-Using historical events to shape your narrative
-Using multiple points of view to paint a fuller picture and induce more sympathy
-Using objects to divert melodrama
There’s something about Jay McInerney’s 1993 novel Brightness Falls (a sequel to his Bright Lights, Big City in spirit only) that feels like a trashy beach read despite the elegance of the prose. This may be my reluctant way of admitting I enjoyed it despite my conflicting feelings surrounding reading (yet again) about the struggles of privileged New Yorkers. But there’s more to this book than its shiny surface: scenes of flighty dinner and beach parties are part of a much more purposeful structure than they initially seem.
If you lived in NYC in the 1980s, your life was more than likely affected by one of two things: the stock market or HIV. Brightness Falls traces the fortunes of a couple affected by both, taking place over the course of the year culminating in the 1987 stock market crash. The plot centers on Russell and Corrine, married five years, as Russell attempts an ambitious hostile takeover of the publishing company he works for. Initially, Russell’s takeover attempt and the marriage look overwhelmingly promising, much like the market, until all three simultaneously dive bomb and crash. The marriage and Russell’s career having low points that so neatly coincide with each other is not a coincidence: it is precisely Russell’s focus on his career that has created the toxic distance in his marriage. McInerney uses a roving third person perspective that, as is often the case in thrillers, can jump into anyone’s thoughts with the beginning of a new chapter or scene, a choice that enables him to present the marriage from both Russell’s and Corrine’s (and third party/wheel old bff Jeff’s) perspectives, giving the reader a fully fleshed out portrait of all the misunderstandings that lead the marriage to its near-demise.
Before we get into this omniscience, the novel begins with a brief first-person prologue from the perspective of Jeff, good friend of both Russell and Corrine from college, presenting an episode we won’t actually get to until late in the novel. The novel’s first line is thus “The last time I saw Russell and Corrine together…” cluing us in that the novel’s structure is dictated by tracking when this couple is together versus apart. The structure is depicting the events leading up to a trial separation of their marriage (this is the climax, concurrent with the market crash), following which they will tentatively reunite and then ultimately recover (as will the market). At the beginning we see Russell at work at his publishing firm, discontent with his boss-mentor who started him there in an already strained relationship further pressed by Russell witnessing the married boss-mentor canoodling with his secretary (merely a foreshadowing to infidelity to come). His job in danger, he decides to take a risk, take advantage of the bull market, and take on seventy million dollars in debt in order to try to buy the publishing firm outright and run it himself. Meanwhile, his wife Corrine, a smalltime stockbroker who peddles junk bonds, quits drinking and withdraws from social life just as Russell gets sucked up to higher rungs.
As per Jeff’s outsider perspective of them as “America’s sweethearts,” in the beginning their marriage is depicted as stellar and standard, “a safe haven in a city that murdered marriages.” But the rift that forms in it is clear and simple: Corrine believes Russell’s hostile takeover is excessively ambitious and doesn’t really want him to go through with the deal. Though they both know this is true, neither says it outright and proceed as if it isn’t, tensions building. Over the months the deal is being worked out, Russell grows closer to his investment banker Trina, eventually giving in and sleeping with her (that Russell is seduced carnally by the embodiment of what’s seducing him financially is no coincidence). Corrine kicks him out just before he learns the financing on his side of the deal is falling through. Then his best friend Jeff, proving he’s more functional role than just providing an outside perspective and portrait of the wild single life Russell didn’t get to live, calls from the rehab they’ve stuck him in for heroin detox and confesses as part of his twelve steps that he’s, uh, slept with Corrine a few times.
Having failed in New York and with little hope for the marriage, Russell moves to L.A. to work in the movies. Jeff visits to ask forgiveness for his former antagonistic apology and further confesses that he’s always been in love with Corrine, prompting us to calculate that Corrine and Russell’s marriage is thus to some extent at the heart of Jeff’s heroin addiction. Russell is eventually reunited with Corrine at Jeff’s funeral after he dies of HIV, presumably contracted through needle use. Russell stays and they get back together.
On the surface this plot might sound soap-opera cheesy, beach-read trashy. Aside from the energy of the prose, McInerney redeems it through the shared points of view, which enables him to make both Russell and Corrine sympathetic (often this sympathy often comes from the other one being annoying). The sequence of Russell’s giving into cheating when Trina gets stuck having to share his hotel room is especially satisfying: “For months he’d imagined and rehearsed this encounter; now he drew back and looked for a reprieve from his desire at the very moment that its consummation had become inevitable.” One notices that this is a similar patter to the one Russell has followed in his career, madly pursuing the takeover and then becoming fearful once it looked like it might actually go through. He’s so drunk by the time they finally consummate, he has no memory of the actual transgression. Oh the irony: when he finally gives in to cheating he doesn’t even get to enjoy it (another thing that makes us sympathize with him even if we don’t want to admit it).
