CHRIS BACHELDER

THE BELIEVER
READING GROUP GUIDE FOR
BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY

(ON THE TWENTIETH ANNIVERSARY OF ITS PUBLICATION)

DISCUSSED: You, The Drift of Your Life, The Gradual Narrowing of Your Possibilities, Your Lost Virginity, Your Bad Hairstyles,The Small Town You Grew Up In, The Shirt You Wore in Middle School, Your Jaded Heart, The Suburbs in Which You’ve Settled, Your Double-Paned Windows, Your Computerized Sprinkler System, The Two Ways in Which You’ve Aged, Your MFA, The Novels You Read, What’s Wrong with You

Note: This guide is intended to help provoke thought and to generate discussion in your reading group. You are encouraged to use the following questions to stimulate lively conversation, to increase your enjoyment and appreciation of McInerney’s novel, and just generally to understand or face up to your incipient and aching awareness of lost youth.

1. Well God, has it really been twenty years?

2. Did you see the movie Bright Lights, Big City before you read the book? And seated in non-stadium seating in that small-town theater in Virginia beside the first girl you ever had sex with, did it seem like New York City just might as well have been on another continent? Didn’t some of your high school classmates suffer terrible hunting and farming injuries each year? And was your sense of Beauty so unrefined that you thought the movie was “pretty cool”? Didn’t you have a flat-top? And did you get the suspicion, years later, that you were not the first person your date for the movie had had sex with, her assurances to the contrary notwithstanding?

3. And then did you read the novel for the first time in college, which did not have a dining club and was far too close to the small town you grew up in? And what was your response? Wasn’t your response that though it did seem “better than the movie,” it still seemed so exotic in setting and action as to seem almost unintelligible? Hadn’t Nancy Reagan sort of convinced you that if you tried cocaine, or really even glanced at it or got inside the same room with it, that you would immediately die? Remember Len Bias?

4. And remember the hip young professor who taught the novel in a contemporary American literature course at the agriculture and engineering university where you went to discover art? Remember how he brought in a ghetto-blaster and played the Talking Heads song that is mentioned in the book and how then you went out and bought a Talking Heads cassette tape in an independent, non-chain record store with unwashed clerks who looked a lot like your professor and were just crazy about Dinosaur Jr.? And smoked cigarettes during class, this professor did, remember? And how he explained the whole novel in terms of a surface/depth matrix that implicated our superficial times? And how McInerney’s use of the second person, which, as you know now but did not then, a writer should really never use, works in Bright Lights because it is actually a disguised first person? And how the point of view reinforces theme and character because the nameless protagonist can’t face his own life, can’t claim his own story, and so must deflect and deny with the superficial you? As in the opening sentence, “You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning”? How there is actually a double denial at work here, the explicit denial (“You are not the kind of guy…”) and a denial implied by the second person point of view? How the self is obliterated? How the protagonist uses second person in much the same way he uses drugs and booze—as a way to get out of and away from himself? And maybe this all seems so obvious now, but remember how you were sitting there in your desk in the crappy English building in the middle of a giant Ag school, having never before considered the rhetorical implications of point of view (or of anything else for that matter)? And weren’t you at that point a communications major with a hairstyle that teetered on the brink of mullet? And wasn’t this just a big world opening up, the system of literature? And remember how you went to see that hip young professor a year later to tell him you were now an English major, and thanks, and he was cleaning out his office because he didn’t get tenure?

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

To read the full piece, please visit our store to purchase a copy of the magazine.

Chris Bachelder is the author of Bear v. Shark: The Novel. U.S.!, his novel about muckraker Upton Sinclair, will be published next year by Bloomsbury.

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