Wendy Chard's Reviews > Bright Lights, Big City

Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney
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's review
Oct 10, 2011

it was amazing
Read in April, 2010

The innovative use of second person narrative in Bright Lights, Big City is one of several literary traits McInerney utilises in order to represent the protagonist’s failure to locate himself within a personal identity. By calling the protagonist “you” and, in effect, projecting the identity crisis of the protagonist directly onto the reader, McInerney creates a character who has divorced identity from self, and does not see the former as a reasonable manifestation of the latter.

The narrator’s half-delusional impression of who he is seems to be more of a projection of what he would like to be than a deeper understanding of the multi-layered ‘self’ that he promotes. Despite this, the narrator adopts an unfounded sense of superiority over his fellow clubbers, imagining himself to be somehow ‘better’ than them, deep down: an undiscovered writer, perhaps, or an artist, or a genius. This alter-ego is considered by the narrator to be his hidden, yet more fundamentally ‘true’, self, and he constructs this ‘true’ self through a series of abstract idealisations. From this we can interpret that he has no real concept of what he wants, and instead he has a blurry snapshot to represent the things that he feels he should be aiming for. The trouble is that this image does not mesh with the life that he is currently living, and he cannot seem to reconcile the differences between the person that he is, and the person that he wants to be.

In a similar way, the narrator draws a natural comparison between himself and the character of his wild party-going friend, Tad Allagash, exemplifying his confliction over the image of self that he really wants to convey. Within the space of four pages, Tad Allagash is both revered and rebuffed by the narrator, who follows a description of Allagash with the words: “You want to be like that”, and then characteristically contradicts himself two pages later with the admission that “You hate Tad Allagash”. This change of opinion is swift, but not surprising. The narrator, as stated, struggles with the active construction of identity, and Allagash, to a large extent, seems to represent the polar opposite of the professional New Yorker persona that the narrator wishes to adopt. In reality, the trouble is that he does not belong to either persona, and so he cannot help but swing between the two images of social idealism in the hopes that one might end up formulating a role in which he feels comfortable. Tad Allagash then, just like the Sunday-morning Times reader, is representative of a socially-constructed stereotype of the New York experience. He is living his life on the edge of the night, personifying the glamorous image of the New York rock and roll scene with his casual abandon and apparent lack of employment or familial commitments. The protagonist is “awed by [Allagash’s] strict refusal to acknowledge any goal higher than the pursuit of pleasure,” and he romanticises his friend’s easy-going nature, and his ability to slip through life, moving from party to party without fear of judgement or the crippling nature of personal anxiety.

Allagash is ‘cool’, and is deliberately constructed in this way as an ideal representation of the protagonist himself. The protagonist, as such, recognises Allagash as “either your best self, or your worst self”, and is apparently unwilling to commit to one if it means an automatic rejection of the other.

The narrator’s inability to belong, or perhaps just commit, to one persona or the other is justified, for the most part, by the text’s representation of his disrupted childhood. The fact that the narrator has been constantly uprooted since childhood indicates that he has grown up without this solid foundation, and that this lack of connection to family and place has left him feeling un-locatable: has left him feeling nameless.

Indeed, throughout the novel there is a sense of momentum which prevents the protagonist from ever having to stand still and face up to the things that he does, or likewise, the things that he feels. He always seems to find himself in places, with no real explanation for how he managed to get there, and his life seems to be made up of endless nights, strung together by a haze of drug-induced escapism, because as long as he keeps going, he won’t have to give any of it too much thought. As well as this, he avoids emotion to such an extent that the revelation of the death of his mother is actually a genuine surprise to the reader, and serves the text as a valuable character-building device, allowing the protagonist ownership of his elusive hidden layer at last. Prior to this revelation, the protagonist quietly avoids contact from his brother throughout the novel, and literally flees when he sees him waiting outside of his apartment. The protagonist has been avoiding all family members since his wife, Amanda, left him, in the hopes that he might not have to tell them, imagining and fearing that he will look a fool in their eyes. The protagonist’s brother, as it turns out, has come to stick a pin in his evasive sibling in an attempt to figure out who he is, once and for all. This is an interesting concept because it leads to a surprising revelation: the revelation of his mother’s passing, and the truth of the effect that this event had upon him.

The sense that the narrator is an ‘outsider’ is also an idea which pervades the entire novel, informing the way in which he approaches the idea of identity. After the revelation of recent trauma, the narrator is finally able to address thoughts of his mother, and this confronting of troubling memory provides the protagonist which a platform from which to voice the problems he has always had, to an unflinching and un-judging audience. “‘Come on,’” says his mother whilst she lies upon her death bed, asking her elusive son to indulge her, “‘What’s to hide?’”.

The protagonist’s confession of identity crisis comes out at the novel’s emotional climax, and the revelation makes sudden sense of the narrative complexities which have been present since the beginning of the text. He recalls the memory, remembering that: “You tried to tell her [. . .] what it was like being you,” ultimately spilling his anxieties to both his dying mother, and to the reader alike. “You described the feeling you’d always had of being misplaced, of always standing to one side of yourself, of watching yourself in the world even as you were being in the world”. Here, the use of second person narrative has created an ironic sense of detachment between reader and narrator, whilst reflecting the experience of the narrator in the experience of the reader. It is as if the reader, too, is standing outside of his or her own life, and failing to recognise it as their own physical manifestation of self.

The meeting with his brother forces the narrator to face up to a personal identity which he has been trying to avoid since long before the novel’s start. In admitting to his status as an ‘outsider’, we are finally able to recognise that this is what he has been all along. His natural adversity to locating himself within a personal identity is born of a lifetime of not fitting in- of ‘not being like the other kids’. From this comes an anxiety over the generally-accepted truth of life as a universal experience. The narrator, despite knowing that he is a person like all other people, cannot quite believe that we are all the same in some fundamental way. He looks at other people, and he ponders:

How do you know that the terrified-looking woman sitting next to you is actually feeling what you would call terror? If you were to step on her foot she would cry out, but how do you know that she would feel what you call pain?

The narrator’s inability to locate himself within an identity seems to sprout from an inability to relate to other people, or to see them as anything other than “robots” that he cannot really be sure of as real people. He refers to this idea as the “ineffability of inner experience”, and once again the narrative construction reflects this idea that it is difficult to understand the world from a point of view that is not our own.

The second person narrative is an effective technique in reflecting the experience of the narrator in the experience of the reader, as he or she progresses through the novel. The narrator’s attempt at social living involves the divorcing of identity from self, and anxiety rises over the idea of constructing an identity to present in society which is a reasonable representation of true self. The narrator, though sure of his own ability to discern what he ‘is not’, cannot seem to give a name to the person that he is. A nameless, rootless outsider, who actively gives his identity to “you”, in an attempt at making his experiences universal.

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