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Dimming the Lights

While in Graham Greene’s novel the bathos of the hero’s predicament is given a certain gravitas by way of the author’s putative Roman Catholic faith, which condemns adulterers to hell and forbids divorce, in McInerney’s novel the lovers’ predicament seems less clear, for divorce has become a commonplace in their respective worlds (TriBeCa, Upper East Side) and theological constraints are unknown. In addition, both the lovers’ unworthy spouses have been unfaithful to them. McInerney would seem to recognize the risks in telling in such detail an utterly conventional Caucasian-heterosexual-adulterous love story set among middle-aged, privileged Manhattanites in and around the time of September 11: as the lover of a rich retired investment banker named Luke McGavock, Corrine is well aware of “the banality of the situation, the stiltedness of [the lovers’] exchange.”

An admirer of the prose of Graham Greene, notably The Heart of the Matter which she hopes to adapt into a screenplay for a high-quality independent film, Corrine finds herself enmeshed in a domestic narrative woven of clichés, as both the guilty adulterous wife (“You have to think about the children”) and the betrayed wife (whose callow husband has been “fucking some slut for two years”), doomed to trite, embarrassing situations, stale TV dialogue:

[Her husband’s] hangdog expression really pissed her off—as if he somehow thought he was the one who’d been trespassed against. “Just tell me one thing,” she said. “I want to know what she could possibly have that I don’t.” Aware, as soon as she said this, of what a cliché it was, how much she sounded like the victim in some horrible Lifetime movie.

Nor does her husband Russell reply in a way other than clichéd:

Do you really want to know? Because she’s not you. She’s different. That’s all. Not better. Different. Because—maybe you’re right, maybe she is a slut. And you’re not. You’re my wife.”

Though McInerney speaks contemptuously of women’s television programming, the party scene in which Russell’s slut-lover, Trisha, brazenly outs him in front of Corrine and other guests is pure Sex and the City: “‘So, this is Corrine,’ [Trisha] said, smiling brightly, ‘who doesn’t give blow jobs.’” Mischievous Trisha has even brought along printed-out e-mail messages from Russell to read aloud to party guests: “My dearest Trisha. I can’t sleep thinking about you. Corrine is asleep in the other room and all I can think about is you on your knees…in a posture of worship and submission.” But where one of the spirited young women of Sex and the City would have thrown a drink into someone’s face and exited, Corrine simply casts her husband an “excoriating gaze” and flees the scene.

Corrine’s edgy relationship with her free-living, sexually promiscuous, and druggie younger sister Hilary, who comes to stay with her and her family, is the very stuff of TV sitcom until it’s revealed that Hilary is the surrogate mother of Corrine and Russell’s twin children, when the triangle, or quadrangle, would appear to be one suited for a TV movie-of-the-week: “Sometimes I’m terrified that [Hilary’s] going to want to claim [the children] one day.” (In fact, this soap-operaish subplot, dropped midway in the novel as if the author had lost interest in pursuing it, would have provided the novel with original and engaging material, based upon the detailed, informed passages involving the medical, physiological, and psychological mechanics of surrogate parenthood.) Hilary, the wild sister, is another Sex and the City clone, a campy Samantha who slips away from a dinner party for quick bathroom sex with a stranger after having announced, “Actually, I’m kind of taking some time off at the moment. I’m working on a novel.”

As Corrine is tagged as intellectual/ artistic by way of her interest in adapting Graham Greene for film, so her lover, Luke McGavock, isn’t just another rich, retired alpha male investment banker with a gorgeous socialite wife but, like every other person in Manhattan, Luke is writing a book: “I think it would be about the samurai film. I have hundreds of pages of notes.” Despite this endearing eccentricity, Luke is, frankly, a dreamboat: he is “tawny and leonine,” with a “rangy, athletic body”; he has a “taut, musky, yielding mound of muscle beneath his clavicle” against which Corrine curls, murmuring, “Sometimes I find myself thinking about how close you were to being in Windows on the World that morning.” More enigmatically:

…He was one of those men who redeemed the idea of the suit, which emphasized his masculinity even as it somehow underlined his superiority to the lumpish herd of the facelessly uniformed… She thought about all the other women who had looked at him in a suit—on the street, in conference rooms, across the lobby of a hotel in Paris or Hong Kong.

