A note: Prompted by the time of year, I dug this out of my drafts folder and finished it. 90% of it was written a while ago, but I smoothed the rough edges and added a little perspective gained with the benefit of time to reflect further. Great book. If anyone has read Brightness Falls and not read The Good Life, they should do so. Read it anyway, even if you haven’t. Hell, read both!
SPOILERS: I’ve done my best to keep this spoiler-light and have deliberately avoided a detailed discussion of the ending for those who haven’t read The Good Life, in the hope that reading this might encourage exactly that. Nevertheless, I can’t guarantee that you won’t pick up some plot points that you would rather not have done.
I am a completist. I don’t deny it. It’s hard to do so to anyone who knows my bookshelves, CD racks or iPod, laden as they are with late-period mediocrities by once-great artists. I once owned every single recorded note Joni Mitchell ever produced, when anyone will tell you that you should stop at Hejira for your own good, thereby saving yourself the best part of a day of enduring her descent into jazzy irrelevance. I did the same thing with Springsteen, although that line is harder to draw, more of a rollercoaster than a one-way ticket. I do it with books, too, ploughing manfully on in the face of the critical gatekeeper’s unheeded cries. “Don’t bother!” they say. “He never bettered the one you’ve already read!” Fie, I say.
The latest beneficiary of this excess of faith in dwindling artistic output is Jay McInerney. McInerney and Bret Easton Ellis are, it seems, irrevocably tied together and, having now read Ellis’s entire oeuvre, it seemed only fair to move on to McInerney. Bonded by more than just the Literary Brat Pack label of the 1980s, the two are apparently good friends. However, whilst Ellis can still stop traffic with the launch of a new novel (I should know, I attended the London leg of the Imperial Bedrooms tour), McInerney seems to me to have drifted into relative obscurity (to the point where I was able to pick up more or less his entire published works for £2 or £3 a pop at my local FOPP) and a wine column for the WSJ. As you may have gathered from a previous entry, I struggle to grasp why McInerney is considered a middle-aged mediocrity whilst Ellis’s every tweet sets the twitterati a-flutter.
Like all New Yorkers, Ellis and McInerney were connected by the events of September 11th 2001. McInerney’s initial response to those events was published at the time by The Guardian, and makes fascinating reading. He visits his friend Bret and they try, and inevitably fail, to make sense of what is unfolding in front of them.
5 years later, McInerney produced a fictionalised response to 9/11 in the form of The Good Life. Nominally a sequel to Brightness Falls, it shares little except a core of characters, and even then there’s plenty of new ones added to the mix. (more…)
I scythed through the crowd and ducked into the warmth of the bookshop, basking in the jet of reheated air from the fans above the sliding plate glass doors, pulling off gloves and stashing them in my satchel.
Picking up books on reputation. Jon McGregor, reasonably cool but accessible. Nabokov because it made you look like you read Russian literature because most people haven’t worked it out yet, and more books set in New York. Don DeLillo, Americana.
I bought books quicker than I could read them then, almost invariably three at a time, more usually from charity shops or the rare, surviving independent secondhand bookshops. There was one just a moment’s walk from my front door, which I passed twice a day. It was stacked with dusty, yellowing paperbacks marked up in pencil and sold by a man who clearly lived above his little kingdom, letting his personal collection spill over into the shop stock. Indeed, were one to come across a book without a price carefully pencilled into the top corner of the first page, it was best not to take it to the counter for fear that it was indeed his; business was usually so poor that the man could hardly refuse an offer of money, but the crestfallen look that bestrode his features sucked what was left of the joy out of the experience for the buyer. This particular browser liked to formulate what I thought of as Bookshop Man Paradox; being a man who ran a bookshop (substitute “ran” for “sat behind the counter reading Calvin, Hobbes and Calvin & Hobbes) it was impossible that such a man had not at least come across Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, yet having done so, it seemed equally impossible that he could not have seen himself reflected in it, become horribly disillusioned and at the very least felt moved to go outside occasionally.
This, however, was the glossy high street alternative. Books piled high, books as commodity, 3 for 2 deals and ambient lighting arranged to a single, nationwide policy distributed in document wallets from an office in Kettering, or Slough, or some such anonymous grey hole. Little cards stuck to the shelf edges bore messages supposedly from the staff, extolling the virtues of particular books in a personal, chatty tone too consistent to have been written by anyone working behind the counter at this place.
