Bright Lights, Big City: Thoughts on the Literary Brat Pack
SPOILERS: If you haven’t read Less Than Zero, American Psycho, Imperial Bedrooms or Bright Lights, Big City and would like to do so in the future, it’s probably not a great idea to read this. BLBC in particular has an ending quite capable of being spoiled by the heavy quoting that follows.
Like, it seems, many of the critics, I was distinctly unsure what to make of Imperial Bedrooms, Bret Easton Ellis’s first novel in 5 years and sequel to his scorching, iridescent debut Less Than Zero (both, incidentally, are named after Elvis Costello albums) . In the end it took not a rereading of Less Than Zero, or indeed an evening at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in the company of Ellis and hundreds of his fans, but an encounter with another work of the 1980s “literary brat pack” before I could truly bring it into focus.
Last night I finished Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney. I only picked it up because it was £2 in FOPP, and I nearly didn’t do that, only spotting the stack behind the counter once I had picked up a few other thing and gone to pay for them. “Oh, chuck in a copy of that,” I said, gesturing toward the pile of yellow paperbacks behind the cashier. All things considered I’m rather glad I did. I walked a few doors up to my favourite cafe in Nottingham and started to read.
Books that demand you stay up late to finish them are rare; books that leave you both moved and a little out of breath after their last chapter are truly special, and ones that leave you feeling like you’ve learned something about yourself in the process of reading it deserve praise and close examination in equal measure.
I read a lot of Bret Easton Ellis in June, cramming before going to see him speak at the London Literature Festival. (As an aside, the fact that an author can sell 900 seats and inspire rock-star-like signing queues is pleasing in itself, I suppose.) What emerges from such an immersive crash course, powering through three novels inside a couple of weeks, is a set of common characteristics that are borne out in the author; Ellis in person is cynical, evasive and difficult to read. It is nigh-on impossible to fathom when, if ever, he means what he says, every remark loaded with ambiguity.
Thus overdosed on cynicism, psychologically damaged characters and their barbed quips, it is perhaps not that surprising that I latched onto Bright Lights, Big City as something of a refreshing change. Another book about a lonely male hero wandering the concrete jungle of Manhattan seemed to be the last thing I needed (other reading this year has included Don DeLillo’s America and Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities) but McInerney takes a different tack to his fellow angry young American males. The crucial difference between the unnamed protagonist of BLBC and almost every Ellis (or Wolfe, DeLillo…) character is that he undergoes a transformation of a positive nature. Like a Victorian roman-a-clef, there is a moral compass here, a clear north-point towards which he takes a sudden turn.
While Ellis characters tell us that taking shedloads of cocaine and dancing all night isn’t a terribly good idea, there aren’t any consequences; all Imperial Bedrooms proves is that they’re all still alive, reasonably well and cavorting around in a consequence-free Hollywood playground. No amount of drinking, drugging, Porsche-crashing or dodgy porn seems to actually play out in their characters (although they’re all so damaged that it’s hard to tell what’s a contributory factor and what’s a symptom). They never grow up. McInerney’s protagonist, on the other hand, does exactly that in a spectacular, violent, distressing but ultimately moving fashion.
Ellis thrives on the ambiguity of his public persona, on blurring the line between the autobiographical and the imaginary. Camden is clearly Bennington, the leafy New England liberal arts college where Ellis (not to mention Donna Tartt) found his source material. In London he threw around exactly the set of cultural references that Imperial Bedrooms is littered with; he seems incapable, or unwilling, to write characters who don’t inhabit his world to a significant degree. The greatest example of this is Lunar Park, where Ellis writes a protagonist called “Bret Easton Ellis”, and an antagonist called Clayton (a Less Than Zero reference) who dresses up as Patrick Bateman. He toys with the notion of truth and fiction, too. The question is always present in American Psycho; Bateman’s imagination runs wild and Ellis blurs the definition of truth within its fictive space. Such is the ambivalence, the apathy of the characters that surround Bateman that his bloodthirsty acts may as well not have happened, so little impact do they have on his surroundings. This is the existential message we are supposed to take from American Psycho: if something may as well not have happened, did it happen at all? Come Lunar Park he has progressed to writing about possessed cuddly toys and haunted houses, further blurring the lines between reality, imagination, desire and daydream.
(Not to say that McInerney is immune to such semiautobiographical fudging; the unnamed progatonist of BLBC is a fact checker at a renowned magazine; McInerney worked in just such a role at The New Yorker.)
Ellis’s innate cynicism makes his writing what it is, and in the right mood one can revel in it. It becomes clear upon hearing Ellis discuss Imperial Bedrooms that the “emotional torpor” (as GQ put it) is supposed to be there, a statement about the way we live. The haziness, the half-remembered dreamland through which we float with Ellis is itself a “way of seeing”. Another reviewer suggests that
The brilliance of “Less Than Zero” was in Ellis’ control and economy as a writer. He never let Clay (or any character) say too much, think too much or feel anything at all.
