Sunday, March 16, 2008

Unintended consequences

I really love it when something you do or experience sparks something completely unexpected and unrelated. Case in point, last Tuesday I saw The Mist and as Matt mentioned in his post about it, the cast was made up almost entirely of character actors that you spent a lot of time trying to figure out where you had seen them before. One of those character actors was none other than Frances Sternhagen. It took me quite a while during The Mist to identify her, and then all of a sudden I had the "a-ha!" moment and I remembered why her voice was so familiar. For me, Frances Sternhagen's most famous role is as Clara Tillinghast in the 1988 film adaptation of Jay McInerney's early 80s novel Bright Lights, Big City.

Because (and Heidi will attest to this) I am the most suggestible person alive, the presence of Frances Sternhagen in The Mist prompted me to pull out my well loved and well read copy of Bright Lights, Big City. I have read this book so many times that I've lost track of the total number of times I've read it. If forced to declare a favorite novel, I would probably name this one, mostly because every time I read it, I find myself completely drawn into the world of the unnamed narrator.

The first time I ever read the book was in college, probably 1993-ish. I read it not long after reading J.D. Salinger's The Catcher In The Rye for the very first time, the novel that many say inspired Bright Lights, Big City. Set in early-to-mid 80s New York City, the story follows a young twenty-something's voyage through a week in his life that is equal parts disastrous, educational and life-altering. There's something about the story and the club life and drug culture (which the story details and around which the events of the novel revolve) that appeals to some base part of me. The first chapter reads like a dream, as if you jumped on a train that was already at chugging along at full speed. There's a story there, but you're certainly not going to learn all the details in the ways you might expect.

Oddly written in the second-person point of view, the novel deals with death, loss, and depravity but ultimately, traffics in redemption and salvation. It is a long and winding road for the narrator (later named "Jamie Conway" for the movie version) but ride is quite a trip. I think my romanticized view of New York City probably has its origin with this book. It's one of those books that, as I mentioned in my post about going to New York, has all these references to street names and landmarks that just make New York seem like this big celebrity. Reading it now, just makes me more excited about going as I will actually be able to see some of the places and streets McInerney mentions in his novel, even though it was written over 20 years ago and some of the places are, without a doubt, no longer there.

The movie version is, as many books turned into movies are, basically a visual aid for the book. It really adds nothing to the book. It's inoffensive, Michael J. Fox is good playing against type as the drugged up Jamie Conway, but ultimately it is unmemorable. I think the biggest problem with the movie is that, by the time it was made in 1988, a lot of the culture that is detailed in the book was disappearing and no longer culturally relevant. It was too late for it to be current, and too soon for it to play as nostalgia. However, many of the books best lines survive the translation to the screen, which makes me very happy. Nothing replaces the experience that is reading the book, living the experience with the narrator, but the film tries valiantly.

The one thing that I REALLY like about the movie version is the soundtrack it generated. Consisting of a lot of no name bands (along with some bigger names as well) playing 80s club songs, it is just a great soundtrack album from start to finish. Bookended by Prince and M/A/R/R/S, the music fits the story perfectly, with that glorious centerpiece being Bryan Ferry's "Kiss & Tell" which I vaguely remember seeing the video for on Night Tracks back in the day. I remember borrowing this CD from Jeff after I first saw the movie, and loved it so much I ended up trading him my Belinda Carlisle Live Your Life Be Free CD for it. I got the better end of the trade, that's for sure.

Not everyone is going to fall head over heels for this book like I did. I'm perfectly willing to admit that it's a very Dan thing and call it good. But if you ever get a chance, you really should check it out. It's a pity that McInerney never really wrote anything that matched either the commercial or critical success of Bright Lights, Big City. I have read several of his other novels and none of them strike the chord that Bright Lights, Big City did.

I imagine that this current read will not be my last.

1 comment:

xolondon said...

I love the Patrick Leonard era Ferry songs. Kiss And Tell, The Right Stuff, Limbo.

I also loved the Prince/Camille song "Good Love" (from the soundtrack)