The Good Life  
Jay McInerney
Q & A
Jays Podcast
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Excerpted from "Dark Day, Big City: On McInerney's New Book, a Blanket of Dust" by Edward Wyatt, which appeared in The New York Times August 22, 2005

Several recent novels in the United States have addressed the events of Sept. 11, 2001, but none have yet dared to use an iconic image of that day—a burning tower or ordinary objects blanketed with ash—on their covers.

Now, one such book is on the way.

In late January, Alfred A. Knopf will publish The Good Life, Jay McInerney's first novel in more than six years. Its cover, designed by Chip Kidd, shows a photograph by Quyen Tran of dishes covered with concrete dust. Subtly peeking through the lettering of the title and the author's name is a faint image of one of the World Trade Center towers on fire.

On the spine is an ash-coated drinking glass, half full, or half empty. And on the back cover, a platoon of shirts, neatly arranged on hangers in a store, draped in the soot that enveloped Lower Manhattan when the twin towers collapsed.

Mr. Kidd, who has designed book jackets for Knopf and other publishers for 20 years, said he immediately thought of such an image when he first heard about the subject of Mr. McInerney's book.

Set in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, The Good Life traces the story of Luke, who is late for a breakfast meeting at the World Trade Center that Tuesday morning, as well as those of several characters first seen in Mr. McInerney's 1992 novel,Brightness Falls.

"I originally thought of that shot of the tea set covered in the ash from 9/11," Mr. Kidd said, referring to a photograph by Edward Keating published in The New York Times on Sept. 20, 2001. The photograph, taken inside a Cedar Street apartment that faced the World Trade Center, was part of a package of photographs that won a Pulitzer Prize for breaking news photography for The Times in 2002.

Mr. Kidd asked researchers at Knopf to accumulate images from ground zero for consideration, and they found Quyen Tran's photograph and the others in the collection ''Here Is New York: A Democracy of Photographs.'' The collection, published by Scalo Publishers, was culled from a storefront photo gallery that sprouted on Spring Street in SoHo soon after 9/11.

While some hints had previously emerged that Mr. McInerney's next novel would be set in New York City after 9/11, it was not clear until Knopf released its spring 2006 catalog this month that the novel in fact centered on the events of Sept. 11 and the wreckage they left behind.

Mr. Kidd, who will have a collection of his book covers,Chip Kidd, Book One: Work 1996-2006, published by Rizzoli in November, said he had no second thoughts about using the image. But he expects that people will not immediately recognize it for what it is.

"My hope is that when people first see the cover, they won't understand what they are seeing," Mr. Kidd said. "Then, only as they read the book or the flap copy will that image change from dishes with dust on them to something else."

Excerpted from "The Uses of Invention" by Jay McInerney, which appeared in The Guardian September 17, 2005

First, a disclaimer: The following is a work of non-fiction. As such, it is unlikely to be as vivid, or textured, or as faithful to the author's deepest convictions and emotions as his own fiction, as linguistically adventurous or as revealing about the way it feels to live now as the latest novels by Salman Rushdie or Zadie Smith. I write novels. In fact, I just finished one, which is one reason I was alarmed to hear V.S. Naipaul declaring earlier this month, in an interview in The New York Times, that the novel was dead. Which would make me, I guess, a necrophiliac. Naipaul essentially argues—stop me if you've heard this one before—that nonfiction is better suited than fiction to dealing with the big issues and capturing the way we live now. An accompanying essay, "Truth is Stronger than Fiction," expanded on the theme, and concluded with a lament: "it's safe to say that no novels have yet engaged with the post Sept 11th era in any meaningful way." To which we might ask, just for starters, where is the movie, or the big non-fiction tome which has done so.

"If you write a novel alone you sit and you weave a little narrative," Naipaul told editor Rachel Donadio in The New York Times Book Review. "And it's okay, but it's of no account. If you're a romantic writer, you write novels about men and women falling in love, etc. give a little narrative here and there. But again, it's of no account." Hereby we dispose of Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, Great Expectations and the majority of novels in the canon. What is of account, he claims, are non-fictional explorations of "the Islamic question," the clash of belief and unbelief, of east and west. Readers of Naipaul's last couple of novels—a fairly exclusive club, I should imagine—probably won't be surprised to learn that he's grown tired of the genre; even Tolstoy came to distrust fiction at the end, but personally I trust Tolstoy the novelist rather than Tolstoy the cranky, sclerotic polemicist.

In her essay eulogizing the novel, Donadio cites a recent American interview with Ian McEwan in which he discusses the impact of September 11th as evidence of the waning influence of fiction. "'For a while I did find it wearisome to confront invented characters,' McEwan said. 'I wanted to be told about the world. I wanted to be informed. I felt that we had gone through great changes and now was the time to just go back to school, as it were, and start to learn.'" The phrase "for a while" seems crucial here.