We have to credit Ellis with doing this deliberately. It is a cop out to resort to Lionel Shriver’s dismissive criticisms (to which I cannot link because they were in The Times, good old News International…) of his prose. Of course it’s meant to be that way, and there is considerable artistry therein. All the same, his style may have taken him up something of a narrative cul-de-sac as far as a sequel is concerned. Eichenberger again:
In a way, Ellis is trapped. His characters are incapable of growth. They cannot credibly find Jesus or even see a skilled psychologist or take the right medication to fend off despair. They are bound to be American psychos.
“I can suddenly see my reflection in a mirror in the corner of the bedroom,” Clay confides, “an old-looking teenager.”
But a teenager nevertheless, in mind and spirit if not quite in body, destined to remain unchanged, undeveloped, unlikable and unloved.
Writing a sequel set 20-odd years after his first novel has only made it more apparent that Bret Easton Ellis protagonists are incapable of change. That McInerney’s hero is bound to change, incapable of not being transformed by the events that befall him, makes him appealling. More than that, it makes me want to believe it, want to make the world the kind of place where that transformation could take place, ought to take place.
McInerney’s writing in the second person, rare if not unique in the modern American canon, helps the reader to identify in this way; no-one has ever wanted to be Clay or Patrick Bateman, but the unnamed protagonist of BLBC is someone in whom we don’t mind seeing a little of ourselves; flawed, but salvageable, not yet beyond salvation as Ellis’s antiheroes surely are. The consistent use of the second person reinforces this, sentence after sentence. “You” do this, “you” do that, it’s impossible not to imagine being this person.
Does this mean I don’t like Bret Ellis as much as I thought I did? Or just that I remain sufficiently a romantic to be swept up by a good ending, even one as contrived as McInerney’s bread-for-sunglasses moment.
As you turn, what is left of your olfactory equipment sends a message to your brain: fresh bread. Somewhere they are baking bread. You can smell it, even through the nose-bleed. You see bakery trucks loading in front of a building on the next block. You watch as bags of rolls are carried out onto the loading dock by a man with tattooed forearms. This man is already at work so that normal people can have fresh bread for their morning tables. The righteous people who sleep at night and eat eggs for breakfast.
The juxtaposition of our protagonist with the sudden shock of (what he would no doubt refer to as) normalcy is jarring. We are woken from the dreamscape of coke, vodka and insomnia by the intrusion of routine, of quotidian patterns of the “real” world, where people get up in the mornign and go to bed at night. That this is such a shock, that he is so far out of sync with it, knocks our protagonist back physically. He experiences “such a rush of tenderness and pity” that he has to cling to the street furniture to keep from falling.
After an anecdote about his mother baking bread, the bargain is struck.
‘Bread.’ This is what you say to him, although you meant to say something more.
‘What was your first clue?’ he says. He is a man who has served his country, you think, a man with a family somewhere outside this city.
‘Could I have some? A roll or something?’
‘Get outa here.’
‘I’ll trade you my sunglasses,’ you say. You take off your shades and hand them up to him. ‘Ray-Bans. I lost the case.’ He tries them on, shakes his head a few times and then takes them off. He folds the glasse and puts them in his shirt pocket.
‘You’re crazy,’ he say. Then he looks back into the warehouse. He picks up a bag of hard rolls and throws it at your feet.
You get down on your knees and tear open the bag. The smell of warm dough envelops you. The first bite sticks in your throat and you almost gag. You will have to go slowly. You will have to learn everything all over again.
It is a moment of joyous redemption, the turning point in this young man’s life. The realisation of how far he has strayed from the path towards which his conscience pulls him strikes all at once and reduces him to kneeling.
The description here is thick with symbolism. The simple, fresh, unadorned bread stands as a symbol of purity, simplicity, rebirth, of life cycles, rising. Our protagonist engages in a private Eucharist. It is, of course, Sunday morning. He kneels, breaks bread. Wandering the moral desert of Manhattan, he has struck his own peculiar desert-bargain not with the devil but with the Christ whose body the bread represents, a declaration that he will no longer wander, no longer flee but tether himself instead to the good life, the real world.
The bread delivery man has symbolic value too. The tattoos suggest to the protagonist that he has served his country, and juxtaposed next to his own self-serving, self-pitying outlook, the bread man seems to be everything he isn’t. Bread man has a “family outside the city”, and coupled with the anecdote about the protagonist’s mother baking sends a powerful reminder to the reader; at the heart of this redemptive moment is a deep regret about the way he dealt with his father’s death and a wish not to repeat this mistake again now that his brother has come to find him.
He has a soul and a conscience, and, unlike Patrick Bateman or Clay, and he’s not too emotionally stunted to acknowledge this. In the end, perhaps it comes down to world views. Bret Ellis would have us believe that we are beyond salvation, but Jay McInerney leaves us at least a sliver of hope for redemption.