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.

What McInerney has attempted is to tell a story familiar from his earlier fiction – characters living a superficial, hedonistic life, abruptly woken up by some traumatic event and made to see the shallowness of it all – except that it is now related, for the first time, to larger social changes. The rise and fall of Russell and Corrine (he an underpaid editor who makes a bid to buy up the publishing company which employs him, she a Wall Street dealer with a conscience) is clearly intended as a parable of the financial malpractices of the last decade which culminated in – without being curtailed by – the crash of 1987. The sketch of Russell’s growing ambition is psychologically persuasive: we watch his best ideas and pet projects being blocked by his once encouraging boss, Harold Stone, and we see him being sweet-talked into the idea over lunch by a charismatic author, Victor Propp (Harold Brodkey-like, he has been writing a massive novel for the last twenty years, with the help of steadily inflating advances), who senses Stone’s loss of faith in his masterpiece and would rather have a young disciple like Russell overseeing its publication. And McInerney gives a convincing account of the growing estrangement between the young couple, Corrine getting disenchanted with the markets just as Russell becomes enamoured of them, and showing more and more signs of a ‘Mother Teresa syndrome’ which involves her doing volunteer work at a soup kitchen. The attempt, therefore, is to portray New York life at its brightest and darkest – to present (in a phrase which Alasdair Gray used of Dickens and Hugo) ‘a rich social variety in a strong moralising sauce’.

This moralising is expressed through plot rather than explicit commentary. Russell misbehaves himself both financially and sexually (although on the latter count it is insisted, somewhat lamely, that he was too drunk to know what he was doing), and Corrine, it transpires, is also guilty of pre-marital infidelity. But their comeuppance turns out to be pretty tame. On the final page Russell lies in bed and reflects that ‘they’ve been learning to get by with less, and they’ll keep learning. It seems to him as if they’re taking a course in loss lately.’ It’s true that one of their best friends has just died, but otherwise this ‘loss’ seems to consist of having to sublet their New York apartment and submit to a little mild belt-tightening on their regular Caribbean holiday: ‘The restaurants were prohibitively expensive, though probably no more expensive than before, and after their second night they bought groceries in town so they could economise on meals.’ If these are meant to be the economic consequences of the worst financial disaster since 1929, they don’t, it has to be said, seem particularly devastating.

If McInerney seems to be letting his characters off lightly, this can only be because for narrative purposes he has allowed his own voice – his own authorial personality, in fact – to become messily entangled with theirs. Among the perspectives available to the would-be satirist are the lordly, rigorously detached third person or the unreliable first person, ironically and unwittingly implicated in the events described (McInerney himself concocted an ingenious variation on this with his innovative second-person voice in Bright Lights, Big City). Brightness Falls adopts an easier but less fruitful strategy: McInerney allows himself to be identified with his characters, not in the sense of sympathising with them (which would be fine), but because he so often uses them as mouthpieces for observations which are identifiably authorial. The novel is full of good one-liners, but because he has not left himself room for a coherent authorial perspective, they have to be assigned to inappropriate characters and their impact is muted: ‘He had long before concluded that if figures of speech based on sports and fornication were suddenly banned, American corporate communication would be reduced to pure mathematics.’ This is clever: but is it something that Harold Stone would think, and at that particular moment? Likewise when Corrine confesses that she went to bed with Russell’s best friend because she needed comfort, the cruel wit of the retort – ‘Comfort is not an emotion that needs to be administered vaginally’ – is lost beneath the weight of the character’s self-pity.

In short, the author is everywhere and nowhere in this novel. For ever wriggling inside his characters in order to ventriloquise his own aphorisms, he can never get enough distance from them to grasp the real foolishness or enormity of their actions. The consequence is that there is nobody around to give force to what ought to have been the grotesque, tragic climax of the book, when the markets go into free fall. By the time McInerney gets around to telling us about this, his comic sense seems to have deserted him and there is no aura of either absurdity or momentousness to his narration: ‘Although none of the men was intimate with the financial markets, it was nearly impossible not to be aware of the previous day’s catastrophe. Half a trillion dollars had allegedly vanished in a day, leaving behind neither smoke nor rubble ... The mysterious event was referred to as a “meltdown”, a term evoking in many viewers disturbing associations of nuclear disaster.’ But after 380 pages of following the lives of these characters, the disaster should be more than merely ‘mysterious’. The failure of perspective at the heart of this book has led to something much less forgivable: a failure of anger.

McInerney’s promiscuous switches of viewpoint at least mean that Brightness Falls never wants for variety. Mona Simpson’s second novel The Lost Father offers a more daunting prospect: 500 pages locked within the confines of a single consciousness, and a dogged, unflinching preoccupation with the self, the ‘I’ of the narrator/heroine. Sometimes, I found, the reader’s vision glazes over and all you can see is the vertical slash of first-person pronouns clustered across every page.