Corrine calls the hotel and there’s a Mrs. Calloway registered to the room in addition to Mr. Russell Calloway. Drawing conclusions, she winds up livid about Russell’s cheating with Trina before the cheating has actually taken place. Trina has shown up and registered herself as Mrs. Calloway without Russell’s knowledge: “Russell hadn’t asked Trina how she talked her way into the room; she was nothing if not resourceful.” Russell never knows how Corrine knows about the cheating. Shortly thereafter Russell (and the readers) learn of Corrinne’s past indiscretions, leveling the playing field: no one is blameless here. Corrine even defends Russell at one point:
Corrine had told her [mother] about calling Frankfurt and discovering another Mrs. Calloway registered to Russell’s room. Since arriving home she hadn’t divulged much, and she had yet to tell her mother about her recently revealed history with Jeff. Deeply remorseful and ashamed, she wanted only sympathy at the time. Jessie said, “I never pegged Russell as the type.”
“I wouldn’t say he was the type,” Corrine said, a note of defensiveness creeping into her voice as she straddled separate loyalties. “It just happened.”
That both are culpable in this marital collapse might indicate that the privileged are culpable in the market’s, which is occurring simultaneously.
At the nicely satisfying climax, Russell takes three calls in one afternoon, one from Trina informing him the financing for his deal has fallen through, one from his broker informing him of the massive losses he’s taken thanks to the stock market crash (further exacerbated by the heavy debt he’s carrying to buy the publishing company he’s failed to procure, meaning he’s taken “an eighty-percent loss on borrowed money”), and the third from a lawyer informing him Corrine has had all his assets frozen. The shit has hit the fan; the brightness has fallen—though not quite as far as it’s going to.
After Russell and Corrine are separated, Corrine’s mink coat is returned to Russell as per usual from its annual summertime storage, triggering a memory of when they got it shortly after they were married and couldn’t afford it (and “that was why they were going to”). Then Russell has his first conversation with Corrine after he’s learned she slept with Jeff, an event they briefly discuss directly before McInerney wisely slips into summary:
They talked for an hour. Frigid with scorn at first, Russell became angry; later, he cried. Corrine cried, too, and for a time they seemed to be trying to console each other, as if they were old friends who had suffered separate, unrelated tragedies.
“I have your mink,” he said at one point, when he couldn’t think of anything else.
“Keep it. Maybe you can sell it.”
“I don’t want it. It suddenly seems like a ridiculous thing to have.”
“Thanks,” he said.
“I’m sorry. I just mean almost everything about my life has been so frivolous and stupid. A mink coat. Jesus. I don’t know, it’s like, what were we thinking of?”
By rejecting the mink coat Corrine is rejecting the marriage, a fact that is not lost on Russell. When they do rebuild their marriage, it will be from a foundation with different values.
What’s great about McInerney is that so many tidbits that seem to be rambling and drunk on their own prosaic elegance are, for the most part, serving a greater function. Even JD Salinger’s cameo—Corrine had lunch with him as an undergraduate, accepting the invitation to do so before realizing who he was—highlights how others read more into our stories than is there: both Russell and Jeff think something more happened at the lunch than did, and Corrine’s revelation of Salinger’s obsession with vitamins and the concrete bunker where he writes serves as the antithesis to the writer in Jeff’s mode of clichéd self-destruction.
Near the end, when Corrine is on her own and working at the mission one night, she is witness to the brutal police takedown of a shantytown; getting closer to the scene believing that it will get less ugly “if people like herself were on hand,” she herself becomes lumped with the group, is targeted by the cops and must run from them, helped by Ace, a homeless man who’s appeared throughout the book, first at the Calloways’ dinner party—the starting point serving as our it’s-all-downhill-from-here—as a hired doorman for the (he winds up trying to steal from them), then in scenes witnessing Jeff score heroin from the shantytown. Corrine is so trusting of Ace after he protects her during the near-riot that she lets him up to her apartment, where eventually he tries to force himself on her. She gets him to leave and doesn’t see him again, except once when he hovers outside her building, prompting her to call Jeff, but by the time he gets there Ace is gone, and Corrine never sees him again, hearing that “‘It was the AIDS got him,’” foreshadowing Jeff’s imminent death from the same disease. That someone from their privileged circle will die from the same disease as a homeless man shows that they are not outside the bubble of the city’s indifferent violence, that their privilege will not insulate them. Corrine and Russell’s marriage being implicated in Jeff’s heroin use perhaps implicates privilege itself as causing the violence in addition to demonstrating susceptibility to it.
