The Good Life
Reviewed by Alain de Botton
Jay McInerney's new novel seems from the outside to be composed of the most disheartening elements: The Good Life is about a group of privileged New Yorkers who are led to reassess their lives—and become in many ways better people—in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. The plot premise seems so pat and topical that the reader is likely to take fright. But there is mercifully no need. It is a tribute to McInerney's many talents that he can wrest from his schematic structure a novel that is both tender and entertaining.
As often in McInerney's world, we find ourselves among a wealthy and ambitious elite, whom the novelist seems both intensely drawn to and repelled by. The focus is on two New York couples: Russell (publishing) and Corinne (screen writing), Luke (ex-banker) and Sasha (charity). McInerney brings an amusingly bitchy eye to bear on their lifestyles (for example, a character's double-height living room is described as appearing "to be holding its breath, as if awaiting a crew from Architectural Digest "). He keeps track of their snobbery and their social one-upmanship with all the attention to detail of a seasoned society columnist. New York resembles a latter-day version of imperial Rome in its last years, a once-noble civilization now shorn of its moral compass. In McInerney's New York, all citizens appear to take drugs, show off at charity balls, palm their children off on badly paid nannies and have sex with people other than their spouses. No one seems altruistic, high-minded, innocent—or plain nice.
Then the planes strike the towers and two of the characters, Corinne and Luke, start to reappraise their faltering marriages. It becomes clear that the focus of McInerney's concern is not terrorism or politics but love: how relationships can disintegrate through children and routine, the tension between love and sex and what can keep a union alive. This is a novel about shallowness and what might replace it.
For all of McInerney's surface cynicism, he's a writer—like Martin Amis perhaps—with whom, beneath the surface, there is a surprisingly simple, some might say naïve, ideal of goodness at work. Whenever this most cynical of writers has to reveal his allegiances, rather than his hatreds, they turn out to be remarkably homespun. The conclusion of the novel is undramatic. The characters may be searching for The Good Life, but their quest doesn't end up with the discovery of a holy grail. McInerney is describing a relentlessly secular world, where there are no easy sources of redemption.
The characters end up finding meaning in those two stalwarts of the bourgeois worldview: romantic love and the love of children. This story is a simple one, but McInerney delivers it with grace and wit. He does what a good novelist should: he takes an abstract idea and gives it life. (Jan.)
Alain de Botton is the author of On Love, Status Anxiety and How Proust Can Change Your Life, among other books.
Release date: 01/01/2006