To be kissed by such a man is to know yourself “a princess awakened by a magical kiss”; it seems redundant to be informed that sex between Corrine and Luke is “fireworks.” Corrine’s guilt acquires a new dimension, what might be called a politically charged guilt, after sex with such a man:

I must be morally defective,” Corrine said later, lying in the twisted quilt and playing with his penis as if it were her own new toy, even as she found herself weighing her guilt. “Here I am, wanting you to fuck me again, when bombs are raining down on some poor villagers on the other side of the world. I’ve been reading about how we’re all supposed to be ennobled by this terrible thing [September 11] that’s happened, but in the last two months I’ve started cheating on my husband, lying and scheming in pursuit of my own selfish pleasure. Sending my children away. Running down to [a relief center near Ground Zero] every night, supposedly to perform works of charity but actually exploiting someone else’s tragedy.”

Unlike Scott Spencer’s more subtly textured A Ship Made of Paper (2003), a comic-sardonic tale of middle-aged adulterous lovers which The Good Life resembles, McInerney’s novel draws back from dealing with the consequences of erotic betrayal; in the novel’s curiously muted conclusion, the lovers’ relationship remains unacknowledged and ambiguous as if, put to the test in a public setting in which both their families are present, they aren’t really so much committed to each other after all: “What [Luke] would remember, picturing it again and again over the years, was Corrine’s stricken face turning away, like a door closing on the last of his youthful ideals and illusions.”

As The Good Life oscillates uneasily between a Graham Greeneian moral seriousness and the rowdy sitcom levity that comes more naturally to the author of Bright Lights, Big City, secondary characters fade in and out of focus; some, like sexy Hilary, are simply dropped while others, like Luke’s caricatured wife, Sasha, turn up at crucial moments in expedient roles. Sasha McGavock is, as we are told repeatedly, spectacularly beautiful, if shallow; she has “a kind of luminous presence” with the power to make other good-looking blondes look like Chinatown knockoff versions of “Upper East Side Barbie.” Renowned for her fashion sense and a perennial of New York’s Best Dressed list, Sasha is one of those “celebrated beauties”:

women for whom the drape of a garment and the shape of the eyebrow were subjects of advanced study, who submitted themselves not only to trainers, hairdressers, and stylists but even unto the scalpels of surgeons in pursuit of a feminine ideal that they, in turn, took their modest part in shaping after their pictures appeared in the party pages of Town & Country and W.

Observing Sasha being prepared by her makeup team for an important social occasion, Luke is reminded of Bismarck’s famous remark about law and sausages: “Feminine glamour was something you didn’t necessarily want to see being made.” But McInerney has too romantic a sensibility for memorable satire, which requires a kind of deranged genius, the scintillant misogyny of Jonathan Swift (“The Lady’s Dressing Room,” 1730) or the more genial misanthropy of Balzac; his satiric portraits are Tom Wolfe Lite, sketchy stereotypical figures to lend The Good Life the questionable flavor of a roman à clef:

…a tuxedoed Tupper Carlson, ruler of a downtown brokerage house and the president of the co-op, descending from the penthouse with his great blue heron of a wife, notable for her stick legs and prominent beak…. Her pencil-thin, sinewy arms and knotted hands were at odds with her taut glazed-porcelain face. Sixty-year-old arms and hands, forty-year-old face….

This regal couple always conveyed a certain irritation when forced to share the elevator, having largely insulated themselves from unexpected infusions of humanity with their chauffeur-driven cars, private jets, and private clubs….