Almost everyone I know had the reaction that McEwan describes to the events of 9/11 (and those of July 7th, I would imagine, have provoked similar emotions and responses.) Most novelists I know went through a period of intense self-examination and self-loathing after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. I certainly did. For a while the idea of "invented characters" and alternate realities seemed trivial and frivolous and suddenly, horribly outdated. For a while. I abandoned the novel I was working on and didn't even think about writing fiction for the next six months. In fact, I was so traumatized and my attention span was shot to such an extent that for months I was incapable of reading a novel, or anything much longer than a standard article in The New York Times, even though I was fortunate enough not to have lost any close friends in the attack. I worked as a volunteer for a couple of months, feeding the national guardsmen and the rescue workers near Ground Zero, listening to the rumors and the strange paranoid lore of the place: tales of Arabs lurking with cameras, of implausible and horrific objects in the rubble. I worked the night shift, darkness seeming more appropriate to the somber spirit of the enterprise, to the necropolis beyond the police barricades. When I was at home I obsessively watched the news coverage of the fallout of those events. A doctor friend wrote me a prescription for Cipro in case of an anthrax attack. I drank—even more than usual. Lying awake at night with the acrid electric-fire smell from Ground Zero in my nostrils, I contemplated a change in careers. Since I was working in a soup kitchen I thought about going to culinary school—feeding people would always be important. Watching the ironworkers and crane operators working in the rubble, watching my carpenter friend unscrew the base plate from a lamppost and hotwire a coffee maker, I realized that beyond being able to tie a good Windsor knot or fix a martini I had no practical skills. Almost anything seemed more vital than being a novelist.

The novel which I had sold to my publisher, Knopf, on the basis of a first chapter in the spring of 2000 started off with a terrorist bombing at the New York premiere party for a Hollywood movie. As I recall my plan, the bombing was a kind of a set piece which set the plot in motion; I had determined that the culprit would be revealed to be a Muslim fanatic who was deeply offended by Western cultural imperialism and the decadence of American capitalism in general and Hollywood entertainment products in particular. The bomber was going to be, at best, a secondary character, an immigrant driven mad in part by the apathy and drossy splendor of a society which occupied the foreground—my usual suspects, as it were. Or something like that. If it all sounds a little creepy now, you will understand why I abandoned that particular novel although it seems to me I might have dropped the idea even before September 11th—like so many things about that time the details are blurry. Weirdly, I'd forgotten about this or suppressed it right up until the moment I embarked on this essay.

As a novelist who considers New York his proper subject, I didn't see how I could avoid confronting the most important and traumatic event in the history of the city, unless I wanted to write historical novels. I almost abandoned the book several times, and often wondered whether it wasn't foolish to create a fictional universe which encompassed the actual event—whether my invention wouldn—t be overwhelmed and overshadowed by the actual catastrophe. At the very least, certain forms of irony and social satire in which I'd trafficked no longer seemed useful. I felt like I was starting over and I wasn't sure I could.

For a while, quite a while, fiction did seem inadequate to the moment. McEwan was speaking for all of us. But even in the immediate aftermath, it seems to me, it was novelists like McEwan and Updike and Martin Amis who wrote most memorably about that day. And eventually, of course McEwan returned to fiction, as a writer and presumably as a reader. The New York Times essay cites his Saturday as "a possible exception" to the proposition that novelists have failed to engage the "post 9/11 era." "But, although it demonstrates a fine-tuned awareness of the range of human responses to terrorism and violence, the backdrop of the geopolitical situation remains just that, a backdrop." Or is it? For American readers, in particular, the home invasion at the end of the book might be seen as emblematic of the violation we felt in the wake of the September 11 attacks.

When I told Norman Mailer that my new novel took place in the autumn of 2001 he shook his head skeptically. "Wait ten years," he said. "It will take that long for you to make sense of it," he said. But I couldn't wait that long. Even though I couldn't imagine how I was going to write about that day, I didn't see how I could possibly write about anything else. It shouldn't be surprising that the novelists are taking their time, and have just begun to weigh in on the events of September 11.

A concluding anecdote: On Friday, Sept 15, 2001, I was walking in Central Park with a friend. Having just come from Ground Zero, I was amazed to find a baseball game in progress on the Great Lawn, frisbees being thrown, and couples cuddling on blankets. Suddenly I almost literally bumped into the novelist Jonathan Franzen, who was also walking with a friend. We greeted each other and talked briefly, each of us saying where we had been, how we had heard, what we had seen in the early hours of Tuesday. I can't remember whether I congratulated him on the publication of his novel, The Corrections, or whether I decided that it would be more tasteful not to mention it. I'd been invited to the book party, which was to have taken place that week. Later, after we'd said goodbye, I said to my friend. "Poor bastard. No one's going to be reading novels this year."

I'm pleased to be able to eat my words here. In the days and months after 9/11, even as CNN replayed the images of the towers falling and the newer images of bombs falling in Afghanistan and the Times published the obituaries of the dead, Franzen's big serious panoramic novel entry in the Great American novel sweepstakes somehow generated tremendous critical interest and found hundreds of thousands of readers. If he hasn't read it yet, I hereby commend it to the attention of Mr. Naipaul.


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