Sunday, August 7, 2016

Middle-Aged Malaise

There’s a moment in Jay McInerney’s new novel, “Bright, Precious Days” (Knopf), when one of its principals, a book editor in his early fifties, comes to feel that he is a failure: “How was it that after working so hard and by many measures succeeding and even excelling in his chosen field, he couldn’t afford to save this house that meant so much to his family? Their neighbors seemed to manage, thousands of people no smarter than he was—less so, most of them—except perhaps in their understanding of the mechanics of acquisition.”

“Bright, Precious Days” forms a trilogy that began with “Brightness Falls” (1992), McInerney’s most accomplished and ambitious novel, and continued with “The Good Life” (2006). The three books revolve around Russell and Corrine Calloway, an attractive couple whose lives appear to be very nearly charmed. But the Calloways are restless types who have the misfortune of living on a certain “skinny island” where affluent professionals like them feel comparatively poor. In “Brightness Falls,” Russell became caught up in the leveraged buyout frenzy of the nineteen-eighties and recklessly attempted to buy the publishing company where he worked. “The Good Life” picked up the Calloways’ story fourteen years later, around the time of 9/11, when Corrine became involved with a man she met while volunteering at Ground Zero.

The new book, like its predecessors, is set against a major historical event—in this case, the financial crisis of 2008. The Calloways are still together. Russell now heads a small, independent publishing house with a focus on literary fiction. He yearns to make the company more profitable, but his big move in that direction backfires, humiliatingly. In the course of the novel, Russell, once brash and exuberant, is brought so low that, when Corrine spots him unexpectedly one day, she is thrown by “his slumped comportment, his slack demeanor, even by the gray in his hair. . . . He looked like one of those exhausted souls she saw every day on the subway, men she imagined stuck in jobs they hated, going home to wives they didn’t love.”

The final touch in this portrait of middle-aged malaise comes when Russell takes part in a ceremonial softball game in the Hamptons. A natural athlete, he sees the media-saturated event as a chance to redeem himself before the glitterati, if only for the duration of the game. But Russell plays badly, flubbing a key catch and allowing two decisive runs. When Corrine tries to cheer him up, Russell tells her not to bother:
“That was possibly the most mortifying moment of my adult life,” he added. 
“Oh, come on, it’s just a game.” 
“No, it’s not. It’s never just a game.” 
Nobody has a more exquisite appreciation than McInerney of the morbid, hypervigilant sensitivity we tend to harbor about our place in the world, especially when we’re feeling down.

Russell’s crisis of confidence coincides with Corrine’s renewed involvement with her attentive—and rich—love interest from “The Good Life.” (Though Russell has been guilty in the earlier books of his own indiscretions, he has grown too tired, or dejected, to bother with infidelity.) The contrast between these two story lines, and the picture that emerges of a marriage that seems both more stable and lonelier than it has ever been, is quietly affecting. The secret romantic longings and professional disappointments of people like the Calloways, who spend summers in the Hamptons and live in a Tribeca loft (albeit a rent-stabilized one), might seem too frivolous to be placed at the foreground of a novel, let alone three. But McInerney rejects satire’s self-protective distancing as surely as he resists its flattening effect on characterization; in tone, “Bright, Precious Days” is mellow, earnest, almost elegiac. It is intelligent, and knowing in its depiction of certain segments of New York (especially the world of publishing), but, unlike his best-known novels, it’s rarely dazzling.

That an author famous for slick, stylish evocation of drug-addled youth has evolved into a restrained, almost sombre chronicler of professional-class ennui may seem surprising. “Bright, Precious Days” is a far cry from “Bright Lights, Big City,” the novel that made McInerney an instant celebrity in 1984, at the age of twenty-nine. But, underneath the glamour and flash of his subject matter, he has always been a more committed psychological novelist than his reputation suggests.

Even “Bright Lights,” that most giddily evocative of eighties novels, isn’t really a period piece. It’s a highly disciplined work of fiction that happens to capture its period. That’s why it has aged better than the Brat Pack titles it’s typically associated with. Unlike some of those books, “Bright Lights” relies far less on the timeliness of its material than on the energy of its prose:
The night has already turned on that imperceptible pivot where two a.m. changes to six a.m. . . . Somewhere back there you could have cut your losses, but you rode past that moment on a comet trail of white powder and now you are trying to hang on to the rush. Your brain at this moment is composed of brigades of tiny Bolivian soldiers. They are tired and muddy from their long walk through the night. There are holes in their boots and they are hungry. They need to be fed.
McInerney maintains this brisk, moody comedy for the next hundred and eighty pages, as his unnamed narrator unravels in a bender.

The real drama of “Bright Lights” is not sociological. The narrator, however blitzed, thinks of himself as being, really, “the kind of guy who wakes up early on Sunday morning and steps out to cop the Times and croissants. Who might take a cue from the Arts and Leisure section and decide to check out an exhibition—costumes of the Hapsburg Court at the Met, say, or Japanese lacquerware of the Muromachi period at the Asia Society.” The disconnect between the narrator’s life and his almost comically staid vision of it is at the heart of the book. Why, McInerney earnestly wants to know, has this man lost his upper-middle-class bearings—why is he at a trashy night club in the middle of the night, chatting up a woman whose “voice is like the New Jersey State Anthem played through an electric shaver,” instead of living wholesomely and finding a nice girl (an editorial assistant, maybe, or a graduate student at an Ivy League school) to take to those exhibitions he imagines himself attending?

If this buttoned-up vision of the good life isn’t entirely convincing, neither is the answer McInerney offers—that the narrator is reeling from a family tragedy he hasn’t properly dealt with. The oversimplicity of this diagnosis wasn’t lost on McInerney, who has spent most of his career returning to the same questions, growing increasingly sophisticated in his attempts to understand the allure of self-destruction and the compromises required to support a sustainable degree of happiness for ambitious, intelligent (and relatively affluent) people.

by Adelle Waldman, New Yorker | Read more:
Image: Goodreads