moseleymoles on A short introduction to some East Coast writers of the eighties
Picking up Donna Tartt’s latest novel The Goldfinch at a local charity shop got me thinking about how, while I’ve lived out my life through new wave, goth, acid house, britpop – literature isn’t quite like that. Movements take decades to crystallise rather than months. But there was a group of young American writers who resembled if not a group, then a loose scene – those described as ‘the Literary Brat Pack’ in the mid-eighties whose image and much of its writing drew heavily from the music and creative scene of New York. They were young, wore shades after dark, listened to music, went to clubs, took drugs and wrote about…mainly other people who were young, wore shades etc…
Tartt was famously at Bennington, an exclusive East Coast college with Bret Easton Ellis in the early eighties as was Jonathan Lethem. Ellis became famously associated on the New York party scene with Jay McInery. Add Tama Janowitz and you have five writers whose work all features heavily on my shelves.
As an impressionable teenager and avid reader these writers – many of whom wrote debut novels set in New York – seemed as cool and exotic as a peak period Talking Heads album. Less Than Zero, Ellis’ debut, has Elvis Costello’s shades on the cover and describes a generation of rich and alienated teenagers partying, taking drugs and being fabulously bored in shades and convertibles around swimming pools in LA. McInery’s debut – Bright Lights, Big City – famously starts with the words ‘you are not the type of guy who woud be at a place like this at this time in the morning’ and describes a young staff writer at a thinly-veiled New Yorker going off the rails with too much Bolivian marching powder (this is where this famous phrase comes from). Janowitz’s debut, Slaves of New York, depicts a world of struggling artists, transvestites, hookers and club-goers seemingly ripped straight from Lou Reed and the photos of Nan Goldin.
All of them captured the excesses of American society and the rise of the yuppies in the mid-eighties at the height of the boom Reagan years. It would take a much older and a little wiser writer, Tom Wolfe, to nail the political and financial contradictions of a New York shifting at lightspeed from the broke hellhole of the seventies to the corporate playground Manhattan was becoming in his Bonfire of the Vanities. If Wolfe observed from afar, Ellis, Mcinery and Janowitz seemed to embody it.
Lethem didn’t get off the blocks until much later – and I didn’t hit his work until a couple of years ago. Tartt meanwhile, did something entirely different with her debut The Secret History. Like Ellis’ second novel, Rules of Attraction, Tartt’s is set in the elite liberal New England world of Bennington. Unlike Ellis’ it’s an extra-ordinary achievement – a 500-page murder mystery powered by Greek philosophy and culture and which is a true cult novel (perhaps the only one they all have produced). I re-read it every decade and each time it draws me into its suffocating world of snobbery, hyper-intellectualism and teenage power games anew.
Ellis’ definitive New York novel would come with American Psycho – striking a literary controversy difficult to credit now. Famously quoting Genesis, Huey Lewis and many other examples of eighties pop-rock, Patrick Bateman seems to blow Wolfe’s take on yuppie excess clean out of the water. You want satire Tom? This – this is satire, Bateman screams – putting the cap on the Wall Street era for once and all. Psycho is such a definitive work it’s no surprise that Ellis subsequent work has paled a little by comparison; most recently seeing him returning to the world of Less Than Zero in semi-sequel Imperial Bedrooms.
McInery’s novel on the decline and fall of Wall Street and its yuppies – Brightness Falls, is also his only really significant work since his debut. The sequel to that, The Good Life, is an awful novel which puts his Manhattenites awkwardly to work to make Mcinery’s ‘9/11 novel’. If his career has rather spluttered out, Janowitz has exited my consciousness even quicker in a series of ever-less impressive works that seems to indicate a writer not sure what she should be writing about. Both Janowitz and McInery have written more non-fiction than fiction in recent years, McInery chiefly about another drug – wine.
If I read all these writers when they came out – and I bought most of their first two or three novels as soon as they were in paperback – Jonathan Lethem flew under my radar for years. Last year I read Fortress of Solitude, and it’s a New York novel to equal any of the others. Set off Manhattan in seventies Brooklyn it’s as suffused with music as American Psycho – here a melting pot of Clash, Grandmaster Flash and seventies funk – that echoes its themes of racial, cultural and economic difference. He clearly is a novelist still very much at the height of his powers and in his latest (Dissident Gardens) is still drawing on the mythic histories of twentieth-century New York. He seems a generation younger in his themes and approach than his Bennington mates.
Tartt seems to have had the best career out of all them, capped by her recent Pulitzer Prize. With virtually no public profile she emerges once a decade with a doorstop of a novel to near-universal acclaim and massive sales. I didn’t much care for The Little Friend, finding its southern gothic much more arch and with characters less human than the chilly public schoolkids of her debut. Unlike The Secret History it doesn’t draw me back. I have high hopes of The Goldfinch, and although I find it less probable they’ll hit such heights will always look out for reviews of the new works by Ellis, McInery, Janowitz et al.
If you’ve never read these writers then start with the short and sharp debuts of Easton Ellis and Mcinery. American Psycho and The Secret History – both murder mysteries – are seen as the high water marks but clock in at over 500 pages each and in very different ways demand much of the reader. Fortress of Solitude is perhaps less heralded but in my view their equal. For gods sake don’t watch the movies. Who thought that merchant Ivory were the right hands for the skittish, ultra NY stylings of Slaves? That Michael j fox could convince as a bookish coke head in Bright lights? American Psycho is the shining and only exception. Less Than Zero and Rules of Attraction are dull and flat – ennui being a tone that works much better on the page than on the screen.
The world moved on. De Lillo, Ford, McCarthy and Frantzen amongst others moved into the top spots with me and many other readers – but there’ll always be a bit of me that wants to be in a convertible with Blair, as she turns to me and says ‘People are afraid to merge on freeways In Los Angeles’. (it’s the opening line of Less Than Zero – another corker).