I was spending other peoples’ money, an undeserved, guilt-inspired Christmas present voucher. Just killing time.
An hour or so later I was flicking through the first pages of the most accessible of the three tomes that had eventually made their way to the till with me, sat at a table with a view of the doors to the coffee shop. Her lateness was good in a way. I could finish my coffee before she arrived. All the benefit of appearing to have enjoyed it without actually having to do so. This way she wouldn’t see me wince slightly with every mouthful.
Twenty minutes, four text messages later, she arrived. A sudden influx of cold air, swept in from the slushy streets by the swing doors, heralded the event.
Gingerbread latte. Even a pretend coffee snob could look down on that, right? Tall, milky and full of cinnamon, this was what the western world had done to coffee
It was impossible to actually have an awkward silence, and in that sense I was relieved; each potential pause was steamrollered by another thought voiced straightaway without moderation in the purgatorial chamber of the mind as one or other of us, high on caffeine and having come in from the cold, neglected to rein in our narrative tendencies.
Conversation about how terrible the world is nowadays. Reality TV. And, when the girl came round to shoo us out the door at 6pm, another rant. Why don’t coffee shops stay open late? In America… Ice cream parlours… Perhaps if there were places to go, we opined noisily to no-one in particular, obliquely referencing unspecified dark events in our generation’s collective teenage past.
Instinctively I walked her through the beautiful parts of town. The bits lit up in the dark to try (in vain, naturally) to discourage the gatherings of teenagers in pools of ambient light. Even the Winter Gardens were closed, forcing a detour round a high-rise hotel built, it seemed, purely to spite those who wanted to take a more direct route towards the station.
Even before we reached the plexiglass cocoon of the bus station I knew that it would be a stilted farewell.
The doors slid open again and the full extent of the coldest winter since the mid-nineteen-sixties resumed battle with my overcoat. I walked quickly, avoiding eye contact and looking furtively over my shoulder for an unspecified threat.
Coming in, I stamped the snow off my boots and shut the door behind me, easing my shoulder into it to encourage its damp, swollen form back into the frame before locking it and pocketing my keys. I stuck my head around the door of the front room.
After a silent moment’s observation I turned away, peeled off from the back of the standing crowd around the television and backed away slowly. The crescent of figures obscured the flickering glow from the screen, sending jack o’lantern shadows onto the ceiling. Stopping by the kitchen I picked up a glass, filled it at the tap and retreated upstairs. I sat down at my desk and turned on his computer. I looked up at the news.
Salinger was dead.
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. (more…)
In London to hear Bret Easton Ellis discuss Imperial Bedrooms on Tuesday, I took an early train and spent the day.
A wander through Soho and the dubious delights of Carnaby Street led to a veritable treasure of sandwich-making. Thanks for Franks is nestled just off Carnaby St itself (Yelp) and styled like an American diner-cum-deli. It serves the kind of giant, meaty sandiwches that characters in American TV shows eat at their desks, dripping teriyaki sauce and/or Thousand Island dressing everywhere but miraculously not on their clothes or any important documents (Special Agent Anthony DiNozzo, I’m looking at you…). I had the chargrilled chicken, which at £6 wasn’t too bad given the location, and sat outside watching Soho’s wildlife. Highly recommended.
Denmark Street might not be what it once was, but it’s still a pilgrimage I have to make from time to time. There are still gems to be found every now and again, such as the lovely 1969 Gibson EB-0 I played. Can’t afford it at the moment, but someday it’d be a lovely addition to the stable someday.
St George’s Bloomsbury is a pilgrimage of a more traditional sort, one I’ve tried and failed to make a couple of times before. This time I called ahead. Simply the best preserved and most elegant of Nicholas Hawksmoor’s glorious Baroque London churches, it is a treasure. My love of English Baroque churches probably stems from a couple of other examples, Derby Cathedral and Holy Trinity Leeds, but St George’s trumps them both for sheer elegance. The nave is a perfect cube, which seems an unremarkable fact until you think about it for a moment, stood within its geometric simplicity. (more…)