New novels for young readers in/of the 1980s - Narrative strategies and presentation of the novel's world

Diploma Thesis, 2001

158 Pages, Grade: Good


1. Introduction

When during the 1980s short novels like Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City (1984), Bret Easton Ellis' Less Than Zero (1985), Tama Janowitz' Slaves of New York (1986) or Michael Chabon's The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (1988) became talked-about bestsellers in short succession, conservative critics were shocked. Their rejection of these novels was mainly grounded in the discrepancy between the expectations of traditional literary criticism and the new forms of expression these young authors used. The referential matrices of their novels are loaded with signs and codes of their decade; images and fictions spread by mass media have become a fixed part in the world of those novels. Traditional critics considered such references trite and superficial. It cannot be ignored, however, that popular culture found its way into contemporary literature and critics will have to get accustomed to the fact that in contemporary literature the referential horizon, which once was formed by the Bible, classical antiquity and the great works of world literature, is increasingly provided by popular culture as disseminated by the mass media.

The fact that these authors were all very young and that they were presented and celebrated like pop stars was, for many critics, proof that pop industry had finally taken over the literary market and that authors would no longer be measured by their achievements as writers but by their celebrity status determined by media-coverage. They felt the end of serious literature was near. On the other hand, there were reviewers,

whose praise of those novels and their authors was just as undifferentiated as their denunciations by others. Fashionable terms, from "MTV novels" to "yuppie literature", were attached to the novels, and they were glorified as highly accomplished expressions of a changed Zeitgeist'. Despite the great amount of media attention, most of the novels have rarely been closely examined. The two novels Bright Lights, Big City and Less Than Zero will be the focus of this thesis and subject of closer investigation, because they were treated as the representative novels for the whole group. A broad approach to their subject matter will be chosen in order to do justice to the numerous culture-bound implications they contain. The first chapter should help to position the novels historically and culturally by providing a short comment on the historical background and certain cultural - especially youth-cultural - and social tendencies of the decade.[1] A literary background, as far as it can be determined for these relatively new works, will be established in chapter 2. The readership of these novels and the strategies of the publishing industries to raise interest for the novels will also be taken into account in this chapter. The analyses of the novels includes the biographical background of the authors and briefly deal with their other publications. It will be examined if certain parallels exist between the authors' biographies and their works and also between their respective novels. Apart from that, influences of other contemporary authors can also be found in both Jay McInerney's and Bret Easton Ellis' work. Frequently, comparisons to the same

author or novel are possible for Bright Lights, Big City and Less Than Zero. Some reactions, however, were rather forgone comparisons, which, on a closer look, have little to do with the actual works. The analysis undertaken here intents to show the nature of the relation between certain works of literature and the novels or between their authors. The chapter on narrative strategies concentrates on certain innovations that these novels show on the narrative level. Behind what can be perceived as a rather "artless" surface, one can detect various levels on which the novels operate. Different narrative means provide for different effects, and they demand of the readers to make certain connections and to work actively on the understanding of the novels. The chapter on the world of the novel will take into account the influence the local setting exerts on the plot, and certain signs and cultural codes. The novels are placed within the context of a genuinely American sub-culture. They contain direct references and hidden allusions to this sub-culture, which have been said to make these novels "cultural documents". Moreover, their narrators' language is that of a specific segment of an affluent youth with certain rules of behavior. It will be examined if the specific references in the novels can turn out to be problematic for an uninitiated reader and how far they may interfere with the comprehension of the novels. Being bestsellers, the novels have quickly been made available in translations. The German translation, which will be taken as an example, often fails to present American idiosyncrasies on the linguistic and also on the factual level.

It will be analyzed what happened with these texts after they were translated in a great hurry by people belonging to a different cultural context.

2. Sociocultural Background & the 1980s

Bright Lights, Big City and Less Than Zero were written and published in the 1980s, which is also when they reached their largest readership, and they strongly reflect certain values and manners of that period. The 1980s in the U.S. were marked by diverse social, cultural and political developments. They resembled very much the 1920s - a period, which was characterized by high capitalism, conservative politics, and an explosion of decadence in high society - only the 80s turned out to be far more savage and aggressive. The rise of a cult of success related with greed and the money culture are probably the most outstanding features of the period. The 80s were also the Reagan era, a turn towards conservatism in the country. The liberal politics of the past decades were abandoned and a reorientation of the socio-political structure of America set in. The Reagan administration issued a tax reform which favored the upper income-classes, and consequently the gap between rich and poor widened. Becoming rich was justified because it supported the nation's economy. The number of extremely rich rose in the 80s, with wealth especially concentrating on the two coasts. Speculation on the stock exchange became a popular way of making fast money, and a whole paper economy was created in a modern gold rush centering in Wall Street. Much of America, however, was left in an economic backslide. Financial success stories became fashionable items of mass culture (as reflected in TV series like Dynasty or Dallas) and a rising moneyed class established an ideology of success, glamour and excess. A new attitude towards money set in - rather than resenting the rich, people identified with them and dreamt about joining their ranks. Money was seen as a metaphor for status and this status was to be exhibited by conspicuous consumption.[2]

