"Bright Light, Big City". "Losing" and "getting lost" in postmodern New York

Bachelor Thesis, 2014

43 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of contents

1. Intoduction

2. 80s life in the US - The setting

3. Elite vs. mass culture
3.1 New York and its residents
3.2 Clubs & drug culture
3.3 Amanda and hyperreality

4. Reality between fact and fiction
4.1 Postmodern tensions between fact and fiction
4.2 The flight into fiction

5. The de- centered subject
5.1 “standing outside yourself”
5.2 Mother-son-relationship

6. Conclusion

7. Works cited

1. Introduction

The success of his debut novel Bright Lights, Big City brought Jay McInerney an astonishing amount of media coverage and an equivalent in book sales, but not much approval, let alone deeper analysis of his work, from critics and scholars. In fact, the hype that surrounded him and his fellow “brat- pack” writers is likely to have prevented any serious scholarly interest in this kind of new urban literature back in the day; Bright Lights, Big City was dismissed as a “yuppie bildungsroman- full of tortured self- searching and struggling- writer romance” (Young/Caveney 1992: 47) at first, without any considerable novelty or value. However, the enthusiasm of the large, young readership showed that there was something to McInerney’s novel that other novels did not offer- a setting and a language that were familiar and uncomplicated for them, but, at the same time, an account of relevant, postmodern issues that very well did concern the Bright Young Things of the 80s, but were usually seized in more elitist literature, and thus, eluded an audience that was ready for them to be taken up. In spite of the sophisticated origin of all things postmodern in poststructuralist philosophy and criticism, postmodernism concerned, above all, urban spaces and the media-saturated, consumerist and capitalist society that formed the realm of McInerney’s readership. Bright Lights, Big City was therefore a welcome digestible, yet relevant piece of literature that embraced issues such as hyperreality, deconstruction and crisis of identity without explicitly calling them this way, as well as the role of fiction in a context of pop culture, fashion and the highs and lows of a drug-fuelled nightlife. The protagonist, who is famously nameless and tells his story from the 2nd person perspective, is a seemingly successful young man who made it into the Department of Factual Verification of what is suspected to be the New Yorker magazine (although the name is never mentioned), but dreams of a career as a writer in the Fiction Department. His main problems, at first sight, seem to stem from his unfaithful model wife Amanda, whom he is trying to forget in the drug frenzy of his clubbing nights. What he misses out on is that the growing network of losses he finds himself in ultimately causes him to lose himself- a process which Jay McInerney presents through an abundance of metaphoric and often ironic or humorous situations. A closer examination, however, shows that this seemingly superficial, lightweight approach nevertheless easily allows for an analysis involving theories by most relevant postmodern thinkers such as Jean Baudrillard, Fredric Jameson, Jean-Francois Lyotard, Pierre Bourdieu and others. The importance of this matter is apparent: Bright Lights, Big City not only “concerned a world [the younger readers] knew, one of drugs and clubs and MTV” (Young/Caveney 1992: 3) by taking place in an appropriately glamorous setting, but by touching upon problems that coined an entire generation, for example the collapse of the traditional metanarrative of identity, and providing discourse on these problem’s roots as well as possible ways out and consequences that may follow if a way out is not being pursued. Although the success of the novel is partly due to popular misreadings of it as a “wacky, funfilled romp through the fast lane” (cf. Girard 1996: 172, 174), it does not mean that whoever feels similar to the novel’s protagonist cannot understand and ponder on what McInerney was actually intending to say. Only years after the Bright Lights, Big City was published did scholars begin to consider it and other brat-pack writings to be objects of interest and candidates for more profound analysis.

This thesis attempts to perform a detailed analysis of the kind that is mentioned above, starting with a brief description of the historical and cultural features of the setting and then proceeding to the interpretation of all important themes, motifs and symbols of the book in the context of postmodernism but also in general terms. Each chapter investigates the influence of a certain aspect of the protagonist’s life on his crisis, especially in how far one or the other led him to a life on the edge and to the loss of the self. In order to understand why, in the end, the protagonist has to “learn everything all over again” (BLBC 174) to get back on the right track, it is essential to point out the roles that Amanda- his opportunist model wife- his job in the fact checking department and the death of his mother played over time, and how drugs and Ray-Ban sunglasses seem to provide temporary solutions for the most acute of his troubles. Ultimately, an analysis of this kind may not only explore all aspects of the literary work in its skilful presentation of an ambitious twentysomethings’ life in the New York of the 80s, but, by examining this very presentation, expose more precisely the reason for its enormous success: being a comprehensible fusion of everyday life and postmodern philosophies that appealed to the city’s youth, who, to some extent, could all have been “you” from Bright Lights, Big City.

