Monthly Archives: August 2010

BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY / Jay MacInerney

BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY / Jay MacInerney. 1985 (182 pgs)

First Ten Pages =  5.49% of total book

First Sentence:  “You’re not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning.”

Prevailing Narrative Voice: Here’s something different! Second person, present tense narrative voice. Yes, this is the story that every lecture on POV offers as the best second person example. And it is eerie. A second person voiced narrator in which “you” is a substitute for “I.” As is common when people are speaking of themselves, particularly regarding emotional issues or feelings, they substitute the first person with the second person. They use “you” in place of the more accurate, “I.”

What the reader learns in the first paragraphs:  This narrator is in a dance club, that he is having a difficult time remembering where he is and what time it is, because he is so coked up that he barely knows who he is. It turns out he is in Lizard Lounge or Heartbreak. The irony is not lost on him or the reader (because we are one, according to the tense usage.) He concludes, somehow, that he needs more blow in order to feel better. He confuses himself with reflections of himself in mirrors and in other people’s eyes – the reader’s in particular.

What the reader learns in the first ten pages: Interestingly, the first chapter is ten pages long. The reader rides along with the nameless narrator as he debates another line, another dance partner, or departing the club into the early morning where, like a vampire, he will disintegrate. He has a couple of frustrating exchanges with a couple of women that lead nowhere when they discover he is out of cocaine. He takes a convoluted walk through his old neighborhood, where the reader in introduced to the fact that he is brooding over the loss of his wife. He ends up on the lower west side docks of New York having met a mean lady with a vicious dog, belligerent cab drivers, homeless and hookers, all on the Lord’s day and without his sunglasses. The reader is on a ride with someone who has, somehow, not yet hit bottom.

Language: Clearly, the second person POV is a prominent feature of this narrator’s style. Even though this narrator is clearly out of his mind on cocaine, he is charming, self-effacing, funny and highly ironic about himself and his situation. He code-names his drug usage, the Bolivian Marching Powder. The tempo is rapid, no surprise for a coke addict, but with a focused, singularity of design – this narrator does not want to be found out, and yet his major topic of dissertation is himself. We also learn that this narrator has an excellent command of language, and is unafraid to use big words on unsuspecting girls from New Jersey or The Bronx.

Setting: Manhattan’s mid 1980’s dance club scene with lots of mirrors and drugs to line them out on. All the chapters are titled. Most of them are ironically funny. The first chapter is called, “It’s Six A.M. Do you know where you are?” Much of the observation and recall is from within the narrator’s mind and memory, and they often overlap. The reader may not be exactly clear where the narrator is, but that becomes secondary to the narrator’s (and the reader’s, I imagine) desire to continue moving forward.

Character:  The reader does not learn the narrator / character’s name in the first chapter, primarily because the narrator doesn’t come in contact with anyone who even cares what his name might be. This narrator follows a strong personal directive to keep moving. It is clear that he is of the walking wounded, but one who hasn’t assessed how badly off he really is. When he figures that out (and I suspect that will be the character’s journey) he will, mostly likely, fall apart.

Structure (Rhythm, Tension):  Within the arc of the first chapter that takes the reader from glossy dance club to black and fetid waters under the piers, there are several short sections that stair step the reader down from glossy to fetid. In the way that the narrator can only concentrate on any one topic for short periods of time, the forward progression of the story is delivered in short, colorful bursts. Manhattan, full of activity and motion, is the backdrop. The narrator’s quest for more and better drugs, against his desire for a safe, cozy environment offer a constant, unsettling tension.

Intention: I doubt it is the author’s intention to frighten or teach the reader, but there is a large morale looming over the direction of this first chapter. The narrator is helplessly stoned, and he is, the reader logically figures, going to get worse. That is a bummer!

Thematic Preamble: This story does not offer a prologue of any kind. The reader is launched, full bore, into the action of the story. this story is a clear example of in medias res, the Roman poet, Horace’s way of saying, to begin in the middle of affairs. The reader is not brought up to speed with descriptions or introductions. The story starts and the reader must keep up.

Foreshadowing, Plot & Expectations beyond page ten:  To this reader the foreshadow is ominous and hangs over the narrator like the Coke spoon of Damocles. At some point this guy will have to face facts and clean up his act. Until then, he will exercise every opportunity to get loaded, disappointing all who love him. How, when and where are the elements that give the story an exciting and tragic forward motion.

Random Comments:  Michael J. Fox and Kiefer Sutherland starred in the 1988 film of the same name. It will be remade, they say.

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