The events of September 11, 2001, are responsible for a depressing amount of bad art and inane commentary. grossly premature grandiose pronouncements, like Graydon Carter’s infamous “end of irony” article in Vanity Fair. (“There’s going to be a seismic change . . . . Things that were considered fringe and frivolous are going to disappear.”) Glib, provocative novels like Frédéric Beigbeder’s Window on the World. (“They suffered for 102 minutes, the average running time of a Hollywood film.”) Pat rock songs like Sleater-Kinney’s ham-fisted “Far Away.” (“The president hides/ while working men rush in/ to give their lives.”) Jingoistic ditties like Paul McCartney’s execrable “Freedom.” (“We talkin’ ’bout freedom. I will fight, for the right to live in freedom.”)
Even the novels that tried in earnest to deal with the subtler emotional subcurrents stirred by the attacks, like Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, were problematic, and drew more than a few slings and arrows (“a writer of talent who exploits holocaust to mythicize the most aggressive self-pity in modern American history,” carped The Nation).
So it’s entirely understandable that Jay McInerney faced writing a 9/11 book with trepidation. “For a long time I wasn’t sure how you could approach that subject,” he says, sitting in his room at the Hotel Commonwealth on a recent Monday afternoon, in town to read from his seventh novel, The Good Life (Knopf).
But several months after witnessing the attacks from his own window, after volunteering at Ground Zero, and after seeing the city he’d lived in and loved since the late ’70s change in a profound if fleeting way, McInerney made the decision. For a novelist in New York City — a novelist who’d made his career writing about New York City and its residents — dealing somehow with September 11 was “not only a right, but practically a duty,” he says. “If I was going to write about contemporary New York and not mention 9/11, I was going to have to do some very serious elision. But it was daunting. The danger of putting 9/11 in a book, of course, is that it will overwhelm the fictional universe you’re trying to create.”
McInerney’s wariness is precisely why The Good Life is so successful. The book is less about 9/11 as an event — the day itself is omitted completely — than about the aftermath, those few tragic yet strangely magical months when everything was different, and it seemed like it could stay that way. Charting that day’s reverberations in the lives and loves of the well-educated, well-heeled New Yorkers who are his stock-in-trade, McInerney masterfully evokes a scarred and damaged city, its citizens grappling with the new lives that might be possible. Honest, perceptive, and keenly felt, The Good Life — the story of two couples’ furtive, hesitant stabs at happiness in the brave and fearful new world of post-9/11 New York — is McInerney’s most mature and affecting book yet.