American Anxiety

Jay McInerney, Bright, Precious Days

Bloomsbury, 416pp, £18.99, ISBN 9781408876589

reviewed by Andre van Loon

‘You never see The Donald at the kind of parties I go to!’ – Jay McInerney

Bright, Precious Days is Jay McInerney’s latest Manhattan novel, a glitzy tale of well-to-do New Yorkers who attend dinner parties and charity events but go to bed illicitly or ignored, riddled with anxiety. While writing the novel, McInerney thought of naming it Thin City, and one sees why instantly. Few of the writers, editors, models, socialites and financiers inhabiting his rarefied universe eat anything resembling a meal; at one point, a group of women order salads and then bore the waiter by telling him all they don’t want in them. Of course, this is still McInerney, whose fantastic debut Bright Lights, Big City (1984) chronicled a young man’s first taste of boozed-up, cocaine-rife Manhattan (the film with Michael J. Fox is a must-see). And so, there is plenty of sex (especially of the extramarital kind) and drugs (meth replacing cocaine), and some characters even smoke, but eating is out.

Essentially, the novel allows McInerney to return to his well-established literary obsessions: the relationship between erotic and true love – even his best-behaved protagonists seem to be tempted, texting their lovers under their partners’ noses – and the ideas of youth, beauty and truth. Despite the author’s fascination with ever-new Manhattan, in fact he is a remarkably ‘old’ author. His literary sensibility is a mixture of F. Scott Fitzgerald and poets like John Donne and Andrew Marvell, the latter of whom wrote in ‘To His Coy Mistress’:

Now let us sport us while we may,
And now, like amorous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour
Than languish in his slow-chapped power.

No one is happy for long in McInerney’s world; most are seduced by those infernal bright lights, and all seem driven by the idea of their next sexual conquest. Plus ça change.

Delightfully, this is the fourth time the author focuses on Russell and Corrine Calloway, after his best novel to date, Brightness Falls (1992), the slightly more wooden The Good Life (2006) and the emotionally gutting short story ‘Smoke’ (2009). The Calloways are the perfect McInerney couple: fools in love who met in college, romantics in a city of money, imperfect idealists. We’ve seen them idolised and yet distrusted by their friends, react to 9/11 and betray each other, their marriage tested by the twin forces of the 2008 financial crisis and extramarital attraction. The current novel relates their inner turmoil to the wider world, their older but none-the-wiser sensibilities implicitly linked to the boom-and-bust cycle of American capitalism.

The novel’s opening mythologises Manhattan yet also points to disillusionment:

Once, not so very long ago, young men and women had come to the city because they loved books, because they wanted to write novels or short stories or even poems, or because they wanted to be associated with the production and distribution of those artifacts and with the people who created them.

Now, we learn, power and money have triumphed in the place where Hemingway punched O’Hara, Ginsberg seduced Kerouac, and aspiring novelists smoked cigarettes in cafes while reciting Dylan Thomas. Modern Manhattan isn’t literary or even particularly artistic. Mammon is everything, and the moneymen don’t much care to go home from their stock-filled screens to craft the next American novel. McInerney is too polite and refined to say so, but there is real (if faintly ridiculous) despair here: what kind of world, he implies, banishes its artists to live in places like Harlem, for goodness’ sake? ‘Manhattan was the shining island of letters’ – the past tense is placed perfectly. The more we read, the further we depart from the literary ideal of Manhattan.

However, there is something grimly amusing about all of this. We witness Russell’s doubts about his wife’s affections and sympathise with Corrinne’s realisation they haven’t slept together in months while wishing both of them to be happy and contented. And yet, their near-existential distaste for all of New York’s boroughs other than Manhattan is, ultimately, unbearably smug. On the one hand, McInerney is far too clever and observant not to realise that his idealised couple leads an enviable, gilded life. Furthermore, he can be a great ironist, skewering the vanities and follies of people who can give away thousands of dollars at a charity dinner, only because someone they once slept with is there. He loves his Manhattanites, arrogant and self-regarding though they can be, because, despite it all, they have their own emotional dark nights of the soul.

And yet, they also seem limited and self-pitying. It is painful to write so, because the Calloways were so beautiful and warm in the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s. So what changed? This brings us to the crisis faced by McInerney and other American novelists. Many of them haven’t been shy about wanting to write the Great American Novel, a grand and laudable ambition. McInerney captured the 1980s in his splendid debut, and tried to do the same with 9/11 in The Good Life and now the 2008 financial crisis in this latest novel. And yet, there is something wilful and misguided about ignoring a much more urgent American problem: the subsequent rise of the Tea Party, profound social divisions and Donald J. Trump.

Certainly, McInerney has strong opinions about Trump, commenting in a recent interview that the man wasn’t at any of the Manhattan parties he attended. Trump is too brash, too obnoxious, too vulgar. Of course, McInerney is far from alone in thinking so, but Trump’s recent election, and the longer-running anger and despair of the people who voted for him, effectively hole McInerney’s future as an American novelist below the line. Even though Bright, Precious Days is well-accomplished, great fun and often deeply moving, there is little to doubt its limited appeal in Trump country – which, to be clear, pre-existed the 2016 election by many years. American anxiety has moved on, leaving McInerney behind.