The economic hero of that money culture was the "yuppie", the "young urban professional". 1984 was officially declared "The year of the yuppie" by Newsweek (cf. Newsweek, 31.12.1984). According to Marissa Piesman and Marilee Hartley, who published a volume called The Yuppie Handbook, yuppies live 'on aspirations of glory, prestige, recognition, fame, social status, power, money or any and all combinations of the above' (12), and they make 'at least twice their age in thousands a year' (124). They are members of the baby-boom generation - a generation of disproportional size in the U.S., born between 1946 and 1962 in a time of considerable affluence and economic growth. Constituting such a large proportion of the population, the "boomers" became targets of mass marketing campaigns on television, and consumption was presented to them as a way of life from an early age on. In the 1980s, with the baby-boomers having reached the age of earning their own living, consumption rose to a form of art and the yuppies were seen as the masters of it. They bought extravagant and expensive products as acts of individualism and attempts to show uniqueness. Brand names became important, and more and more products were created to appeal to this young elite. Every product, from clothing, Hi-Fi equipment to food, had to be exclusive and of high quality to mark the status of the consumer.[3]

Consumerism and mass media had a strong influence on youth and youth cultures. Both phenomena were (and still are) the driving forces in the breaking up of traditional structures - a characteristic of the so-called "postmodern age". Studies agree that a dissolution of traditional family structures can be observed, going hand in hand with a weakening of the generation conflict. The sociologist Klaus Janke refers to this phenomenon as "the end of authorities" (cf. 14), implying that traditional authorities like family, church, school or political organizations lose their influence because young people have ceased to turn to them for orientation. The peer-group rather assumes a directive function, even though a strong sense of self-dependence becomes more and more apparent in what Duncan Webster calls the "Me generation" (134). Wilfried Ferchhoff explains that the generation conflict has weakened because parents act less and less as role models. He ascribes this to the rapid developments and changes of the second half of the 20th century (for example, in the field of electronic media), which relativized the position of the older generation as holders of experience. Furthermore, it is advertising which instigates a cult of youth, whereby the younger generation is propagated as a role model for the older one. Youth is idealized, especially in areas like fashion, sports, beauty and contemporary music, with the result that society more than ever places a great importance on youthful appearance and lifestyle (cf. Ferchhoff, 133f).

It can be observed that during the past few decades the phase of adolescence became more and more prolonged. The so-called "post-adolescence" is a result of the phenomenon that participation in youth cultural activities has become fashionable for wider audiences than just adolescents. Mainly, however, there are the economic and social developments of the past decades, which have enabled more young people to enjoy the freedom of adolescence much longer. The time for education has expanded and also for the middle class it has become a norm that their children attend college. "Post-adolescence" can also be associated with the tendency to avoid commitments and responsibilities, and rather to live in the "here and now". The overall term "Fun-Generation" has been coined by sociologists denoting a generation, which lacks ideologies and interest in politics or society. The search for amusement in the beautiful world of consumerism and hedonism and the "instant gratification" of desires are what this generation is occupied with (cf. Heinzlmaier, 10f, 17). "Fun culture" has in fact become a major industry. The absolute need for fun or distraction can lead to rather bizarre or sad extremes ranging from extreme sports activities to breaking of sexual taboos, drug abuse or violence. All those features reflect the boredom of a generation that already has everything consumer society has to offer.

The phenomena discussed in this chapter are reflected in the novels of Bret Easton Ellis, Jay McInerney and the other young authors associated with them. Their novels, far from endorsing the worst aspects of a greedy corrupt consumer society, constitute a revealing critique of this society and illuminate its darkest corners. Before I embark on an analysis of these novels, however, their literary background will be established in the next chapter.

3. Literary Background of the Novels

During the 1980s New York underwent a creative renaissance in all the arts. A number of new magazines appeared, many of them initially associated with the vibrant artistic underground of the Lower East Side or Downtown area. Bomb, Benzene, Red Tape, Between C x D and others featured fiction, and they were responsible for the emergence of a very distinct literary style. The new Lower East Side or "Downtown" writers wrote a flat, detached prose which dealt with all aspects of contemporary urban life: crime, drugs, sexual excess, media overload, consumer madness, inner-city decay, and fashion-crazed nightlife. Joel Rose and Catherine Texier, editors of Between C x D, stated that the writers who contributed to the magazine were not writing "sensitive"[4]

narration featuring believable characters, nor did they feel any affinity with the school of "dirty realism".[5] They rather owe their influences to writers like William Burroughs, Henry Miller, Jean Genet or Luis-Ferndinand Céline (cf. Young, vi). Consequently, they can be considered 'the inheritors of this other, subterranean tradition of modern fiction with its debt to the European avant-garde', Elizabeth Young infers (vi, vii). This new generation, whose style was instantly recognizable, had an obvious appeal to a young metropolitan audience. The New York group soon widened to include writers from all of America. Three authors - Tama Janowitz, Jay McInerney and Bret Easton Ellis - were frequently associated with this group, and they were called the three original "brat pack" writers.[6] Tama Janowitz had strong links to the Lower East Side arts scene; Jay McInerney and Bret Easton Ellis were younger and somewhat distanced from the original "Downtown" group, although thematically and stylistically they are very close relatives. Robert Siegle's survey, Suburbian Ambush: Downtown Writing and the Fiction of Insurgency, focuses on authors he considers most representative for Downtown writing, such as Lynne Tillman, Kathy Acker, Joel Rose, Constance DeJong, or Catherine Texier. He mentions Ellis, McInerney and Janowitz as part of the same group that is involved, as he says, in 'the reinvention of American fiction' (v). He, however, claims that their work is distinct from other Downtown writers:

