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What was the deal with… Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney?

November 16, 2020

When Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney came out in the 1980s, it was a big deal because the author was a young New Yorker who wrote a novel in the second person point-of-view. Plus, it was a novel about drugs and New York and debauchery, and maybe the author knew what he was talking about, so his book was a literary hit.

This book has always rubbed me the wrong way. When I wrote a short story in second person for my fiction class in the 1980s, the professor mocked me for the attempt, saying it should never be done. A few months later, this Jay McInerney guy got applauded for doing the same thing I did, except in novel form. I wanted to take a copy of Bright Lights, Big City and rub it in the professor’s face, except the semester was over.

To be fair, my short story might have sucked. Bright Lights, Big City might have sucked too. Here’s an excerpt from the first paragraph:

*****

You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy. You are at a nightclub talking to a girl with a shaved head. The club is either Heartbreak or the Lizard Lounge. All might come clear if you could just slip into the bathroom and do a little more Bolivian Marching Powder. Then again, it might not. A small voice inside you insists that this epidemic lack of clarity is a result of too much of that already. The night has already turned on that imperceptible pivot where two A.M. changes to six A.M. You know this moment has come and gone, but you are not yet willing to concede that you have crossed the line beyond which all gratuitous damage and the palsy of unraveled nerve endings. Somewhere back there you could have cut your losses, but you rode past that moment on a comet trail of white powder and now you are trying to hang on to the rush. Your brain at this moment is composed of brigades of tiny Bolivian soldiers. They are tired and muddy from their long march through the night. There are holes in their boots and they are hungry. They need to be fed. They need the Bolivian Marching Powder.

*****

Yeah, this could get old really quickly. Plus, the spell can get broken with one moment of reader denial.

Book: “Your brain at this moment is composed of brigades of tiny Bolivian soldiers.

Reader: “No, it isn’t. This is stupid. (Reader slams book shut and places it back on shelf.)

I don’t remember much about my second person point-of-view short story in the 1980s, but I know my paragraphs were shorter, and I got straight to the point. Maybe my short story didn’t suck after all.

*****

What do you think? Does second person point-of-view work for you in fiction? How many books about New York debauchery can you read before it gets old?

3 Comments
  1. How weird that you should write a post about this. I just watched this movie last night – I didn’t read the book. They did a lot of those young professionals in New York, throwing their lives away for drugs and the party scene. Did get old now that I think about it – and depressing, and always with same actors.

    • “I just watched this movie last night – I didn’t read the book.”-

      That’s a cool coincidence or a weird synchronicity. I’ve never seen the movie. Was there any second person point-of-view narration?

      • Yes – now that I think about it there was, because initially I thought the narrator was talking about somebody else besides the main character

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