Another broadly satiric portrait is the billionaire corporate raider and socially prominent philanthropist Bernie Melman, Sasha’s secret lover, who’d left in his professional wake an “army of disappointed investors and wrecked companies, [yet], unlike some of his peers, he’d never been indicted.” Once caricatured as a barbarian and a parvenu, the financial wizard Melman, with the unflagging energy of a Donald Trump, now enjoys social eminence and good press “as much from genuine admiration for his vast fortune as from fear of his power and influence, which now included certain branches of the media.” One of the undeveloped subplots of The Good Life involves the suspicion that Melman is having Luke followed by a surveillance team in an ominous black Suburban with tinted windows.

The Calloways’ social set, consisting mostly of people in the arts, evokes in the author an even milder satire: these are people who struggle to continue to live in Manhattan “on less than two hundred and fifty grand a year,” don’t ride in chauffeured limousines, and don’t own their apartments. In this world, for trendy men like Corrine’s husband, Russell, gourmet food preparation has become a “new sphere of masculine competition” involving “Sturm and Drang…angst and adrenaline.” Inviting celebrity guests like Salman Rushdie makes one vulnerable to the humiliating risk that they might cancel at the last minute, as the wily Rushdie does, perhaps sensing that he was in for a dismal evening at the Calloways when one of the female guests erupts into a drunken monologue to be expected in satiric novels of this sort or in plays influenced by Albee. Rushdie might also sense that his name, like the names of a number of other celebrities, is being exploited, in scenes that might have first appeared in The New York Times tongue-in-cheek “Boldface” column:

As they climbed the stairs of the town house—occupied by a prominent literary power couple, a writer and an editor whose enduring marriage was a source of wonder in the publishing world—Russell called Corrine’s attention to the lower door, just below street level.

That’s Gay’s office,” he said. “He gets up every morning, dudes himself up in one of his bespoke suits, has breakfast, waves good-bye to Nan, puts a hat on his head, and a coat, depending on the season, then walks out this door and down the stairs to the lower door and into his office. A ritualistic preparation for his workday, a kind of symbolic commute.”

That’s what you always say when we come here.”

At the power couple’s garden party is one Harold Stone, “looking more than ever like a great horned owl, with his beaky lips and the unkempt late-life eyebrows that rose into twin peaks halfway up his forehead.” A caricature out of a roman à clef,

Harold was such a monument, you could almost imagine the dandruff on his shoulders as pigeon shit…. A junior member of the old Partisan Review crowd, protégé of Hellman and Arendt, lover of McCarthy, friend of Mailer, Bellow, and Roth, mentor to Sontag, he’d more or less invented the trade paperback book…. His deep involvement with leftist politics hadn’t prevented him from acquiring a modest fortune.

Elsewhere, at another gathering, “Morgan Entrekin” is helpfully identified as “the publisher.” Perhaps the only individual truly worthy of boldface type is “Mr. Alec Baldwin,” who is more than once evoked in The Good Life though, to our collective disappointment, he never actually appears.

After the cataclysm of September 11, which McInerney wisely makes no attempt to describe firsthand, The Good Life seems to begin again in Part Two, fittingly titled “That Autumn.” Corrine’s and Luke’s lives intersect randomly when she discovers him staggering shell-shocked and exhausted on West Broadway on the morning of September 12; the two are immediately attracted to each other and meet soon again at a volunteer-run relief center near Ground Zero:

The air was charged as if by the electricity of an imminent storm—by the suspense of the increasingly urgent and unlikely search for the living, by the thick proximity of the dead, by caffeine and the hallucinatory buzz of sleeplessness. The volunteers went about the mundane tasks of food and beverage preparation with a kind of syncopated exigency, animated by the fierce gravitational pull of the black hole several blocks to the north….

