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The Good Life, Jay McInerney, 25/1/06

From: Max Dunbar's Book Reviews
Category: Art
Date: 25 January 2006


The Good Life

Jay McInerney’s new novel finds love among the ruins. By Max Dunbar

In an age of mass punditry tragedies can never be just tragedies and crimes never just crimes. Just days after the atrocities of September 2001, Christian fundamentalist Pat Robertson announced that the fall of the towers and the three thousand dead were God’s just punishment for secularisation of America. On the other side of the pond, Seumus Milne drew a connection with US foreign policy, all but coming out and saying that the bodies under the stone and smoke deserved what had happened to them: ‘It is too much to hope that any but a small minority might make the connection between what has been visited upon them and what their government has been visited upon large parts of the world. But make that connection they must…’ This kind of stuff makes the joke about the New York hot dog seller (‘Who the fuck ordered the two jumbos?’) seem like sophisticated analysis.

From Republicans using images of the towers for blood-drenched election broadcasts, to pseudo-leftists who couldn’t recognise a threat if it literally blew up in their faces, the attacks on America were politicised and symbolised before the rubble had stopped smouldering. So much for the political class. But what about the response of novelists and artists to the defining moment of a generation? We’re supposed to know better, aren’t we? And sure enough, within a week or two the book supplements were full of the reflections of literary men and women at the top of their game, literary men and women who in those weeks just seemed like anyone else, grappling with fear and loathing. Some seemed to think that their craft was finished: as Martin Amis wrote in June 2002: ‘the work in progress had been reduced, overnight, to a blue streak of pitiable babble.’ After all, what’s the point of writing made-up stuff when the real world is suddenly so fucking intense? (Forgetting that fiction is always supposed to be more interesting than reality.) Over time novelists regained their confidence, but the tower’s lost shadows still loomed. Writers who had reassured us throughout the nineties that politics was irrelevant and outdated constantly brought up reflections on 9/11 as a way of showcasing their humanity and quiet moral righteousness.

And so, finally, to Jay McInerney, who in his sequel to Brightness Falls manages to portray a changed land with his idiosyncratic humour and romance. To McInerney’s credit, he refuses to draw instruction from the attacks, or broadcast again what we watched on News 24 for hours. Part two is titled ‘That Autumn,’ and we know what’s happened before turning the page. We know, and instead of explanations there is the constant detail of the human cost of 9/11 that is too often forgotten. Posters of the missing, conversations between firemen and cops and guardsmen and volunteers, the bond traders jumping out of hundred-storey windows, the endless overheard anecdotes of who would have lived or died if they had or hadn’t chosen to make that meeting on that day… it’s all there and McInerney doesn’t let us go for a second. We are there, ash in our nostrils, gasping and reeling from the carnage.

Of course, the real story is not the towers, it is the growing love affair between Corrine Makepeace, the jaded heroine of Brightness Falls, and Luke McGavock, an ex-stockbroker with a cheating wife and a daughter who hits rehab at fourteen. Brightness Falls was the story of Corrine and her husband Russell, a disillusioned editor who gets the idea, in the bull market of the 1980s, to buy out the publishing company he works for. This dream comes to an end with the 1987 stock market crash, and parallels with 2001 are so obvious McInerney doesn’t need to draw them. Now in their forties, Russell and Corrine Calloway are living in a reduced existence with the burden of twins, still trying to sustain their love amidst disaster and temptation.

Like dreams and pets, relationships are only interesting to ourselves: attempts to describe their intricacies to others always seem like egotistical babbling. McInerney is the rule’s exception here. This is what ‘the Jayster’ does best; perhaps no other American writer has the ability to capture human love in its textures and weakness. Like Tom Wolfe without the ego or Bret Easton Ellis with a heart, McInerney draws his pictures with a bottomless well of sympathy. The Good Life isn’t quite as good as its prequel, perhaps because many of the great characters from that novel have either died or disappeared, but you still indulge the old catchphrases and enjoy the glow of recognition.

Tellingly, Corrine and Luke’s romance is played out in a soup kitchen set up to feed rescue workers at Ground Zero, and of course this is our only 9/11 link- if the towers hadn’t fallen they would never have met and fallen in love; what would you do; is it right that three thousand should die for your extramarital affair? But the moral of this book, if any, is that one should not take such a zero-sum view of things.

Writers are always drawn to the city, to the heady concentration of light and life: this is where the stories are, this is where it’s all happening. In the first years of the new century, that was only too true.

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