Another good moment of recurring object use to remind us of how much has been lost over the course of this particular year, and of how Corrine and Russell’s failing marriage is merely a microcosm of the market/world at large, is the image we’re left with near the very end, when Russell and Corrine revisit their vacation spot in St. Barts. We saw them visit earlier in the novel, with the plot-functional purpose not just to show us how their striving for a privileged lifestyle, but to have Russell run into a woman he’s given his phone number to in the closest dalliance with cheating he’s had up to that point, all part of the narrative arc’s steady chipping away at his marital integrity. While they’re there, they also see the yacht of one of the richest men in the world, who’s rumored to live on board. When they return, the yacht resurfaces—almost:
Looking down at the water, she saw a ghostly shape against the dark green background of a reef, a huge blue lozenge on the sea floor, which appeared to be the hull of a large boat. Several buoys on the surface marked the location of the wreck. She tried to point it out to Russell, on the aisle seat, but by the time he looked out the tiny window they were over the ridge above the airstrip.
Later they heard the wreck Corrine had seen was J. P. Haddad’s yacht, lost in a big storm earlier in the winter, now eighty feet down. It had taken eight hours for it to sink. The crew had successfully reached shore, but some claimed that Haddad himself had gone down with the ship. Certainly no one knew his whereabouts. A voluble American told them, one night in a bar, that all the sea cocks had been opened, the intake tubes slashed. “You know,” the man confided, “he lost everything in the crash.” The blue hull was still out there under the water when they flew back to New York, and sometimes in later years the image would bob up into Corrine’s consciousness—when she first heard, more than a year later, about the collapse of Melman’s empire, for instance—an enigma somehow associated with the time of their lives, just as men in yellow ties conjured the preceding period.
McInerney excels at these little anecdotes that encapsulate the larger arc of some tragically ironic movement, as when Russell and Corrine visit Jeff in rehab and Russell chases down a patient who makes a dash for the road during a softball game and Jeff, the person Russell will not be able to save, mutters, “Another save for Calloway.” The fact that Corrine tries to point out the wreckage to Russell but doesn’t in time for him to see it replicates her earlier reticence and warnings about his publishing takeover, which will lead to the wreckage of their marriage. It’s also worth noting that Corrine quit her stockbroking job right before the crash hit, while the crash exacerbates Russell’s already heavy losses. At any rate, the point is McInerney understands how are mind latches on to images, how it can project one as emblematic of a period of time or that captures one critical moment, as with Corrine’s later recasting of the whale that winds up beached at a party at Melman’s summer house as the moment she understood everything would go wrong.
The title of the book comes from a Thomas Nashe poem (it was either from that or a Shakespeare monologue) read at Jeff’s funeral:
Beauty is but a flower
Which wrinkles will devour;
Brightness falls from the air,
Queens have died young and fair,
Dust hath closed Helen’s eye.
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!
The meaning of the titular line, which Corrine remembers Russell once told her to “just think about” when she asked what it meant, suddenly comes to her upon hearing it in this context: everything beautiful fades. It is something she cannot be expected to understand without having experienced it herself. Her realization recalls her returning to her mother’s after leaving Russell:
The homing instinct that drew her here was accompanied by an equal and opposite reaction that made her resent the intended source of comfort.
Hearing the poem, she’s understanding that there is an “equal and opposite” reaction for everything that happens. What goes up must come down. One cannot help but think of financier Bernie Melman’s joke the morning after the crash: “Watch out for falling stockbrokers.” This image eerily foreshadows bodies falling from New York buildings in a different context…as we’ve seen in the above passage, though he remains on top through this particular skirmish, Melman’s own demise is also foretold.
The fact that Jeff’s funeral is what reunites Russell and Corrine literally—Russell returns to the city for it, stays with Corrine during it, and then just keeps staying with her—further underscores the need for Jeff to die for their marriage to continue: the man that was a threat to Russell, the man Corrine transgressed with whose transgression was worse for it being this particular man, as their connection was not just sexual but also emotional, is now out of the picture. Jeff’s death is the embodiment of the consequences of poor choices, and through his death Russell and Corrine narrowly escape total destruction by consequence of their choices. Their marriage is now, ironically, stronger as a consequence of their poor choices, for the trial it has undergone. Thus are they chastened and made more aware; they get a second chance.
In the end, this is a story of the privileged encountering failure and thus realizing how flimsy the veil of their privilege really is. Under this new shared knowledge, they’re able to start their marriage fresh. McInerney provides an ironic portrait of how a marriage becomes stronger by virtue of breaking. It is a metaphor we could only hope would hold for our country as well…