2. 80s life in the US - The setting

McInerney’s characters, together with their dreams and life decisions, did not appear out of thin air- the postmodern city is, metaphorically speaking, the breeding bed and the necessary condition for the actions that take place in Bright Lights, Big City. According to most sources, the 80s appear to be mostly shaped by financial business, libertarianism applied to all kinds of lifestyle areas, from sexuality to drugs, and particular difficulties- or even a lack of effort- when it came to a differentiation between elite and mass culture. Some notions that are considered iconic for the 80s are therefore yuppies, consumerism, gentrification of inner city areas and the inflating art market that became a business of its own. In her essay “Children of the revolution” Elizabeth Young provides a vivid account of what was the essence of a town like New York back then:

“Looking back, a grotesque memorial tapestry streams past: the baying packs of yuppies and estate agents, an army of entrepreneurs in red braces and jelly-coloured spectacles. They are roaring right-wing platitudes, they are rigid with cocaine. Multitudes of blondes in black lycra jerk and stream in a million tiny clubs. No one sleeps, greed is good, […]. […], a million pounds is nothing, the sky bristles with aeroplanes, giant glittering buildings spring up above the cityscapes, only to lie dark and tenantless. A constant confetti of dirty contracts, laundered money and drug profits falls like soiled snow, there is the stink of corruption and sickly blast of insanely-priced couture fragrances. Above all the gerontophilic courts of Thatcher and the Reagans kick up their legs in glee as buildings, trains and planes explode and endless showers of Aids babies, homeless lunatics, murderers, beggars, homeboys and hookers, tearing at lesions and bullet wounds, tumble slowly past.” (Young/Caveney 1992: 1f)

This account appears to represent a rather extreme version of 80s culture, and the views on some phenomena, as for example the yuppies, may have been distorted by contemporary media coverage- in an evaluation of the General Social Surveys John L. Hammond states that calling yuppies right-wing and conservative is not accurate: they were seen as “non- conforming and antiauthoritarian, but they [were] also very concerned with income, consumption, and possessions. As Jones puts it, it is ‘as if the Woodstock mentality has somehow merged with the Bloomingdale mentality’ (1981: 317)1 ” (Hammond 1986: 488f).

The survey, however, shows that, although liberalism on lifestyle issues appears to be just as true for yuppies as for any other group of the younger population, the yuppies’ conservatism on economic issues is a myth. Other authors also tend to distinguish between actual yuppies and a group that is called “psychographic” yuppies- not actually yuppies by the definition of it but exhibiting similar attitudes, as well as extremely indulging in the cliché image of the yuppie: the narcissistic, calculating hedonist. These psychographic yuppies are said to make 50 per cent of the baby boom generation, thus outweighing ‘authentic’ yuppies who make up 14 per cent (Featherstone 2007: 43).

Nevertheless, some of the issues that Young’s image of the 80s touches upon are as relevant as she presents them. The gentrification of decayed city areas plays an important role especially in the postmodern context: the SoHo area is one of the best examples to illustrates the progress of SoHo from a declining industry zone to an “artist’s colony and then a gentrified new middle-class neighbourhood with incomers attracted by the ambience of the artist’s lifestyle” (Featherstone 2007: 105f), and, of course, due to eager speculators in real estate, after the makeshift loft apartments underwent lavish modernisations and renovations. Thus, members of the middle and upper class contributed to a redevelopment of the SoHo area as a centre of cultural consumption. This introduces the next aspect that has been taken up by some characters in Bright Lights, Big City- the art market and the growing interdependency and collaboration between professional politicians, government administrators, local politicians, businessmen, financiers, dealers, art investors, artists, intellectuals and educators. Through what Paul Ardenne calls “an unexpected marriage“ in which “the slow, inexorable decline of ideology typical of this entire period was matched by a euphoric celebration of art and the market” (Ardenne/ Vale 1995: 100), “Art became less elitist and more ‘professionalised’ and ‘democratised’” (Featherstone 2007: 46) and thus, instead of shocking the bourgeoisie, it turned into an “aesthetic vision of the bourgeoisie” (Featherstone 2007: 46). As a result, artists did not have to renounce art to live up the principle “greed is good” that was mentioned by Young; what becomes of art under these conditions is up for discussion, including in Bright Lights, Big City.

All these features of the 80s, those mentioned marginally as well as those presented in detail, illustrate the postmodern tendencies of urban spaces such as New York and point out issues that play an important role in the story of the characters of the novel: the impact of de-hierarchized culture and urban life as an aestheticized play.