[...] none of these writers risks as profound a social anger as Kathy Acker, none passes so freely beyond the boundaries of univocal narrative as Constance DeJong, none reads the ideological details of American life so astutely as Lynne Tillman. (Siegle, xii)

To some critics the "brat pack" authors seem to have sprung from nowhere and their sujets seem at the first glance somewhat removed from the ideas expressed by the American art-underground of that time. Elizabeth Young explains that the three may not hail from the 'deepest, maddest recesses of the underground' (9), but they most certainly have links to a 'comprehensible literary and artistic culture closely associated with the fashionable New York art world of the eighties.' (9)

Jay McInerney is said to have provided the prototypical example for a new genre with his novel Bright Lights, Big City. Undeniably, the success of McInerney's novel inspired the publishing industry to look out for other young authors and it triggered off a trend of first novels by young authors which are set in the fashionable urban world. The editors of SPY magazine detected this trend and as a reaction published a booklet, which presents and satirically reviews novels that fit into this category.[7] The booklet includes besides Bright Lights, Big City, Less Than Zero and Slaves of New York, also Michael Chabon's The Mysteries of Pittsburg, Jill Eisenstadt's From Rockaway and the second novels of McInerney and Ellis, Story of My Life and Rules of Attraction. The booklet raises the question of the novels' quality as literature and exposes the repetitiveness of their subject matter - points which have been taken up by a great number of critics. John Aldridge, for example, published a volume called Talents and Technicians: Literary Chic and the New Assembly-Line Fiction, in which he demonstrates the defects of these younger authors by comparing them to great names Thomas Pynchon, Joseph Heller or Norman Mailer.[8] In his opinion, these novels are mass-produced literature by authors who had learned their craft in university writing programs and were picked up by the publishing industry before they had come to "maturity" in their writing, only on grounds of the stylish subject matter of their novels (cf. Aldridge, 3 - 37). R. Z. Sheppard suggests in his article 'Yuppie Lit: Publicize or Perish' that the novels' success is a 'para-publishing phenomenon' (78). He complains that publishers had taken up strategies of mass marketing: they look for writers who can be 'plugged into the latest trends' (78) and they consider them 'basic parts of an entertainment package' (79). Pagan Kennedy comes to the conclusion that, among others,

[...] Ellis had ridden in on the wave of "yuppie lit" in the bizarre publishing climate of the mid 80s, when the literary world shook off its musty standards to go club hopping, name dropping and power shopping (427).

Elizabeth Young explains that the publishing industry was just as well drawn into the money madness like everything else during the 80s. She describes the situation as a "publishing turmoil", in which the ultimate aim was to make as much profit as possible from a fast-changing market, and to achieve this goal publishers adopted the strategies of the entertainment industry (cf. Young, 2). It cannot be denied that these novels achieved a disproportionate success through excellent marketing. To be able to stand out of the mass of new publications, however, these novels had to show more than just good sales strategists behind them. It turned out that they appealed straightforwardly to younger readers because they concerned a world those younger readers knew, one of clubs and drugs and MTV.

McInerney and Ellis can be related to American writers who have previously captured a youthful readership. Two powerful figures in American literature have been mentioned frequently in connection to both Jay McInerney and Bret Easton Ellis: Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Both authors were leading figures of the so-called "Lost Generation", the post-war generation in the 1920s. Artists, intellectuals, poets and novelists of this generation rejected the values of post World War I America and often relocated to Paris to live a bohemian lifestyle. Lost-generation authors gained prominent places in the landscape of twentieth-century American civilization because they first led the way in expression of the themes of spiritual alienation, self-exile, and cultural criticism. They tried to express their critical response in new ways, and they created literary innovations that challenged traditional assumptions about writing and expression. A myth formed around the lost generation, which perpetuates its popularity as a counter-cultural entity. Following generations, from the Beats of the 50ies to the Xers of the early 90ies, aspire in some ways to the reputation for hedonism and headiness of the lost generation of the 1920s (cf. Hemingway Homepage, I-Net).

The main reason why McInerney and Ellis were often related to Hemingway and Fitzgerald is that they were all tagged as spokesmen of their generation. It cannot be denied that these authors captured a certain atmosphere of a certain period in their novels, but this label proves to be a rather short-sighted classification, as McInerney complains referring to his own fate:

Being tagged a spokesman for a generation is mostly a curse, since there will always be people who don't believe you are speaking for them. I am a chronicler, certainly, of a certain demographic slice of my generation. But I don't write for that generation alone, and I don't wish to be diminished with that label. (Bowling, I-Net)

So, rather than associating these authors with the dubious label of being the spokesmen of their generation, common affinities can be found in other contexts.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, in particular, is considered an early literary forerunner of both Ellis and McInerney. It is not so much on the level of style that they can be compared with each other - stylistically Fitzgerald is a more complex and lyrical writer - but rather the circumstances of their success as writers and their subject matter. Fitzgerald, too, came to be successful as an author at a very young age, and he became a literary idol for his generation. Like McInerney's and Ellis' novels, his early work was also understood to have a quasi-autobiographical element, and he too felt impelled to chart the behavior of the young people around him - which is why he was considered the chronicler of the Jazz Age. In his collection of short stories The Crack-Up (1936), he recalls the 'nervous, syncopated pleasures of the twenties and the maddened roller-coaster joyride of the Bright Young Things, the first significant Teen generation' (Young, 17).[9] The literary stardom that writers experienced in the 1980s shows unmistakable parallels to that of Fitzgerald and of the 1920s, which probably helps to account for the slight traces of Fitzgerald discernible in the "brat pack's" books.