Not that the consciousness in question isn’t interesting or complex. The Lost Father is a sequel to Anywhere But Here, which examined the relationship between a young girl called Mayan and her mother Adele as they drifted in and around California in search of TV stardom and decent accommodation. Now Mayan is grown up and working as a medical student in New York: but her burning ambition is to locate her father, an Egyptian named Mohammed Atassi who walked out on her family when she was very young. As long as this ambition remains unfulfilled, she is broken, fragmented: she even goes by three different names – Mayan Atassi, Mayan Stevenson and Ann Stevenson. Both the book and its central character, then, are subject to the same tension: they are torn between a strong, propulsive, forward impulse – the drive to find Mayan’s lost father, which takes Mayan halfway across America, and indeed across the globe – and its opposite, an inert, paralysed state given over to nostalgia, reverie and irresolution.

Not surprisingly, Simpson’s attempt to negotiate between these two different camps leads to frustration for the reader. There is something appealing about the way Mayan declines to glamorise herself: ‘I mostly stayed in my apartment at the desk with my book open under the lamplight. I drank coffee, bit the ends of my hair, memorising bones. I tried to plan rewards that would not involve calories.’ After all that time spent with McInerney’s beautiful people, where every woman looks like a fashion model (often because she is a fashion model) and every man is a high achiever in single-minded pursuit of his career goals, this sort of candid admission of defeat is extremely welcome. And it is related to one of Simpson’s most truthful perceptions: her insistence that people often make life-changing decisions not rationally but on the basis of whims and daydreams: ‘I’d picked New York,’ Mayan admits blithely, ‘because I had a vision of myself wearing white bucks and a pink cable-knit sweater, holding the silver subway pole.’ But there’s also (remember?) a story to be told here, and from that point of view the first half of the novel is disfigured by an almost morbid tendency towards digression. Mayan cannot witness any incident, hear any word, feel the flicker of even the most fleetingly evanescent image without its triggering a lengthy flashback. The links don’t have to be strong. Using the telephone makes her think of other times she used the telephone (‘One time Bud Edison had woken up and walked with his arms out to where I was naked, crouched over the phone on his desk’). Going home for Christmas makes her think of other Christmases (‘One year for Christmas I told my mother I wanted nothing but to be on a TV show’). Talking about money with a travel agent leads into a passage that begins: ‘Money. Once in California, with Stevie Howard, we ate a tart made of golden raspberries, in a restaurant. He didn’t particularly like it.’ Food is often central to these flashbacks: she reminisces about Mexican donuts, blueberry pancakes, cookies, black bottom pie, hot chocolate and more cookies. Of course, one of the points of the book is to show that the past is a clutter of incidental details which has to be shaken off, but Simpson offers up these fragments with an air of reverence – of the numinous, even – which the reader, straining at the narrative leash, can hardly be expected to share. ‘I had a mission here and small talk was keeping me from it. Small talk and food,’ she writes at one point. It’s one of her rare moments of impatience and for once we can all wholeheartedly agree.

But eventually the narrative is allowed to get up a good head of steam, and the excitement of the final stages of the search – involving the inevitable trip to Egypt – is topped only by the exhilarating rightness of the novel’s anticlimax, when Mayan does find her father and realises that she is no closer to solving the mystery which has been dogging her all her life: ‘Why you are unwanted: that is the only question. In the end, you understand, that is always the question you came here to ask, you crossed the globe for, spent years of your life, and at the same time as you see his face hearing those words in your voice, you understand too, like something falling, that this is the one question no one can ever answer you,’

Atassi himself is drawn with cool accuracy: he’s a liar and a drifter with just about enough in the way of charisma and a good heart to inspire devotion in those with the bad judgment to become attached to him. One of the best twists of Simpson’s emotional knife comes when Mayan is first reunited with her father and his new wife Uta: their pleasure in seeing her again is as genuine as their baffling inability to see why they should have made any effort to let her know where they are. Upstairs, their dog is locked in a bedroom. ‘Every so often the dog would scratch and whimper and Uta would say, “Aw, he’s lonely for his daddy. He loves his daddy so much.” ’ The irony of this – that Uta should have more sympathy for the dog than she ever had for Mayan – is not laboured: the remark itself is not even commented upon. It just hangs there, quietly shattering. The Lost Father seems worth tackling when you get to effects like this, but prospective readers should be warned that what they are getting for their money is only about two-fifths of a marvellously accomplished novel. Too much of the rest is just small talk and food.

While discussing the earnest productions of these young American heavyweights, it seems worth mentioning the appearance of the latest novel from a well-established maverick who can still find room in his fiction for the truly bizarre and unpredictable. Out with the Stars is not exactly James Purdy’s most polished work, and will hardly convert those detractors who view his writing as a parodic assault on literary convention, a sort of sustained novelistic suicide. But there is certainly fun to be had in this convoluted story of an ageing composer, Abner Blossom, who attempts to write an opera around the life of the scandalous photographer Cyril Vane and his homoerotic obsession with Afro-Americans. The dialogue is superbly fruity, and the book reaches a pitch of high camp in a scene where two young lovers, Val and Luigi, lie in bed together – Val lost in a romantic swoon, Luigi improvising melodies as he sings aloud to him from a book of Italian love stories. And occasionally the overripe, hothouse atmosphere will give birth to prose of crystalline beauty, as when Val, finally abandoned by Luigi, remarks that ‘his vocation was desertion.’ Mona Simpson might have applied this phrase with peculiar aptness to her own shiftless father-figure; but I don’t think anyone other than Purdy could have written it.