3. Elite vs mass culture

3.1 New York and its residents

Descriptions of New York- streets, buildings and those who live there- make up a significant part of Bright Lights, Big City. Images of the cityscape appear every now and then, for example when the protagonist tries to make his way home from another night of clubbing, or describes the places where he and his wife Amanda started their new life in New York. They confirm, and sometimes even enhance, the impressions of the city as presented in the precedent chapter. In terms of geography, the protagonist usually moves anywhere between Upper East Side and Lower East Side of Manhattan, but some spots are either mentioned or described in particular, for example Greenwich Village, the 5th Avenue or Times Square, every place having a particular connotation in terms of social groups and borders, as well as in terms of the lifestyles that are often associated with particular groups of people. However, throughout Bright Lights, Big City many of these associations are proven adjustable and fluid, and the resulting unpredictable potpourri of lifestyles and attitudes turns out to be the prevalent feature of everyone in New York City. Considering this realisation, two theories by Pierre Bourdieu and Fredric Jameson seem particularly suitable for an interpretation of this aspect of the novel.

Since one of the striking aspects of the protagonist’s lifestyle is that he constantly finds himself crossing the border between the ‘elite’ and the ‘plebs’, between Uptown and Downtown; in the company of acclaimed writers but also fashion models - what Bourdieu calls the ‘new cultural intermediary’ is a concept that could be drawn on here. In his book Distinction (1984) Bourdieu explores different elements of lifestyle and constellations of lifestyle choices to “map out the universe of taste and lifestyle with its structured oppositions and finely graded distinctions which operate within a particular society at a particular point in history” (Featherstone 2007: 18). One of the main ideas is that an individual’s own choices are set off against others, the own taste is classified by the judgement of the taste of others. So called marker goods outline borders of social groups, but it is important to stress that, in the context of taste, anything can be considered a ‘good’ and, thus, a sign: from actual commodities to cultural goods and the own body everything can be employed to signify the belonging of somebody to a certain group, or class. The group of people that is particularly relevant for Bright Lights, Big City - the new cultural intermediaries- are people in “media, design, fashion, advertising and ‘para’ intellectual information occupations, whose jobs entail performing services and the production, marketing and dissemination of symbolic goods” (Featherstone 2007: 19). They are the ones who keep track of already existing symbolic goods but who, by exploring traditions or cultures, are able to create new symbolic goods and, in the pursuit of expressive and liberated lifestyles, adopt, adapt and popularise lifestyles and commodities of intellectual and artistic origin, making them accessible for lower groups and intellectualising areas such as popular music or fashion, thus functioning as a mediator between the ‘elite’ and the ‘plebs’ and collapsing hierarchies around different aspects of low, popular culture and high, intellectual culture (cf. Featherstone 2007: 19, 44, 59, 88f). The new cultural intermediary is, ideally, an autodidact in a constant learning mode, always perfecting their appearance and always widening their range of available sensations and experiences. Bourdieu calls them the new intellectuals “who are inventing an art of living which provides them with the gratification and prestige of the intellectual at the least cost: in the name of the fight against ‘taboos’ and the liquidation of ‘complexes’ they adopt the most external and easily borrowed aspects of the intellectual life-style, liberated manners, cosmetics or sartorial outrages, emancipated poses and postures and systematically apply the cultivated disposition to not-yet-legitimate culture (cinema, strip cartoons, the underground), to everyday life (street art), the personal sphere (sexuality, cosmetics, child-rearing, leisure) and the existential (the relation to nature, love, death).” (Bourdieu 1984/2010: 365)

The more details about the new cultural intermediary one bears in mind, the more obvious it becomes that Bright Lights, Big City’s most successful representative of this group is Tad Allagash. Furthermore, this character points out one of the major problems of the protagonist: although both characters share the same lifestyle, Tad Allagash is in complete control of every single aspect of his life, whereas the protagonist has lost control over anything he possibly could. Tad is introduced to the reader as the one who took “you” to the club where “you” finds himself at the beginning of the book. Tad, characteristically, is no longer there, he is already enjoying himself elsewhere. The following passages not only illustrate the character and function of Tad in their entity, but also point towards the difference between him and the protagonist, and show where exactly some of the protagonist’s problems root:

“Tad is the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. He is either your best self or your worst self, you’re not sure which.