Within this “fierce gravitational pull” Mclnerney’s prose takes on a new thoughtfulness and somber lyricism so distinct from the chatty informality of his more characteristic prose as to suggest the voice of an entirely different novel. Here, at least initially, the trance of narcissism pervading much of McInerney’s fiction gives way to something approaching a genuine vision of mortality, as in this reverie of Luke McGavock’s lost youth:

When had the dewy sheen of youthful exuberance hardened into the glossy shellac of sophistication? He knew it was partly his fault, being seven years older [than his wife], with ambitions of his own. The same thing happened, he supposed, to all of the eager boys and girls drawn to the brilliant glow of the city from Charlotte, Charlottesburg, Pittsburgh, Pittsfield, and Des Plaines; from Buxton, Kingston, Birmingham, and Bellingham. They gained their citizenship at the expense of their amazement. In the long run, the spectacle and chaotic grandeur of the city, like the sun, were too overwhelming to view with the naked eyes of wonder…. When was the last time that any of them had even looked at those towers at the tip of the island, really?

It’s a lament that might have been uttered by F. Scott Fitzgerald, for whom, like Jay Mclnerney, the most poignant experiences tend to be nostalgic.

Even Corrine’s callow husband Russell is shaken by September 11, having lost a close friend in the disaster and having witnessed firsthand the “‘not-quite-tiny-enough’ figures jumping out of the tower eight blocks away from the Calloways’ loft, close enough to distinguish between men and women.” (Russell stopped counting after twenty-seven.) The Good Life is at its most engaging in evoking the mood of the post-disaster city as the initial shock and numbed trauma begin to give way to hysteria:

The city had never seemed so fragile. Bomb threats, chemical scares, viruses biological and virtual. The sound of sirens had become endemic, or was it just that [Russell] noticed them now? No rumor was implausible. Last Thursday, the wind had shifted and carried the smoke uptown, well into the Fifties, and the sense of stunned relief that had seemed to prevail among those who found themselves alive on Wednesday had given way to anxiety and public craziness, as if the electrical-fire, oven-cleaner smell carried with it some psychotropic substance—Russell saw people shouting on street corners, talking to themselves, couples fighting bitterly on the sidewalks. It reminded him of 1979, when he’d arrived in a nearly bankrupt city that felt on the verge of collapse, fraught with trash and peril.

Two weeks later, at the relief center near Ground Zero, the still-shaken Luke thinks:

The presence of the dead was most palpable in the hours after midnight, their spirits hovering in the canyons. It was better, feeling them around you, than seeing them in your sleep uptown. There was something demoralizing about the sunrise—the daylight inappropriately cheerful and mundane. Darkness, with its unfolding intimacy and its mortal intimations, was more suited to the time and the place, more conducive to mourning, to rumors, to shared confidences and bravado.

In a stumbling account to Corrine of his quixotic search for a friend believed to be lost amid the smoldering rubble at Ground Zero, Luke speaks of “voids”—holes under the debris:

That was what you hoped for, what we were all looking for. Voids, pockets of space and air where someone might have survived. That was the worst part for me, when I was at the front of the line—groping into those empty spaces. I felt like a coward; all I could think about was reaching into a void and having a hand grab me. It seemed terrifying, those holes…. Here I am, supposedly rescuing people, and I’m afraid even to reach inside. Those voids are like portals to the underworld. The firemen could do it. But you didn’t talk to them. They were righteous. They were angry. We left them alone. I wished I could be fearless, but I was scared shitless half the time.

Unfortunately, all too quickly McInerney’s characters revert to type. The author seems incapable of imagining for them lives in which the more-than-personal might meaningfully interact with the merely personal, private, sexual. In an implausible sort of political vacuum in which the airplanes crashing into the World Trade Center towers seem to have simply appeared out of the sky as a grotesque sort of accident labeled vaguely as “terrorism,” no one speculates on the reasons for September 11, no one speculates on the (political, ethnic, national, religious) identities of the terrorists, no one speculates on the United States government’s response to September 11, or, indeed, indicates that there has been and will be a response; at a time in our history when “suicide bombers”—“al-Qaeda”—“Osama bin Laden”—“Islam”—“Saudi Arabia”—“Palestine”—“Israel” were commonplace words among even schoolchildren in the New York City region, the most overt political reference anyone in The Good Life makes is the complaint of a friend of Russell Calloway who feels that he will have to move his family to the suburbs: “I think we’re witnessing the beginning of the end of the whole idea of the city. Technology was already making concentration irrelevant. Terrorism will make it impractical.” Russell is roused from his short-lived grief for his friend by sexual fantasizing:

Was this to be the legacy: war-time couplings, sudden intimacies, frenzied couplings in stairwells and broom closets? Suddenly, inexcusably, he felt the same erotic possibility hovering in the smudged air as he once had when he was in his twenties….

