The biggest problem with a book like Story of My Life is extrinsic and not the fault of the author: the sort of people most likely to benefit from it are probably the ones least likely to read it. Although set in “nineteen eighty-whatever,” to use Alison’s parlance, Story of My Life could just as easily take place today—or in the 1920s. The diction would be marginally different, as would the slang, but the tone and overall thrust would remain the same.
Oh, and the drugs might not be as good in the 1920s, which would be a problem for Alison, since drugs and men are the primary things she does: imagine Alice in Wonderland grown up and wielding unlimited credit cards and speaking in a jaded, valley-girl voice. If not for the requirements of food, sleep and air, “primary” could probably be replaced with “only.” The narrator isn’t as shocking as Bright Lights, Big City, which has become the canonical example of the second-person voice in addition to being a fabulous story about narcissistic hedonists in New York. The second-person perspective quickly becomes natural in Bright Lights, Big City, just as Alison’s rich-girl patois quickly becomes, if not invisible, at least accepted.
At times Alison veers too far into obvious and breaks the limited spell she puts us under: “[Whitney] goes on and on and I’m thinking she sounds like an idiot. Yada yada yada. God, she sounds just like me. A few weeks ago this story would’ve had me rolling on the floor and slapping my ribs but now I’m hardly listening.” This observation comes late in the story, so close to the end that we want to go on, even though that end is foreseeable. But it’s still jarring, if for the content more than the form.
So if you, Alison, are an idiot, why have we listened to you for nearly 200 pages? Maybe the joke’s on us—maybe the joke is always on the reader, who must willingly ignore the knowledge that they read about imaginary events—or maybe we’re learning that Alison is learning something aside from how to score (apparently it isn’t difficult if you’re rich and pretty). Whatever we might be learning, it probably isn’t big, and whatever Alison is learning probably won’t take.
It’s tempting to just slather Alison with the word “vapid,” but she isn’t entirely so—if there weren’t something to be gleaned from what appears at first glance to be inanity, Story of My Life wouldn’t work. The same is true if it only held prurient interest, although that is certainly there too: Alison’s catalog of her sex life would probably captivate thirteen-year-old boys if not for the harder stuff so readily accessible online. It’s a fun and fast book, much like its narrator is a fun and fast girl. Story of My Life does offer a certain amount of voyeurism and vicarious living.
The novel does work, and not just as a way for over-educated readers to condescend to someone whose life appears so shallow that it would be difficult to write more than a People Magazine article about it. It’s a criticism of the culture more than an endorsement, but it’s also an explanation—a cheaper version of Martin Amis’ Money, which is the BMW of books about wealthy, decadent assholes.
Story of My Life fascinates much more than it repels, and it lingers in my mind far longer than it probably should, which is an informal test for separating the verbal candy from the substantive. I like the McInerney for its unusual voices, even if I’m not sure it’s going to hold up well over time. Books like Story of My Life and Bright Lights, Big City are more than just narrative novelty, and they are more than just fun, and thus worth reading even if the joke is on us.