As an introit to her interview with Jay McInerney in The Observer, Rachel Cook says, “There are some men who you wish would grow up, and some men you hope will remain forever the same: boyish, eager, occasionally ridiculous…fun. Jay McInerney is one of the latter.’’
Well, that may be true when you are having lunch with him in one of New York’s best restaurants. But when you are reading his latest book, a collection of stories that span his career from his 1982 debut Bright Lights, Big City to the present, he is definitely one of the former.
It took me a long time to get through this collection, entitled How it Ended in America and The Last Bachelor in England. I just found it too easy to put it down, and my shoulders sagged when I picked it up. There are twenty-six stories here, and they all begin to sound tediously the same. There are just too many characters, to quote from “It’s Six A. M. Do You Know Where You Are?” who think “decadence” and Dexedrine” are the “high points of the language of the Kings James and Lear.” As Janet Maslin, who reviewed the book for The New York Times, says, “This is the kind of guy whose idea of etiquette is to hold a girl’s hair while she snorts cocaine.”
McInerney’s first novel, and the film on which it was based, brought him a great deal of fame in the 1980’s, for which he was slammed by a number of critics who identified his own lifestyle with that of many of his characters—parties, women, drugs. I don’t think one should condemn a man’s writing for the way the man lives his life. The writing should be judged by the writing. But it’s hard to resist, after reading his story “Sleeping with Pigs,” the obvious observation that if you lie down with pigs, some crap will inevitably rub off.
McInerney says he knows that critics have questioned the legitimacy of his subject matter. “There’s a socialist bias,” he says, “to the consensus of the literary world: a 30s mentality that says factory workers are more worthy of our attention.” But I don’t think it is just that. After reading story after story of drinking and drugs, infidelity and cheating, men who seek serial relationships and one-night stands, and women who seek to marry powerful executives and politicians, I just get tired of it all.
I guess what really bothers me about McInerney’s stories is that whereas sometimes you think he may be satirically making fun of his shallow characters, other times you sense that he really envies the life they lead. Too often, he just just seems to be setting up wish-fulfillment fantasies of a narcissistic life without commitment.
I am not saying that such is not a suitable subject for story. I think everything that humans can imagine, or find unimaginable, is suitable for a story. The secret, however, is that all subjects must be redeemed or refined by style and form. I don’t always like the characters of Henry James or Flannery O’Connor, or Raymond Carver, but all three, in their quite different ways, use language to make their characters revelatory of the unspeakable complexity of what it means to be human. F. Scott Fitzgerald, with whom McInerney has often been compared, could be as much a hack writer as McInerney, but at other times, when he found just the right voice, such as in “Winter Dreams,” “Absolution,” or The Great Gatsby, the result was a magical transformation of superficial characters into shimmering significance. McInerney is often clever, turning a phrase in a witty way, e.g. “You have traveled from the meticulous to the slime” and “Eat, drink, and remarry.” But he does not either love his people enough to make them more than two dimensional pawns fitted out with noses to snort and genitals to exploit. And he does not seem to love the language enough to make them more than mere flesh and foolishness.
What do you think?
Do authors have to have some respect for their characters?
Do the characters have to be deserving of respect in some way?
Do readers have to like characters to like the stories they are in?
Can just the right form and style transform even the most meaningless people into meaningful literary significance?
What is a literary character anyway? What transforms real into literary?
Are there fictional characters you love, but that if you met in real life you would despise?
How is that possible?