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"Here you go again. All messed up and no place to go."

That line sets the tone for "Bright Lights, Big City." Jay McInerney's bestselling debut stands above other urban-angst novels of the time, which tended to go with shock value. Instead, McInerney experimented with second-person narratives and a vision of a fragmented, coke-dusted New York.

"You" are a young man living in New York, and wife Amanda has recently left you for a French photographer she met on a modelling shoot. Understandably you are depressed and unhappy, and the loss of Amanda haunts your moods, especially when her lawyer urges you to sue her for "sexual abandonment," even though you don't want a divorce.

By day, you work in the fact-checking department of a prestigious magazine, where your malignant boss is getting tired of you. By night, you halfheartedly prowl clubs with your pal Tad, doing drugs and meeting women you care nothing for. Will you be able to move past your problems and become happy again?

Consider that summary a little slice of what "Bright Lights, Big City" sounds like -- the reader is the main character, which allows the reader to slip into another's skin for a brief time. Second-person narratives are often annoying, but McInerney's style is so starkly compelling that the little narrative trick pays off.

The New York of "Bright Lights, Big City" is basically a big, glitzy, hollow place, but still strangely appealing. And McInerney adds splinters of reality here and there, like the tattooed girl and Coma Baby, which add to the gritty you-are-there feel of the novel itself. His dark sense of humour comes out in "your" thoughts: "your" boss resembles "one of those ageless disciplinarians who believe that little boys are evil and little girls frivolous, that an idle mind is the devil's playground."

And while many trendy novels of the time relied on shock value and obnoxious characters, McInerney keeps it low-key. The young man is likable and sympathetic, despite his tendency towards self-pity. And the people around him -- the self-absorbed Amanda, likable Tad and nasty "Clingwrap" -- seem surprisingly realistic, as well as the minor people who flit in and out of our hero's vision.