At the volunteers’ soup kitchen near Ground Zero, Corrine fantasizes with her new friend Luke:

There are probably thousands of people having sex all over the city right now. Clutching one another, reaching out for a stranger. I mean, more than usual.” She suddenly felt awkward, worried that he would think that she was being flirtatious or suggestive, which she hadn’t meant to be—even as she experienced an unexpected intimacy with this attractive man.

Corrine and Luke relate to each other primarily through sexual banter and sexually charged anecdotes; Corrine quizzes Luke about his sexual experiences including visits to prostitutes:

Was it exciting? Or just sleazy?”

For most of us, sleazy is exciting. That’s kind of the whole point….”

Are hookers really better at it than the rest of us?

I couldn’t say.”

Come on.”

He sighed. Her curiosity was amusing, even stimulating. What the fuck, he thought. “Once,” he said. “In Hong Kong. On a business trip.”

And?”

Honestly? It was great.”

She slapped his shoulder hard, playfully. “She was good?”

But Corrine, we seem to know beforehand, will be better.

Though a glut of material has appeared on the subject of September 11, much of it the recorded testimony of survivors and eyewitnesses, very few writers of fiction have taken up the challenge and still fewer have dared to venture close to the actual event; September 11 has become a kind of Holocaust subject, hallowed ground to be approached with awe, trepidation, and utmost caution. The reader’s natural instinct is to recoil from a purely fictitious treatment of so profound and communal a subject, for the task of fiction is to create a self-defined, self-absorbed, and highly charged text out of language, and the appropriation of a communal trauma for such purposes would seem to be exploitative. (The popular bias for memoir in our time, even fictionalized memoir, is this wish for “authenticity” on the part of the author who has also been a participant in his story.)

More crucially, fiction must focus upon invented people whose personal lives take precedence over the collective, and readers might well resent the intrusion of invented people in a foreground that blocks our view of the far more significant background. The self-absorbed characters of The Good Life come to seem like antic figures on a movie screen that evaporate when exposed to daylight, all the more annoying in that their interwoven stories are so familiar. McInerney prefaces his novel with an obligatory epigraph from John Cheever, the avuncular patron saint of middle-aged, male-writerly self-pity:

In middle age there is mystery, there is mystification. The most I can make out of this hour is a kind of loneliness. Even the beauty of the physical world seems to crumble, yes, even love.

In fact, the mysteries of middle age are likely to be clichés unless transformed by an original vision and language.

McInerney’s arresting image of “voids” amid the smoldering rubble of September 11 would seem to apply to The Good Life as a work of fiction: in its voids, a counter-novel begins to emerge, a prose poem of sheer unmitigated terror beyond the glib claims of solicitude; intensely felt, thrumming with a fierce, visceral life, mysterious and unpredictable in the way of genuine art, as the outer novel, the larger formulaic novel of the Calloways and the McGavocks and their soap-opera predicaments, lacks mystery and is utterly predictable.

That the author’s fatal wish to “entertain”—to deliver for publication a novel marketable for “general sales”—took precedence over this elusive prose-poem novel might lie at the heart of the book’s prevailing mood of loss. On the novel’s concluding page, Luke McGavock laments that

the satori flash of acute wakefulness and connectedness that had followed the initial confrontation with mortality in September was already fading behind them. For a few weeks, they had all found it impossible to believe that anything would ever be the same again.

No alternative then than to join his bitchy wife, Sasha, and recovering-druggie teenaged daughter, Ashley, for their annual Nutcracker evening at Lincoln Center.

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