Friday, July 15, 2011

Story of My Life

Alison Poole is a 20 year old actress in training, living it up in Manhattan of the 80's. Her roommate is going nuts, her best friend is doing way too much, her new boyfriend might be cheating on her, her ex boyfriend is attracting her and her father isn't paying her bills. Life is hard for the postmodern party girl.

Jay McInerney. Yep, I'm reading him. I haven't read a McInerney book since I was 16 and I was reading anything that felt like a Bret Easton Ellis novel. I read two of his books, Model Behavior (which I don't remember at all) and Bright Lights Big City, which was more memorable for the second person voice than for anything else. I'm not sure why I gave up on his stuff. But on the other hand, I'm kind of glad I did, because now I can read his stuff without all the baggage of being 15 and reading about coke. I can look at McInerney in a more objective fashion, and critique him based on the book itself, rather than its associations with Ellis.

On the other hand, Story of My Life stars Alison Poole who would go on to be co-opted by Ellis in Glamorama and another book. So I guess I can't really separate my reading from Ellis. If you really want to know what it's like reading this book, imagine a Bret Easton Ellis novel crossed with Catcher in the Rye.

There's a ton of shadows of Salinger's novel - from the hatred of phoniness to the broken family and even to the voice itself. However, the postmodern girl thing, which is heavily played up in the book, kind of makes the Salinger thing an ironic echo rather than a re-write. While Holden Caulfield absolutely loathed phoniness and went out of his way to announce that to everybody, Alison is an actress and sort of understands the purpose of hiding yourself.

The major theme running through this book is Alison's tension with society. Man, that sounds like a high school paper thesis, doesn't it? But it's kind of true. By tension with society, I mean that Alison has conveniently forgotten how to function in society: she has trouble disassociating honesty from social interaction. She values a "if it feels good do it" philosophy, and her boyfriend has to patiently explain to Alison that sometimes a white lie is best as to maintain the social fabric. She also values acting because it acting is truth, it's a way to express her deepest emotions, forgetting of course that acting is putting on a mask and hiding the truth. There are moments when Alison forgets that she values honesty and mentions how good of an actress she is, how well she is at pretending with her boyfriend or her friends.

It's hard to read this book without looking at this stuff. It's painfully easy to read - took me about 2 hours, and it's written in the plainest least verbose style possible, but it works, surprisingly. McInerney mostly nails Alison's voice. I say mostly, because there's the absence of a lot of real stuff. Both men and women, but especially women like Alison tend to worry about their physical appearance. In fact, physical appearances are almost absent from this book. It kind of presages American Psycho in that the only physical descriptions of people are about their clothes - specifically the brand.

Unlike Ellis' novel, Story of My Life is almost sensitive in its approach and its handling of the cast. Alison Poole isn't the most sympathetic protagonists out there, and the cast is full of unlikable people, but I got the sense that McInerney didn't hate these people, he's not a strict moralist like his friend Bret. The novel is more tragic than satirical, but retains much of the bite of satire. Alison feels like a real girl with real impulses and wishes and hopes and dreams.

Her constant reminiscing on horses and her past points to Alison's guarded nature. She comes from a broken home and it clearly affected her more than she'd like to admit. Her retreat from the pain of divorce into the world of horse riding is clear, as well as her preference for her grandparents and not her own parents. This make the tragedy all the more pronounced when Alison sells her inheritance from her grandmother for coke money. I can imagine how Ellis would have handled the scene, and it certainly wouldn't have had the punch of tragedy.

Story of My Life is too much of a fast read though. The language is simple, as I mentioned before, and there's not a lot of plot to it. The book flits by like a generic moth, utterly forgettable and disposable, which is a shame because it has more to offer than it appears. Unfortunately, Story of My Life will never stand beside Breakfast at Tiffany's or The Great Gatsby in its evocation of #whitepeopleproblems because there isn't quite enough substance. There's some, but not really enough to recommend it beyond as a time capsule, a representation of a group of people in the late Eighties getting high and fucking each other. McInerney stumbles upon the conclusion that there has to be more to life than that, but he goes at it with half-measures: Alison sort of thinks this, but then never finishes the thought. Either come up with the maxim for catharsis, or ignore it completely for maximum tragedy. Story of My Life has neither. Instead, it's platitudes encased in stylish shadows of other writers.

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