A classic about the 1950s aimless, disaffected youth is also frequently cited in connection with Bright Lights, Big City and Less Than Zero: J. D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye (published 1951). The Catcher in the Rye has, at the time of its publication, continually been banned from schools, libraries, and bookstores due to its 'profanity, sexual subject matter, and rejection of some traditional American ideals' (Lomazoff, I-Net). This growing-up story focuses on a young man's refusal to assume the social responsibilities he feels the world wants to impose on him. He does not want to adjust to the conservative middle-class values of the generation of his parents and dismisses grown-up life as inauthentic, hypocritical and moralistic. Salinger was the first to 'tap emotionally into the new youth culture created by America's growing adolescent and college-age population after the war' (Dickstein, 171). He captured the accent and rhythm of adolescents at that time, and the young recognized themselves in his work. Salinger became established as 'the spokesman for the goals and values for a generation of youth during the 1950s' (Davis, CLC, 317), and the novel became the representative work of the genre "novel of adolescence". It is far from being considered offensive today (the Cambridge History of Literature ascertains, '[i]t is hard to think of J. D. Salinger as any kind of radical', 171), and the book continues to be used as an educational resource in high schools. McInerney's and Ellis' novels have been referred to as "updated Catcher in the Rye" or "The Catcher in the Rye for the MTV generation" (cf. Steur, 18). It is true that all novels share certain themes that are typical of novels of adolescence. Moreover, they share a certain socio-cultural background - they were written in and about a time when an economic boom created an affluent middle-class, whose children were kept out of the job market for a much longer period, and when consumerism was an important component of contemporary values. However, due to the time difference between their publications, the novels must operate on different levels. To what extent the comparison between the 1980s-novels and The Catcher in the Rye applies will be discussed later in relation with each individual novel.

During the four decades between the publication of The Catcher in the Rye and the novels of the "brat pack" great societal and cultural changes took place. During the sixties the culture shock was immense, and very few authors, it seemed, could establish a language or tone to encompass the bohemianism, disorder, excess and black humor that distinguished the counter-cultural world. Novelists, by and large, took a long time to assimilate the profound societal shifts of the post-war world. They had to learn to handle what Elizabeth Young calls the

'whole status-crazy, drug-addled nexus, the cyber-spatial, nerve-shrivelling intensity of the urban megalopolis' (6). It appears that for a while "The New Journalists" like Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson, Norman Mailer, and a few others had this world all for themselves. The early New Journalism (in the field of journalistic coverage) aspired to go beyond what normal reporters wrote. Its practitioners felt that they had to report from a deeper, more personal level to present the surreal events happening in American life. So they applied techniques from the world of fiction to give the public a livelier presentation, even if this meant breaking the norms of traditional journalism. They experimented with points of view, used flourishing figurative language, untraditional word-formations and slang-like expressions (cf. DROnline, I-Net). The practices of New Journalism came to have a great impact on the writing of fictions, too. Novels were written that mixed facts into fiction ("faction").[10] An influence of New Journalist writing can be traced in the novels of the young authors of the 1980s, especially in relation with playing with points of view, the use of slang-expressions and the introduction of facts into the fictitious content.

3. 1 Postmodernism & Fiction in a Media Age

Up to the 1980s publishing houses had rather lost sight of the college-age readership for complex and long-standing reasons. Since the sixties there had been very little in mainstream publishing that appealed to that particular audience. It had become fashionable to despair of young people as readers, to assume that they never read and that they

were only passive consumers of exclusively aural and visual

entertainment. It was not that young people did not read at all; they had

just turned to a broad spectrum of reading material, like the music press, style magazines and also great quantities of genre and pulp fiction, like horror, crime, and fantasy. A good many of the books that were around at that time were the texts of high postmodernism, which, according to Elizabeth Young, contained little encouragement for a young audience to read. Such texts, Young believes, were rather academic and not easily accessible (cf. 9). High postmodernist fiction, although well-established and influential, rather remained in the professional and academic world. This literature intends to be a reflection of life under consumer capitalism and of a world ruled by spectacle, simulation and media. It has come to challenge truths about fiction and about reality, and it examines the ways in which fiction is constructed by means of self-reflection.[11] The writing is highly theoretical and gradually tends toward a point where it has only the most minimal relation to what might be called "reality" (cf. Siegle, 395f). Young concludes that these techniques, taken to the extreme in fictions of high postmodernism, resulted in making these works nearly un-readable. When Bright Lights, Big City and Less Than Zero were published, they quickly attracted a young audience, despite the put-downs and sneering of critics, because they described the world as the young readers knew it (cf. Young, 10).

