Beautiful People

Jonathan Coe

  • Brightness Falls by Jay McInerney
    Bloomsbury, 416 pp, £15.99, May 1992, ISBN 0 7475 1152 7
  • The Lost Father by Mona Simpson
    Faber, 506 pp, £14.99, May 1992, ISBN 0 571 16149 9
  • Out with the Stars by James Purdy
    Peter Owen, 192 pp, £14.99, June 1992, ISBN 0 7206 0861 9

It might seem a rather obvious point to make at the outset, but two of these novels are extremely long. Long novels make specific demands on our patience and attention, and in the end this can hardly help translating itself into a claim for their own importance: both Brightness Falls and The Lost Father constitute invitations to spend at least ten or twelve hours of our pressured lives listening to the voices of their authors. The physical weight of these books, then, announces their literary weightiness, but this creates formal problems for both writers. Although by the end of Mona Simpson’s novel we are in no doubt as to the seriousness of her themes or her genuine gift for plot, a huge amount of the surface texture of her book is taken up with the kind of homespun detail and domestic minutiae which we associate with the American minimalist writers, and it takes a long time for the reader to become convinced that there is material here for a sustained 500-page narrative rather than a Carveresque short story. As for McInerney, we have grown so used to thinking of him as a purveyor of brittle, epigrammatic fictions that there is an immediate sense of unease in seeing his characteristic milieu, preoccupations and ironies suddenly being given the full-blown neo-Dickensian treatment.

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