Departures’ Guide to Global Literature
Q&A with Jay McInerney and more.
Bright Lights, Big City, Jay McInerney’s 1984 debut novel, helped define an era and earned him comparisons to Fitzgerald and other great chroniclers of upper-crust America. Since then McInerney has continued to follow a familiar—at times recurring—cast of debauched and disillusioned characters. In April, Knopf will publish How It Ended: New and Collected Stories, which offers the perfect overview of McInerney’s career thus far.
Q: Your new collection spans three decades and gives a sense, among other things, of the transformation of New York.
A: The first story, “It’s Six A.M. Do You Know Where You Are?”—which was the basis for Bright Lights, Big City—is from the early eighties, and the most recent are from 2007 and 2008. The city has changed a lot in that time, so, yes, there’s a kind of a social history buried in there.
Q: Several stories also take place in the South.
A: I have always been intrigued by the southern literary tradition. And in many ways the South is the opposite of New York, so I found it an instructive contrast. For example, people here are so forward-looking, they can barely remember what they did yesterday, while in Tennessee people know what their ancestors were doing during the Civil War.
Q: Your work zeros in on a very thin slice of high society. Are there younger writers also covering this territory who you enjoy reading?
A: The characters I write about aren’t well covered in contemporary fiction. I think there’s a certain prejudice that wealthy people aren’t the subject of serious literary fiction, but I certainly find them a fascinating tribe.
Q: This year marks the 25th anniversary of Bright Lights, Big City. Any big plans?
A: Well, it might be premature to mention names, but you can safely say that there’s a new movie version in the works.
Had Halldór Laxness written in, say, English or Spanish, he’d be a superstar. But because his native Icelandic is spoken by fewer folks than live in Cincinnati, he rarely gets his due. Laxness (1902–1998) won the 1955 Nobel Prize in Literature on the strength of his novel Independent People (Vintage). In it, protagonist Bjartur of Summerhouses will do anything to keep his sheep farm going, including sacrificing his children, his tenderness, and his decency. But the bleakness is relieved by acts of kindness that wring your heart, folk wisdom so wise that you feel foolish, and the most sensuous nature writing ever.
Bookseller Recommends: Ifeanyi Menkiti, Grolier Poetry Book Shop
Since 1927, Grolier Poetry Book Shop has been a Harvard Square institution, a haven for aspiring poets as well as a meeting place for the likes of T. S. Eliot, Robert Lowell, Allen Ginsberg, and Robert Creeley. In 2006 Nigerian-born Ifeanyi Menkiti, a poet and professor at Wellesley College, became only the third owner in the store’s history, bringing it a renewed sense of mission: the need for poetry to “heal a divided world.” 6 Plympton St., Cambridge, Massachusetts; 617-547-4648; grolierpoetrybookshop.org
Labyrinths & Paths of Thunder By Christopher Okigbo (Africa World Press)
“Nigerian Okigbo was one of the great voices in the development of 20th-century modernism—his admirers often liken his work to that of Eliot and Pound.”
Gulf Music By Robert Pinsky (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
“In his seventh, and perhaps most daring, volume, Pinsky has his hand on the pulse of American life. His sense of the tragic intersections between the political and personal is defiant and unyielding.”
Voices from Shanghai: Jewish Exiles in Wartime China Edited by Irene Eber (University of Chicago Press)
“Eber introduces us to Jewish writers who, despite the anguish of war and exile, had the compassion to share the sorrows of the Chinese people.”
Twenty Poems to Nourish Your Soul Edited by Judith Valente and Charles Reynard (Loyola Press)
“After 9/11 it was said that people looked to poetry, rather than novels, for healing. These selections exemplify the sustenance poetry can provide.” —Carll Tucker
Visual Stimulation: Funny Pages
In the world of Jean-Philippe Delhomme, a couple entertains in their dressing room, the better to show off their designer clothing; visitors are the only art in a gallery; and kitchens are really just “laboratories” for conceptual food. Delhomme, a Paris-based illustrator, is best known here for his clever, painterly Barneys ads. Now, for the first time, a compilation of his satirical depictions of urban sophisticates, The Cultivated Life: Artistic, Literary, and Decorating Dramas (Rizzoli), is available in English. Each image is accompanied by a quote—“We were skeptical at first, but the Damien Hirst turned out to be perfect for the dining area” explains the one on the cover—that sends up familiar pretensions and hypocrisies. In another, a graying, potbellied artist says, “I’m quite aware that there’s a better chance of a magazine profiling my art studio than reviewing my work.” And that’s Delhomme’s genius: Underneath the hilarious, biting commentary, there is real sympathy for his characters’ anxiety and loneliness. —Julie Coe