"—perhaps when you feel tentative before someone who may have a stronger claim on New Yorker-ness or, conversely, who has a more solid claim on a non-New York identity. Describing to someone who is definitively not a New Yorker, don't you feel somewhat awkward simply assuming the first-person position in relation to the City? You can't always say "we do x or think y," can you? Although you do, sometimes, especially when in the company of others whose claim to New Yorker-ness is approximately equivalent with your own—you have all moved there after college or you have all gone to college there and are visiting once more, or you have all lived there for a time before college.

New Yorker-ness, therefore, is something you can achieve or perform only in a setting of equality, or approximate equality; you can only be a New Yorker without being conscious of it when you are among others who have equivalent claims to New Yorker-ness. When you are in a position of holding a greater claim of New Yorker-ness (say, you're riding the subway with someone visiting for a weekend from New Haven) or when you are in a position of holding a lesser claim to New Yorker-ness (say, you're talking to a Columbia grad who now lives in Soho, while you just moved there after college and live in Queens), you are made equally conscious of the claim you have in reality, and that consciousness disrupts your performance of simple identity as an "I/we" equivalent to "New Yorker."

The anxiety this disruption produces is managed by circulation—rather than engineer or accept an intense and universal hierarchy of New Yorker-ness, you buy into a system wherein everyone understands and acts as an "I" in constant motion, an "I" that waxes and wanes in New Yorker-ness depending on your present location in the city (Harlem? Chinatown? Financial District?) and your present company (bankers? writers? hipsters?). Your identity as a New Yorker is multivariate, not linear; you calibrate your own identity not by bracketing yourself with someone who is more and someone who is less a New Yorker than yourself, but by measuring yourself against your immediate environment, your companions, your past, your occupation, your clothes and your interests. The bar-hopping scene central to Bright Lights is simply the socio-physical manifestation of this circulatory identity.

This process is, of course, not very different from how you perform, among other things, gender or nationality. Or at least it isn't now, in your specific age range, class, and educational background. Although I think it is changing, identity is still largely a bracketing process, linear and hierarchical, non-circulatory. And here is where I see the Midwestern influence on McInerney's novel. There are pockets of simple bracketing, mostly related to the protagonist's ex-wife, Amanda, from Kansas City. These come together in a simple object present in Amanda's childhood home—a souvenir Statue of Liberty, a token which incontrovertibly establishes a binary identity of New Yorker/non-New Yorker, which in this instance (and, I would argue, in most instances) is re-written as New Yorker/Midwesterner. In the novel, Midwestern identity—outsider identity—is focused in that souvenir. "It's my mother all over," Amanda says of it, already trying to displace her own Midwesternness onto her mother.

Her efforts to deracinate herself are integrated into her modeling career—she is notably referred to as "plastic," not in the sense of "artificial" (although she is that), but in the sense of being able to assume any posture—"temptress, businesswoman, girl next door," as one designer says. As she scales the ladder of couture success, she does so not by forming an identity, but by shedding it, leaving behind the Midwest but not joining New York. But without this conversion, the novel leaves the Midwest as a simple opposite to New York, an inert dichotomy. It is there, briefly, but inactive.

However, its presence is critical, an outlet to prevent the novel from wallowing in a bath of pure New Yorker solipsism, just as the second-person narration is not really functional but is still necessary to diffuse the intensity and anxiety of the very personal plot and emotions.

There is, of course, the famous New Yorker cover which illustrates this necessary insignificance perfectly:Solipsism is incoherent, even for a New Yorker, and thus you must have the small, homogeneous, greenish patches to achieve a proper view of your city (or at least part of it). Although New Yorker-ness is circulatory, it is yet dependent on the assumption that there is someone out there to look at New York, someone who will see it and admire the bright lights, big city, and be a little dazed.

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