"Bright Lights, Big City" has gained a reputation as a trendy urban novel of the 1980s. Too bad. Though the trendiness has worn off, McInerney's style and story are still worth reading.
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on October 25, 2003
The first thirty pages in Jay McInerney's novel Bright Lights, Big City are intense. It's six in the morning, the main character is wandering high on coke through a club and his only friend is no where in sight. When he finally leaves disorientated and without enough cab fare to get home, he is hit with the crippling morning sunlight and the painful realization that he left his shades at home. Picture a comic reel where a man stumbles towards the light at the end of a dark tunnel dodging bald women, men in drag and tiny Bolivian soldiers and you will get a sense of how this story begins. The writing style grabbed me from the first page. The novel is written in the second person so as the reader you are the main character, "all messed up with no place to go" (10) reacting to life with a smart mouth.
I love the prose in this novel, especially in the sense that I find the main character's disheartened quips entertaining. My favorite passage so far is, "GRANNY CRUSHED BY NUT WHILE WIMPS WATCH" (13) where the main character furiously debates whether or not to help an old woman in distress. It intrigued me to realize that most of the scenes I was chuckling at were painfully unfunny. He laughs about his blow problem, the feelings he still has for his estranged wife and the job he hates; this seems like foreshadowing to me. I sympathize with the main character because I get the feeling that all the terrible things he jokes about will eventually happen and then life will hit him harder than he can imagine. I like that and I look forward to observing how he recovers, if he does at all. Either way, I'm hooked.
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on February 6, 2001
Reading this 15 years after it was written, I was struck by how quintessentially '80's this story is. The values, the slang, and the obsessions are a snapshot of the period. I lived in metropolitan NY at the time and was surprised by how distasteful I found McInerney's somewhat exaggerated, but none the less fairly accurate, portrayal of a particularly shallow period in the nation's most self absorbed city.
Probably in the mid-80's reading about the carpe diem decadence of Manhattan yuppies was more entertaining than it is now; today this novel's satire and irony are mildly amusing, but hardly uproarious. While I recognize the point was to develop frustration and a lack of sympathy for the self destruction and self pity of the protagonist, I simply got grossed out reading about excessive snorting of cocaine, imbibing of vodka, and sleep deprivation. After the author made the point he proceeded to beat it to death to the point where it was beyond any credibility. The point, I realize, was to emphasize the incredible self indulgence and aimless waste that characterized this group during the era; however, it starts to d r a g.
After I had found myself plodding through about midway into the novel the complexity developed and some of the earlier metaphors became more self evident. Fortunately it's a short book because I was ready to give up, but reading the second half I was glad that I didn't. The last third is thought provoking, and moving, with a significant message.
I began this with expectations to be highly entertained by a witty, sardonic period piece. Instead, I found it generally an unsettling reflection of a recent era and specifically a tale which touched me.
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on June 28, 1999
The funniest book I've read since DeLillo's White Noise, Bright Lights Big City made my week. McInerny may be talking about the eighties, but he impressively manages to tackle dated subjects with fresh humor and style. However, the jokes don't keep the story unemotional. The nameless lead character starts out cold and distant, but by the end of the book I felt as though I was him. "Vicky" may insist that one person cannot truly know what it is like to be another person, but McInerny brings us so close to his hero that he allows his readers to accomplish this feat. As for the style of the book-- just as I was getting annoyed with the use of the second-person narrative I began to love it; the text reaches out to us and becomes personal and immediate by the end of the first chapter. "You" is the most human character I've come across since Holden back in high school. I can't wait to read more by this talented writer. Sad, sensitive, and hopeful, grave and hilarious, Bright Lights Big City is proof that underneath the suits, sarcasm, and drugs, yuppies are people too.
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on May 21, 1998
I just read a review of this book in which the author stated that he loved it. He raved about how "fun" of a book it was. Quite the contrary. Quite. I loved the book too, but for different reasons. Bright Lights, Big City was about a lost soul in the depressing eighties. Glitz and glamour and decadence. He was lost in it. Like all of us. And he had a major drug addiction. It wasn't "fun." Was it fun when he coughed and coughed and then found himself with a bloody nose? You don't notice that these problems in his life are serious because of the use of second person. When something happens to you, you are too close to it, you can't see what happens. I got completely wrapped up in that frame of mind and didn't realize until the last chapter that the only thing he had consumed all weekend was crack. Very clever on McInerney's part. I liked the book. Oh, and to the person who wrote that review, I am in a college class and it was on the curriculum. I guess schools are getting a little more liberal!
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on October 24, 2002
I thought this was an okay book, but I don't think he is as able to capture the feeling of 80's alienation or matterialism Brett Easton Ellis was able to capture in his first three novels (despite what Ellis says, "The Informers was WORSE than "Less Than Zero," not better). Although most people think this is his most important book, I think "Last of the Savages" and "Story of My Life" are infinately more enjoyable, albeit VERY pedestrian (what I mean is: fast reads whith little education to draw from them. God forbid he should be put on a college reading list!)
Despite my enjoyment of something "new" (or "newwish" as the case seems to be) reading novels in the second person can end up being more borring than Brett Easton Ellis's "Glamorama".
P.S. Easton Ellis is one of my favorite authors (along with Joan Didion [fiction AND nonficton ((except for "Democracy")) and Flannery O'Connor.]
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on February 2, 2003
In a second person voice Jay McInerney does the near-impossible and writes the great all-american novel for his generation. This is a style which is strange at first, but draws you into the story just the same. If any writer has done more to capture the pulse and spirit of the 80's then I can't figure who that might be. Using a young yuppie writer's struggles with love, career, family and cocaine he speeds the reader through several manic chapters until low and behold, the book is over and you're wanting more. The manic pace is what makes this book work so well. The movie starring Michael J. Fox and Phoebe Cates follows the book well and wins points as a good book-to-film movie (unlike so many others). The paradox here is how a writer can say so much in so few pages. It's also the only book I know of where the first chapter could serve as a great short story all on its own. Prepare for an entertaining and wild ride, you may just recognize some people you know....
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on August 10, 2002
This book is for me, nothing more than a young man dealing with the end of his relationship, confused about the circumstances surrounding that end, trying to find a way to cope. The fact that it takes place during the 80's has no real bearing. He does coke and drinks vodka simply because he needs something to dull the pain of this breakup, and since it is the 80's, these were the drugs of choice. If this book took place now, he might take ecstacy and go to a rave as a way to cope with his confusion. I don't see why people are so obsessed with talking about the historical setting, or the second person narrative, or the book being compared to Catcher in the Rye. It's about a man dealing with the end of his marriage. If you've ever been dumped for seemingly no reason, READ THIS BOOK. You'll feel better.
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on September 22, 1998
The beauty of this book is that it is written in second person. Another reviewer (whose name I would give if I remembered it...not trying to take credit) stated that as it was written, you became too close to the problems of the character to see the severity of them, wherein lies the genius. How many of us know to what level our problems have arisen without an objective outside party? People always embellish or play down their no-no's, depending on who they are. I think the author took this human flaw and ran with it, making a painfully realistic and potently moving novel. Watching the character's fall to rock bottom and then rebirth at the end was absolutely engrossing, and the black humor of it was well appreciated.
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on July 17, 2003
There was a certain pulse of the 80's, just as there was of the 50's and 60's. This is the post hippie generation coming of age!
And as with every generation, values and mores are part of the culture. This story tells of the trails and tribulations of an individual faced with tragedy, the difficulty in dealing with it, and the self questioning it imposes after it is discovered there is no where to run and hide. Like many stories before it, the self-discovery provides a ray of light, and a day of hope!
A good quick read told by McInerney that captures both the pulse of its time, and age old internal strife.
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