Git ‘Er Done
Ground Zero as Singles Bar
Note: this is the third in a series of Ohdave reviews of 9/11 novels. The first two in the series are "Brooklyn Follies" and "The Reluctant Fundamentalist." Originally published at Into My Own.
Jay McInerney’s “ The Good Life” is another 9/11 novel in which the horror occurs off stage. The attacks themselves take place between chapters; when the narrative resumes the main character, Luke McGavock, emerges ashen, walking down a Manhattan street while he meets Corinne Calloway for the first time, who offers him assistance and listens to his story before she gives him her number, to “just let me know...well, that you made it home safely. Will you do that for me?” This is the beginning of a romance that becomes the focus of the novel. There seems to be, in 9/11 novels, a desire to respect the memory of the attacks by keeping them out of view, taking the narrative up to the day of 9/11, as Paul Auster’s “Brooklyn Follies” does. In the case of Mohsin Hamid’s “The Reluctant Fundamentalist,” the attacks take place while the main character is in the Philippines, and he and his colleagues watch the news on television. McInerney’s novel similarly treats the attacks as too sacred to touch with his narrative, although images of the remains of the towers and the bodies of the victims are fragmented throughout the novel.
On the other hand, if the events are too sacred to describe as they happen, they’re not too sacred for the smoldering remains of the WTC to serve as a singles bar, a hook-up spot for Luke and Corinne. If this juxtaposition seems slightly obnoxious then you probably share my view of this novel about shallow and poorly drawn characters trying to find post-9/11 happiness.
A brief summary goes like this: Corinne and her husband Russell live in a cramped apartment in Manhattan, where he is an editor for a major publishing house, and she is working on a screenplay based on Graham Greene’s “ The Heart of the Matter.” They are visited by Corinne’s sister Hillary who also happens to be the mother of their children, or at least the donor of the eggs. The circumstances around the children’s premature birth and the somewhat incestuous relationship between Russell and Hillary indicate how precarious and awkward their family situation is.
Meanwhile Luke has checked out of the world of high finance to write a novel that he hasn’t really started on, while his wife Sasha carries on high profile dalliances with New York’s wealthy and powerful men. Their daughter Ashley is a mess, courted by 20 something socialites with an attraction for teenage girls. Her attraction to drugs eventually get her in trouble.
The spouses of our heroes are sufficiently wicked to justify Luke and Corinne’s eventual union. Russell seems sympathetic enough until he is confronted at a book release party by a subordinate he has been sleeping with for two years. Actually, Corinne is confronted, humiliated publicly with proof in the form of lurid emails which she shoves in Corinne’s hands. From this point on, we know Corinne has a free pass to leave her husband for the dreamy Luke, whose wife has already been shown to be adulterous, but if that weren’t enough she is also shown to be complicit in her daughter’s drug abuse through her carelessness and poor example. But the novel would have been more honest if the spouses hadn’t been such villains. As it turns out, the choice Luke and Corinne make turns out to be pretty easy, given the chemistry between them and the utter lack of something worth going home to. But what if their spouses were faithful, and Luke and Corinne had still fallen in love? Does the lesson of 9/11 tell them that they should seek the love they find in each other because the falling towers tell us life is too short for an unhappy life? The main characters’ conflict over their love for each other is never very serious, and it’s just a matter of how long until Russell and Sasha get what they deserve.
Instead the novel tends towards something like a cheap morality play. When Ashley runs away from her treatment center, Luke is justifiably panicked, until she turns up at his ancestral home in Tennessee. As he dines with his brother and his prototypical traditional family, the message becomes clear: return to the heartland, leave behind the impersonal cities, focus on heritage and family. I nearly expected the novel to end on a fourth of July parade with Luke and Corinne eating apple pie to the jubilant oomp-ahs of a Sousa march.
We’re also forced to deal with stereotypes of the working class salt of the earth types for whom we’re supposed to have more respect after 9/11. Luke and Corinne fall in love while they are both volunteering for shifts feeding the rescue workers, police and guard members. (Again, it seems an odd place to put a budding romance, but the purity of their work I suppose is indicative of the purity of their love.) The rough language that the working class types use and their abruptness coupled with their work ethic and can-do spirit just ends up being more insulting and condescending than real, and it fits into McInerney’s larger morality play about what really counts in a post 9/11 world.
I spent most of the first part of the novel thinking that the characters were shallow and simpleminded, but I guess I was supposed to think that. The characters were more or less caricatures of the phony New York elite who think about nothing but wealth and sex, the kind of thinking Luke and Corinne seem determined to leave behind (even though McInerney constantly gives us lurid and gratuitous details of their sexual thoughts as well, including Corinne’s daydreams of putting Luke’s cock in her mouth), especially when Luke walks in on his daughter pleasuring a young man he’s never seen before. Thus the title plays on two meanings of “good life”—the life of wealth and privilege the characters lived before 9/11, and the real “good life,” living in Georgian houses on dogwood-lined streets where all of the children are above average, as they say in Lake Wobegon.
They say 9/11 changed everything. But in this novel 9/11 merely seemed like a plot device to get a romance going, aided by the decadence of Luke and Corinne’s spouses. Ultimately this novel doesn’t help us understand 9/11 or how people respond to it at all, and the same story could have been told about Luke and Corinne without the WTC attacks ever having occurred: they simply would have had to meet, like normal people who fall in love with someone other than their spouse, at a diner, an airport, an art museum, the subway, or countless other places and times. This novel is “about” 9/11 only in a superficial way. The topic certainly deserves more than McInerney gives it.