Dimming the Lights

Jay McInerney
Jay McInerney; drawing by David Levine

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…

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