Traces of postmodernist writing can be detected in the novels

of the authors discussed in this thesis. Rather than dissecting the

phenomenon of postmodernism from academic perimeters, these authors report from within a lived "reality" - their fiction arises directly from their own observations and experiences of postmodern culture (cf. Young, 14). In addition, their writing incorporates one of

postmodernism's main goals: to close the gap between what was traditionally considered "high" and "low" art forms. These young novelists have grown up in a milieu where art and pop music, advertising, films and fiction have always been inextricably intertwined; and their work shows that they genuinely love aspects of the Disneyfied consumer culture. The "gap" for them does not really exist anymore, as it does for older novelists or critical theorists, who may feel more alienated from this culture. The erosion of "high" and "low" by means of cultural recombination has become a second nature to the young writers. They combine non-fictional elements with fiction, and their texts may contain literary, mythic or scientific allusions next to quotes from popular magazines, newspapers, advertising, radio and television programs, movies and computer games. Also brand names, the furnishings of our cultural home, have become points of reference in their fictions. Their motto could be described, as Todd Gitlin formulates: 'You can't beat trash culture, so join it' ("Hip-Deep", 1).

Television culture, especially, has been said to have influenced the writing of the young authors. The postmodern generation clearly distinguishes itself from previous generations on grounds of the influence of electronic media. The age of electronic media has opened up new dimensions and has changed the perception of the world. Society is linked by global communication with the access to an infinite amount of information. Television is responsible for the shrinkage of our planet, and it also instigates a loss of the sense of "difference". This is due to the way it works, as Sven Birkerts explains.

TV brings us a constant and fluent juxtaposition of kinds of programming and kinds of images. A typical thirty-minute newscast will show and interpret footage from China, Iran, and the site of some cult slaying; it will intercut its "serious" presentation with ads for ravioli and cat food; it will bring into collision the face of a grieving mother and the happily panting visage of a basketball star. And it will never - never - remark on its process. (Birkerts, 22f)

Television therefore creates a world that lacks coherence; it is a world of fragments, where events stand alone, stripped of any connection to the past, or the future, or to other events. The psychological reaction of the viewer is to adjust to this incoherence and viewers are seduced away from causal or historical habits of mind, Birkerts states.

It becomes increasingly difficult, especially for younger minds, to hold intact a historical sense - an understanding of the world as a complex of developmental sequences. It is much easier to think - or simply respond - laterally, across the field of the cultural present, than vertically within a historical context. (Birkerts, 23)

Ellis, McInerney, Janowitz and their contemporaries are the first generation of writers to grow up with the technology of television. Birkerts calls their work "fiction in a media age" (146) and analyzes how these novels reflect the modes of electronic media. They usually present a reality that is on-going and of-the-moment. They are written in the present tense, which is the tense of television, where everything takes place in the "Now". A common assertion is that the fragmentation of television shortens the attention span, and being used to fragmented television, these writers tend to produce short scenes juxtaposed almost at random. The characters in the novels often expose a loss of sense for their own historical place in the world and a loss of the sense of personal identity. They seem to be acted upon by forces beyond their control. Todd Gitlin comes to the conclusion that television induces passivity which is reflected by the characters in what he calls "Video Fiction": characters have a tendency to live inconclusively, 'forever poised for action rather than engaged in it' (Gitlin, "Hip-Deep", 1). Birkerts complains that television's influence produces a fiction which is verbally and syntactically impoverished, tends to be acausal, psychologically flat, without social dimension and significant resolution (cf. Birkerts, 151).

It is also not surprising that these novels received the label "MTV novels". Music Television, the twenty-four-hour music television channel with its incessant flow of video clips, its devotion to glittering surfaces, its limitation to the immediate present, and the reduction of its "stories" to the short attention span required for a three-minute pop song, may resemble in many ways the novels by the young authors. Peter Freese objects to this label, pointing out that the genre "MTV novel" is impossible because of the inherent differences between visual and verbal texts. He complains that critics simply take over the ready-made labels of marketing campaigns, without questioning their applicability (cf. Freese, MTV, 84).

It becomes apparent that the reactions to the novels and their authors are rather diverse. They range from faddish praise to condescending denunciation in the name of "serious" literature. Among certain critics the novels instigated a moral outrage. They condemned the novelists for writing about a subject matter which they found distasteful. In response to these attacks Jay McInerney published an essay of defense in Esquire, 'The Writers of Wrong' (July 1989, 104 - 114), in which he accuses critics of "youthanasia" and "first novel bashing". He complains that irresponsible "label-mongering" turns individual works into abstractions, and he compares the critics' reaction to the proverbial "killing the messenger". McInerney insists,

We live in shitty, depraved, and complacent times; the novelist is not under obligation to respect our delicate sensibilities, our desire for good, clean entertainment or sympathetic, haute-bourgeois characters who clench in a reconciliatory embrace at the end. [...] In fact, the novelist is under the opposite obligation. Sex, drugs, kids with too much money and not enough education -- this alleged fringe represents a symptomatic wedge of American society. The age deserves an image of its accelerated grimace (McInerney, Esquire, 107).

Freese similarly observes that 'apocalyptically minded cultural critics' (525) denounce the decline and decadence portrayed in the novels but

fail to recognize that they are also 'revealing documents of the havoc wrought by affluence and permissiveness' (525). The fashionable denunciation of successful contemporary writers as mere media-celebrities and harbingers of cultural decay has a long tradition though it seems quite unacceptable as long as it is not based on a careful analysis and evaluation of their works. Upon closer examination, the works of the young authors show some innovations which literary critics cannot afford to neglect, and they deserve to be judged on their own terms for their strengths and weaknesses.