Earlier in the evening it seemed clear that he was your best self. You started at the Upper East Side with champagne and unlimited prospects, strictly observing the Allagash rule of perpetual motion: one drink per stop. Tad’s mission in life is to have more fun than anyone else in New York City, and this involves a lot of moving around, since there is always the likelihood that where you aren’t is more fun than where you are. You are awed by his strict refusal to acknowledge any goal higher than the pursuit of pleasure. You want to be like him. You also think he is shallow and dangerous.” (BLBC 2f) “He’s looking trqs sportif in J. Press torso and punked-out red SoHo trousers.” (BLBC 40) “Dead Amanda. That’s the idea. I told you you’d get more nookie than you can shake a stick at if you tell the girls that your wife died. It’s the sympathy vote. More effective than saying she fit you with horns and kited off to Paris. Avoid the awful taint of rejection.” (BLBC 41) “‘Have you ever experienced this nearly overwhelming urge for a quiet night at home?’ Tad reflects for a moment. ‘No.’” (BLBC 42) “’Taste,’ says Tad, ‘is a matter of taste.’” (BLBC 49)

It is almost as though, in the bottom statement, Tad is directly addressing the matter that is the subject of Bourdieu’s studies. The quoted passages show that Tad is anywhere where pleasure is expected, that he is a pioneer at the pleasure frontier. The advice Tad gives his friend on Amanda comically depicts his urge to use anything available as social self- portrayal; his ultimate goal is perpetual motion towards greater fun in the company of those he chooses, which explains why a quiet night at home is out of question for Tad. The protagonist is undecided what opinion he really has of Tad- he wants to be like him, but taste is not quite a matter of taste to “you”. This indicates that he is not ready for the life of picture postcard new cultural intermediary, he is, to take up Bourdieu’s terminology, too much of a classic intellectual to “be at a place like this at this time of the morning” (BLBC

1). Tad does indeed exhibit many features of a classic intellectual, for example a surprisingly rich lexis that he displays in his note to the protagonist in chapter 6, but, exemplarily, he uses it to only ask his friend to entertain his cousin because of a long expected date with one of his many women. Furthermore, the note ends with “Described you as a cross between young F. Scott Fitz-Hemingway and the later Wittgenstein, so dress accordingly.” (BLBC 85), displaying his rather naïve conviction that all the protagonist has to do to be said Fitz-Hemingway- Wittgenstein- hybrid is to dress appropriately.

As Bourdieu notes, one of the motors of changes in taste is the wish of lower social classes to pursue commodities that are chosen by higher classes, who, in turn, start opting for more exclusive items. Amanda, who, by being skinny, tall and good-looking, owns cultural capital in the embodied state, but wants to climb the social ladder through her relationship and later marriage to the protagonist, who, being educated and relatively wealthy, owns cultural capital in the objectified (books etc.) and institutionalised (university degree, intellectual job) state. (cf. Featherstone 2007: 103 on the terminology) Just like Tad Allagash, Amanda has a relatively simple aim in mind, and just like Tad, she follows the strategy to leave when, metaphorically speaking, the party has moved on. It is therefore Tad who speaks what “you” has failed to see for a long time, even though, in the end, it seems completely obvious even to him:

“’Weren’t you suspicious when you saw the sign on her forehead?’ ‘Which sign was that?’ ‘The one that said, Space to Let. Long and Short Term Leasing.’ ‘We met in a bar. It was too dark to read.’ ‘Not so dark that she couldn’t see you were her ticket out of Trailer Park Land. Bright lights, big city. If you really wanted to do the happy couple thing you shouldn’t have let her model. A week on Seventh Avenue would warp a nun. Where skin-deep is the mode, your traditional domestic values are not going to take root and flourish. Amanda was trying to get as far from red dirt and four-wheel drive as she could. She figured out she could trade on her looks farther than she got with you.’” (BLBC 109f)

Again, Tad has the overview- “you” does not. His failures in marriage as well as in job show that he cannot handle the balancing act between high and low culture life, which results “in his responses to popular culture, as he revolts against his instincts, rejecting the positive, and embracing the negative of his surroundings.” (Faye 1992: 121)

At this point, it makes sense to bring in Fredric Jameson’s thoughts on the postmodern urban community. He, too, claims that there is no more distinction between high and low culture, which is due to the fact that “everything in social life can be said to become cultural.” (Jameson 1984: 87) According to Jameson, features typical of postmodern culture are the transformation of reality into images and the fragmentation of time into a series of perpetual presents; pastiche and simulations, the liquefaction of signs and images, stylistic diversity and heterogeneity that lead to a loss of the referent and the death of the subject. Just as for fellow theorist Jean Baudrillard, for Jameson schizophrenia is what describes a postmodern state of mind best- a “breakdown of the relationship between signifiers, the breakdown of temporality, memory, a sense of history.” (Featherstone 2007: 57) Although in terms of further interpretation of the relationship of the main characters that have already been touched upon, this approach to postmodernism does not take the investigation much further, it does, however, help to analyse other affairs and tensions that can be found in Bright Lights, Big City’s images of New York. In various situations throughout the novel signifiers are not what one would expect them to be; groups that one would expect to have stayed true to what they originally stood for are involved in business that it not quite compatible with the original ideals- even they prove to have adapted themselves to New York. Representative of this are, of course, the Hasidim who the protagonist mentions a couple of times throughout the novel. He assumes that he knows what the men he sees think or believe:

