I don’t travel much, because I don’t sleep: why leave the hotel after a sleepless night? But I recently conquered my angst and took my third trip to London, an “imaginary” city, in that I know it only through literature.
I love the drama, wicked satire, and eccentricity of London novels: Barbara Pym’s indexers and anthropologists swarming the streets of Bloomsbury; Anita Brookner’s solitary heroines visiting museums and reading on benches in Regents Park; and, best of all, Muriel Sparks’ Mrs. Hawkins, an editor at a small publishing company, gossiping at night in a Kensington boarding house.
Flying can be claustrophobic, but it is not a long flight, unless the airline stops in Charlotte instead of Chicago. I slept enough in London that I even got some reading done. There is a Starbucks, Caffe Nero, Costa, or patisserie on every corner where you can sip caffeine and read. (TRAVEL TIP: DO NOT ORDER COFFEE, because they will say, “An Americano?,” and serve you a vile mixture of espresso and water.)
If you are the last person without an iPad on the planet and get lost in Hyde Park, have another latte or three and read your book for 15 minutes because I think your map is upside down!
WHAT TO READ BETWEEN MONUMENTS & MUSEUMS, PART I: Jay McInerney’s Bright, Precious Days
McInerney was called a member of the literary Brat Pack in the ’80s, along with Tama Janowitz and Bret Easton Ellis. McInerney’s first book, Bright Lights, Big City , was the quintessential ’80s novel, notable for its second-person point of view and portrait of a reckless, unhappy young man. It begins, “You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning.” The hero, a writer, has an unsatisfying job as a fact-checker at a magazine and is grieving over the breakup with his girlfriend, a model. He parties at clubs and snorts way too much cocaine.
I didn’t follow McInnerney’s career, and then in the 21st century rediscovered him. I loved his story collection, How It Ended, and his 9/11 novel, The Good Life, the second in his trilogy about a New York couple, Russell and Corinne Calloway. Bright, Precious Days, the third in the trilogy, is a compelling read, and you honestly don’t need to read the first two books. (I have not yet read the first book, Brightness Falls.)
Russell and Corinne were deeply shaken in The Good Life by the trauma of 9/11, and have tried to be their best selves since. Now they are at a crossroads in their marriage: Russell, known for publishing literary fiction, toys with the idea of buying a commercial blockbuster because of financial problems, and Corinne, a former stockbroker coming to terms with middle age, now manages a massive food bank that distributes vegetables and fruit to the poor and thinks he should stick to his ideals.
Russell and Corinne are, by most of our standards, rich. Let us just say they are not “the 99 percent,” though they borrow a house in the Hamptons for the summer rather than rent, while the rest of us would be at the Jersey shore. In many ways, the brilliant McInerney’s fiction fits into my “imaginary city” fetish, because I know New York only from literature. Russell and Corinne live in a Tribeca loft with their almost-teenage twins, and Corinne thinks it’s much too small. She wants to move to the suburbs, while Russell wants to hang on to the cool life he thinks he still lives in Manhattan. Corinne, a brilliant woman who loves art and literature but spends much of her time with shallow girlfriends and attending benefits (she must so people will donate money to her organization), has an affair with her super-rich ex-boyfriend, Luke, whom she met working in a soup kitchen after 9/11. (He has his own plane, so at least Corinne isn’t squished in her seat, as I was.)
Russell is the more interesting character of the two, an old-fashioned publisher/editor who takes his line editing very seriously. His new star writer, Jack, a “handsome young redneck,” rebels against Russell’s propensity for minimalism. (The account of the conflict between Russell and Jack is reminiscent of what I’ve read about the clash between editor Gordon Lish and Raymond Carver.) Like many writers, Jack is a handful, indulging in drugs and drinking. So is a famous travel writer, Phillip Cahout, who has written a book about his three weeks as a hostage of the Taliban. Russell’s idea is to go all out in a bidding war for this book and have one title on the list that can pay its way. Cahout, however has a reputation for instability. but Russell glosses over this.
If he begrudged his authors’ drug habits and narcissistic behavior, he wouldn’t have much of a list. “I’ve worked with Kohout before—I basically discovered him, so I think that gives me an edge. Plus, a book like this puts us right in the middle of the cultural dialogue.”
Russell makes a few bad calls, and his company almost goes under. Corinne is supportive, but they aren’t making love or very connected right now.
McInerney is an exceptional chronicler of New York, and I very much enjoyed this book, but I was occasionally jarred by Corinne’s shallow friends, who are obsessed with fashion, blow jobs, and plastic surgery. Still, turning 50 is difficult. I do identify with Corinne’s shock as she catches a glimpse of herself in the mirror at a restaurant.
Leaning over to pick up her napkin, she was surprised, as she righted herself, to see her face in the smoky mirror behind Casey, as if for a nanosecond she didn’t quite recognize the middle-aged woman, so like her, only slightly older. In her heart she was still twenty-seven, or thirty-three. At most forty-two. She’d always resisted the idea of getting work done, but maybe it was time to start thinking about it.”
Who hasn’t had that experience? Though there will be no surgery here (how can they face the needles?).
I very much like Corinne’s response to her friend Casey on her appearance.
Have you thought about getting your eyes done?”
“Do I look that bad?”
Corinne also worries about her daughter Storey, who has put on weight since learning that her sister Hilary’s eggs had been implanted in infertile Corinne’s womb. Storey wonders if this makes Hilary her mom.
Casey pooh-poohs Corinne’s qualms about talking to Storey about her weight. “This is no town for fatties.”
This intelligent literary novel is very enjoyable. The dialogue is pitch-perfect. Occasionally the account of the rich and famous are too much for me me: imagine a crossover of Scott Fitzgerald’s brilliant observations of the unhappy rich with a women’s best-seller devote to the drama of the glamour. Who in my world knows anybody like the mogul Luke? Wel, Mcinerney obviously does, and he is not in my world. But this strange mix makes it the perfect plane book.
Sam Tanenhuas, the former editor of The New York Times Book Review, is far more articulate than I about McInerney’s work. He wrote in 2009 of McInerney’s short story collection, How It Ended:
McInerney’s gifts have never been in question. He possesses the literary naturalist’s full tool kit: empathy and curiosity, a peeled eye and a well-tuned ear, a talent for building narratives at once intimate and expansive, plausible and inventive. His sentences, vivid but unshowy, exhibit the same strengths he once identified in Fitzgerald’s; they are “sophisticated without being superior, conspiratorial without the gossip’s malice.”