May 14, 2007


denise hamilton

I beg to differ with TEV and The Guardian on McInerney's 9/11 book "The Good Life." Do not be misled by the off-base chick-lit trade paper cover. This is a v. serious novel, rendered in gorgeous, spare, elegaic and elegant prose, dealing with the most serious of issues - marriage, children, life, death, friends. And what, pray tell, is wrong with approaching 9/11 obliquely? After all, it's how the majority of the world experienced it - in between making meals, taking kids to school, fighting with SOs, having sex, all the little horrible and wonderful banalities that make up life. And the book's not about looking for status, far from that, it's about quite the opposite -- the unraveling. McInerney captures the inchoate yearning, helplessness and desire many of us felt, right after 9/11, to change our lives, make a difference, appreciate what's important and jettison what's not, and he's able through his gifts as a novelist to spin it into fine literary fiction. His characters are much more nuanced and profound than the Guardian reviewer gives credit for, and his portrait of the social-climbing beauty Sasha is devastating and quite 3-D, it would have been easy to make her a cardboard cutout "social X-ray" ala Tom Wolfe, but McInerney chose a more challenging route. Lastly the climax scene at the Nutcracker, when the two lovers accidentally run into each other with their respective families, was utterly magnificent. Which all makes me wonder if the Guardian reviewer even read "The Good Life" or whether you have, Mark, or are just repeating old saws about McInerney's writing?

For the Guardian's reviewer to make a sweeping statement that "the best 9/11 novels approach it directly" is just as silly and doctrinaire as to say that 9/11 must only be approached obliquely. Gee, and here I thought it all hinged upon the writing.

But I will concede this -- while I loved "Bright Lights, Big City" years ago, perhaps because I was of an age and time when it particularly spoke to me -- I gave McInerney a pass for years afterward because I felt I had moved on and wanted more meaty, serious books than this flip ode to youth and debauchery. In my ignorance it never occurred to me that McInerney too had moved on, matured, grown deeper and more melancholy, wistful and wise and profound. There's no doubt that McInerney writes about a certain class of people in Manhattan, but he uses that very tight lens to tell universal tales that move me immensely while also being an absolutely wicked observer of Manhattan manners, social ecosystems etc. People compare him to F. Scott Fitzerald and I totally see that, his themes transcend the narrow class he writes about, and there's a haunting wistfulness about his prose, like he's only gazing in from afar, like Gatsby. But I propose that in his dissection of landed gentry and smart, wanna-be Manhattan society, he is more like Edith Wharton, but with less didacticism and more soul.

For those who wrote off McInerney years ago, it's time to give him another try. Out of that whole brat pack of writers (Janowitz, Textier, Easton Ellis) it's McInerney who seems to have stood the test of time best and deepened, grown more complex, tawny, robust and profound, like one of the rare Burgundys one may assume his characters sip throughout "The Good Life" but which are actually in short supply in this devastatingly well-written novel.

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  • The Elegant Variation is "Fowler’s (1926, 1965) term for the inept writer’s overstrained efforts at freshness or vividness of expression. Prose guilty of elegant variation calls attention to itself and doesn’t permit its ideas to seem naturally clear. It typically seeks fancy new words for familiar things, and it scrambles for synonyms in order to avoid at all costs repeating a word, even though repetition might be the natural, normal thing to do: The audience had a certain bovine placidity, instead of The audience was as placid as cows. Elegant variation is often the rock, and a stereotype, a cliché, or a tired metaphor the hard place between which inexperienced or foolish writers come to grief. The familiar middle ground in treating these homely topics is almost always the safest. In untrained or unrestrained hands, a thesaurus can be dangerous."


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