“This man has a God and a History, a Community. He has a perfect economy of belief in which pain and loss are explained in terms of a transcendental balance sheet, in which everything works out in the end and death is not really death. Wearing black wool all summer must seem like a small price to pay. He believes he is one of God’s chosen, whereas you feel like an integer in a random series of numbers. Still, what a fucking haircut.” (BLBC 53f)

The involvement of those people in drug dealing business therefore comes as a surprise- the protagonist learns about this when he is talking to the drug baron Bernie in a later scene:

“’What I’m scared of is my brother Jews- the Hasidim. They’re moving in in a big way, crowding out the independent. It’s more lucrative than diamonds- hey, they’re not stupid. They know an opportunity when they see one. They’re all set up for something like this. Liquid capital, world-wide organization, secrecy and trust. How can they lose? I’m telling you, most of the blow in the country already has a Yiddish accent.’ ‘You mean the guys with the black hats and funky sideburns?’ “Believe me,’ Bernie says, ‘it ain’t like they can’t afford a haircut. […]’” (BLBC 112)

Another example of a misread- or even more, reshuffled in terms of meaning- signifier that involves religion can be found in a description of people in a bar on 1st Avenue:

“Everyone here has the Jordache look- the look you don’t want to know better. Hundreds of dollars’ worth of cosmetics on the woman and thousands in gold around the necks of the open-shirted men. Gold crucifixes, Stars of David and coke spoons hang from the chains. Some trust in God to get them laid; others in drugs. Someone should do a survey of success ratio and publish it in New York magazine.” (BLBC 145)

Here, formerly religious symbols serve as accessories to impress and are put on the same level as coke spoons- moreover, the protagonist has absolutely no doubt about this notion. Nevertheless- whilst some scenes in Bright Lights, Big City expose how casually opposites are merged into unthinkable entities, other aspects of the novel suggest that there are distances which are carefully maintained, by single characters or groups of people. The reputations of the different parts of Manhattan, for example, are solid enough to be treated as unambiguous signifiers among the population. In the very beginning, Tad’s cousin cannot join the group below 14th street “because he doesn’t have a lowlife visa” (BLBC 3), the protagonist calls his escapades a visit to his “own 6 a.m. Lower East Side of the soul” (BLBC 4), Tad’s trousers have been described as “SoHo” earlier, and “you”’s and Amanda’s second apartment is described as an uptown sort of building downtown. Taking a walk with Vicky, another of Tad’s cousins, through Greenwich Village, the protagonist mentions that “yesterday you would have considered such a stroll too New Jersey for words.” (BLBC 89) Places are not just geographical spots, but fixed points in the signifier system that provide at least some sort of orientation- for the moment, since boroughs tend to change their reputation over the course of time, as has been explained in the first chapter. Either way, in the literary field “membership in various social groups has become more important for […] self-identification that the coincidental metropolitan locale in which life-stories happen to be set” (Keunen/Eeckhout 2003: 65) and Bright Lights, Big City is no exception, which justifies the constant commuting between uptown and downtown, thus supporting the notion of the new cultural intermediary.

Apart from the issues that have already been discussed in this chapter, there is more striking about the images of New York in Bright Lights, Big City. The descriptions of the subway trains, buses, sidewalks, clubs, bars and, of course, the people that crowd them evoke a general feeling of randomness, confusion, lack of direction and sometimes even danger- they mirror the state of mind of the protagonist, which suggests that a significant part of the population probably shares his problems. The Missing Person poster haunts “you”, who has a ‘missing person’ of his own- his deceased mother.


1 Quoted by Hammond from Jones, Landon Y. Great Expectations: America and the Baby Boom Generation. Ballantile Books, New York 1981

Excerpt out of 43 pages


"Bright Light, Big City". "Losing" and "getting lost" in postmodern New York
University of Cologne
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Amerikanistik, Jay McInerney, Bright Lights Big City, Postmodernism, Postmodernismus, Jean Baudrillard, Jean-Francois Lyotard, Pierre Bourdieu, Fredric Jameson, Brat Pack, Literatur
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Kira Schneider (Author), 2014, "Bright Light, Big City". "Losing" and "getting lost" in postmodern New York, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/342520


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