4. Jay McInerney

4. 1 Biography

Jay McInerney was born in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1955. McInerney's father was a corporate vice president and his position made the family move frequently. Jay McInerney spent his childhood in several cities in North America and Europe, including London and Vancouver. He attended 18 different schools before he went to High School. After completing High School in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where his family eventually settled, he attended Williams College, a private liberal arts college in Williamstown, Massachusetts, which is considered one of the most highly respected small colleges in the United States. McInerney took a major in philosophy, but he also studied fiction, having aspirations of becoming a writer. One of his college friends at Williams was his future editor, Gary Fisketjon. After college McInerney worked as a reporter for the Hunterdon County Democrat in New Jersey for a year. In 1977, he departed for Japan on a Princeton-in-Asia fellowship, where he attended classes at the Institute for International Studies near Tokyo, taught English at Kyoto University, and worked as a textbook editor for Time-Life Publications in Osaka. Returning to the United States in 1979, McInerney took work as a fact checker for the New Yorker magazine . He remained with the New Yorker for 7 months. McInerney said he came to New York looking for the center of the literary world, and the New Yorker, with its remarkable literary history containing names of highly esteemed fiction writers, appeared to him the closest he could get to that center.[13] He was, however, not very happy with his job there. The New Yorker has a reputation for journalistic accuracy, and the position of a fact checker involves high responsibility. McInerney told Michael Schuhmacher in an interview, "[...] fact checking was not for the aspiring fiction writer and an absentminded space cadet such as myself. Its demand for strict attention to detail just wasn't my forte" (97). During this time McInerney wrote several short stories and sent them out to magazines, but none of them was published. A mistake in work led to his dismissal, but when he left, he had collected an abundance of material for what would be his first novel. He then was employed by Random House, his future publisher, as a reader of unsolicited manuscripts. With a less rigid work schedule, he began, what he calls,[12]

his "partying period" (Schuhmacher, 98), with many days when he barely made it to work. He also was not able to accomplish any good

writing. During this time, he got married to a model and was soon divorced. Upon encouragement from Raymond Carver, McInerney left New York City and his failed first marriage to begin graduate writing courses at Syracuse University in 1981. This move upstate, away from the buzz of the city, led to a new commitment to writing. He took part in Carver's creative writing program, and the author became his mentor. During this time McInerney wrote his first novel Bright Lights, Big City. Three years later, McInerney married Merry Reymond, a doctoral student, and published Bright Lights, Big City, which became a stunning success. He returned to New York as a literary celebrity and has worked as a full-time writer ever since. During the 1990s, he entered into a third marriage with a jewelry designer. Having published six books to date, he is currently working on a seventh novel. He has settled down with his third wife and his kids, living a life divided between homes in Franklin, Tennessee, and New York City.

4. 2 Novels and Publications

McInerney's first short story to be published was called 'It's Six A.M. Do You Know Where You Are?', appearing in The Paris Review in 1982. After its publication McInerney felt inspired to extend it to a novel and the story became the first chapter of Bright Lights, Big City. McInerney explains what urged him to write a continuation:

"I felt that the story didn't adequately answer the question of what was wrong with the narrator - he was far too screwed up for me to have probed his psychosis in 13 pages. And I wanted to keep playing with the voice I had discovered, that highly self-conscious, wired-up second-person riff." (Bowling, I-net)

The novel features a rather uncommon second-person narrative style (the narrator is addressing himself with "you" as if speaking in an interior monologue) and deals with a young, disoriented man trying to make sense of his life and the world. Published in 1984, the novel surprisingly became a huge commercial success and has sold approximately 1,000,000 copies to date (cf. Stein, 39). In 1988 the novel was made into a movie, also called Bright Lights, Big City. The script, which remains for the most part faithful to the novel, was written by Jay McInerney and the movie's director James Bridges. The movie, starring Michael J. Fox, was released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/United Artists, in 1988. It achieved only mediocre commercial and critical success.

A year after Bright Lights, Big City, McInerney's second novel, Ransom, was published . It was intended to be his first novel, but progress on the novel stalled and it was put on hold while McInerney worked on Bright Lights, Big City. Ransom did not get as much critical acclaim as Bright Lights, Big City. Critics tended to compare the works and Ransom was seen as not being able to stand the comparison with the successful first novel. It features a young American expatriate, Christopher Ransom, who flees to Japan to study the ancient art of karate and to escape the expectations of his father, a successful writer of banal television programs who presses his son to embrace capitalism. It focuses, like Bright Lights, Big City, on an individual's quest for contemporary values. In Ransom the protagonist experiences the rigid opposition between Eastern values like tradition, refinement, beauty and civilization versus Western values like commercialism, vulgarity, brashness and degeneration. As in Bright Lights, Big City, aspects of McInerney's life become apparent in the novel. The author's own experiences from his stay in Japan provided material for the novel, and the central character, McInerney states, reflects his own philosophical concerns (cf. Schuhmacher, 107). Ron Loewinsohn from the Ransom ] offers unsentimental, insightful observations of contemporary Japan' (42), but he also observed that 'the book reads like a terribly uncertain first novel - explaining too much, summarizing when it needs to render, and deaf to its own lame phrases' (42). Taking into account that McInerney started working on it before he wrote Bright Lights, Big City, Ransom can be considered a first novel.

In his next novel, The Story Of My Life (1988), McInerney returns to the New York Club Scene. The book, similar to Bright Lights, Big City, is written in a kind of extended monologue, but it is narrated in the first person. It is a journey through "twenty-something" aimlessness, filtered through the consciousness of a girl named Alison Poole. Alison is a self-proclaimed "postmodern girl" - 'the product of MTV disposability and answering machine anomie' (Young, 63). She comes from a wealthy but broken home and aspires to be an actress. She fails in the end, because her life, like her friends' lives, mainly centers around cocaine, parties and casual sex, and she ends up in a detox-clinic in Minnesota. Like the voice in Bright Lights, Big City, the voice of Alison is "hip", full of running gags and cynical asides. Critics read the novel as a 'symptom of the drug-soaked, sex-crazed, style-obsessed eighties' (Young, 63), or simply as 'another money-can't-buy-love tale of a poor little rich girl who's been given anything but parental affection' (Wolcott, 40).

McInerney's next novel Brightness Falls is again set in New York, this time during the days leading up to the Wall Street stock market collapse of 1987. It is part business thriller, part roman à clef about the publishing world, in which McInerney chronicles the waning prosperity and amorality of the 1980s through the marital crises of Russell and Corinne Calloway - both are New York professionals in their early thirties - and the mercurial success of Jeff Pierce, a newly famous young author who succumbs to heroin addiction. The novel highlights the importance of love and security over the corrupting influence of greed and ruthless ambition. It is written in a much more conventional style than Bright Lights, Big City or The Story Of My Life - it does not employ the 'blissed-out hipspeak' (Young, 69) featured in these early novels. McInerney was praised for adeptly rendering the feel of the publishing milieu and evoking a rich and detailed panorama of New York City life. The morality tale element and the generic characters, however, were considered the weaker parts of the novel. Literary critics frequently compared the book to Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of Vanities and welcomed it as "a novel of maturity", suggesting that the leader of the so-called "brat pack" has finally grown up and gone straight (cf. Young, 69).

If Brightness Falls was seen as a kind of artistic farewell to the tumultuous 1980s, then the separation was made virtually complete with McInerney's next novel, The Last of the Savages (published in 1996). The novel covers three decades, beginning in 1965. This marks a big difference to his previous novels, which focus only on a week or two of their protagonists' lives. Also the background is different from the "usual": rather then remaining in New York McInerney presents his characters as being influenced by their Southern background. The novel deals with the friendship between two boarding school roommates. Patrick Keane, the narrator, is a poor Irish Catholic scholarship student, and his friend, Will Savage, comes from a wealthy Southern family. Patrick abandons his dreams of a literary career for the safe and solid work of a lawyer, whereas Will achieves fame and fortune as a record producer. The novel does share characteristics with previous works, like being a social satire and including themes of coming-of-age, like youthful rebellion, social climbing and freedom. Some critics expressed their doubts that McInerney, whose strength lies in the description of details, had successfully achieved to take on larger subjects in these last two books. He might not have, as Thomas Edwards critically remarks, 'fully imagined and understood the people whose social and historical experience he writes about' (29).

The most recent work published by Jay McInerney is the novel Model Behavior (1998). It contains a novel of that title and seven previously published short stories. The novel is a satire on celebrity life in Manhattan. Its narrator, the young writer Connor McKnight, tries to escape the ennui of his job as a celebrity journalist for CiaoBella! magazine by exploring high-life in New York. In chronicling the ups and downs of a younger generation of urbane New Yorkers, McInerney has returned to a familiar milieu. Relationships center on sex, physical appearance, money and celebrity, and solace is sought in alcohol and cocaine. The novel is full of New York archetypes - high-strung, intelligent people searching for meaning in a world where what has come to matter is essentially meaningless. Connor McKnight goes through all the stereotypical obsessions of a bruised male ego when his model girlfriend leaves him, and his sexual escapades and longings are preadolescent. With Model Behavior McInerney revisits the territory of Bright Lights, Big City, only that the more recent work somehow lacks the freshness of his first novel. McInerney again experiments with narrative points of view: the novel is narrated in alternately first-, second- and third-person. It is not divided into chapters, but into a great number of short, titled subchapters - often not longer than two paragraphs - indicating that in the kind of world he describes the attention span does not last much longer than that. The seven enclosed short stories are not part of the novel, but they also focus on a decadent urban setting and characters in various stages of disillusion. Critics commented favorably on McInerney's gift to observe and pin down cynically the foibles of the rich and famous. At certain points, however, the story becomes too self-referential because of McInerney's failure to distance himself enough from it and to let outsiders in. Consequently, there may be some truth in Alan Gottlieb's observation that Model Behavior 'can only appeal on a deeper level to people like the author or the characters he astutely portrays' (I-Net).

Apart from these novels Jay McInerney also edited Cowboys, Indians, and Commuters (1994), an anthology of sixteen short stories by young American writers, and has contributed to numerous popular magazines, including Esquire, Playboy, Vogue and The New Republic.

The majority of critics attribute the label "social satire" to McInerney's work. They agree that he has an ear for dialogue and a gift for capturing the humor of a situation in contemporary speech. They also praise his wit and his genuine eye for urban absurdity. McInerney's novels share certain sets of themes and character types. They offer similar portraits of disaffected affluent professionals harried by isolation, drug and alcohol abuse, and their inability to find meaning or love in contemporary upper-class society. Some critics found the settings of his novels rather removed from the majority of readers, because they favorably circle around "minority cultures" of white, expensively educated, fairly affluent young people in midtown Manhattan or on a new-style Grand Tour. Others complained that McInerney's characters tend to be generic and that it is often not clear whether McInerney is exaggerating, disapproving or understanding and sympathetic to their practices. Thomas Edwards observes, 'whether they [McInerney's

novels] are celebration, satire, or sermon is hard to say' (28). McInerney's novels, however, in one way or the other all turn out to be moral stories stressing family values, denouncing drug-habits or greed, status and riches, frequently with the hero or heroine renouncing their misguided lifestyle and affirming the primacy of the heart.

4. 3 Bright Lights, Big City

4. 3. 1 A Publishing Strategy with Surprising Results

As already mentioned in the chapter on the literary background of the novels, the publishers of new novels in the 1980s inevitably had to employ certain marketing and promotional tactics if they wanted a novel to be successful (cf. 11). The publication of Bright Lights, Big City involved a clever marketing strategy conceived by Gary Fiskjeton, editor of Vintage Contemporaries, a division of Random House publishers. Fiskjeton convinced McInerney to bypass the usual route for a first novel and to bring out Bright Lights as a paperback original. Publishing traditions held it that a book would first be published in hardcover and then in paperback in order to be taken seriously as literature by critics and readers. Vintage Contemporaries disregarded these conventions with Bright Lights, Big City in order to reach a specific audience. The assumption was that the "twentysomething-generation" McInerney wrote about would be more inclined to buy a book by an author they have never read before if it was initially offered in the inexpensive trade paperback format. These publications were promoted as "quality paperbacks" in order to distinguish them from the mass-market paperbacks, and Vintage Contemporaries counted on their uniform and easily recognizable format, which was made to appeal to a young audience. Their artwork resembled the artwork seen on album covers rather than the more traditional work that had been common on books before. The risk that the author and the publisher took by employing this new strategy paid off in the end. The novel rapidly sold out and, furthermore, this strategy initiated a "quality paperback trend" that influenced the whole publishing industry. Paperbacks were made fashionable consumer goods, and Vintage editions became collector's items.[14]


[1] This historical and cultural background is, of course, far from being complete - it rather focuses on aspects, which stand in direct or close relation to the subject matter of the novels.

[2] Cf. Wood, 49 - 52, Mills, 11 - 27, Taylor 1 - 21.

[3] Cf. Gelman, 27 - 29 & Wade Clark, 34 - 42.

[4] The information on this chapter is taken from - if not stated otherwise - Elizabeth Young, iv - 20, and Robert Siegle, v - 46.

[5] The "Dirty Realists" were a new generation of American writers, which included Richard Ford, Raymond Carver, Bobbie Ann Mason and others. Their sparse and unadorned fiction was an evocation of blue-collar angst and dealt with the 'belly-side of contemporary life' (cf. Granta, 4).

[6] A certain group of fifteen to twenty-five-year-olds were considered the "brat pack" at that time, including the three authors. The "brat pack" were 'young, urbanized, conscious of trends, and starkers for stimulation' (Powers, 44). Young finds that this somewhat derisive term has little meaning beyond being a convenient media label and rather applies the term "blank generation" to these writers, on grounds of the 'flat, stunned quality of much of their writing' (vii). The term "brat pack", however, appears to have become more commonly used and will therefore remain a term of reference throughout this thesis.

[7] The booklet's title SPY notes on McInerney's 'Bright Lights, Big City', Janowitz 's 'Slaves of New York ', Ellis's 'Less Than Zero', and All Those Other Hip Urban Novels of the 1980s' provides one possible definition of a "genre". In other attempts of classification the works of Ellis, McInerney and Janowitz are most frequently named together, although opinions vary as to which other novels can be attributed to this group.

[8] It has to be mentioned that, in 1951, Aldridge published a work called After the Lost Generation, in which he measured the success of Norman Mailer and his contemporaries against the standard set by the early writings of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Dos Passos and found the younger group deficient (cf. Dolan, 23).

[9] It is, however, also a late account of Fitzgerald's own emotional bankruptcy (he suffered from alcoholism).

[10] Well-known "faction"-novels are Norman Mailer's The Armies of the Night (1968) or Truman Capote's In Cold Blood (1966).

[11] Among well-known writers of "high" postmodernist fiction are Umberto Eco, John Barth, Donald Barthelme, Robert Coover or E. L. Doctorow.

[12] Biographical information is taken from CA, CLC Online, Pinsker 113 , Spy 1, Schuhmacher 94 - 111.

[13] Authors like Salinger, Thurber, Updike or E. B. White contributed to the New Yorker.

[14] The information on the following paragraph is taken from Schuhmacher, 102f and Girard, 165 -169.

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New novels for young readers in/of the 1980s - Narrative strategies and presentation of the novel's world
University of Vienna  (Anglistics-American Studies)
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Bret Easton Ellis, Less Than Zero, Jay McInerney, Bright Lights, Big City
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Mag.Phil. Michaela Tomberger (Author), 2001, New novels for young readers in/of the 1980s - Narrative strategies and presentation of the novel's world, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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