The Good Life, by Jay McInerney

Manhattan after the fall
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The Independent Culture

Near the start of Brightness Falls, Jay McInerney's fourth novel, during one of the book's many Manhattan dinner parties, a character named Nancy Tanner makes a seemingly throwaway comment to Caroline Calloway, the heroine, that all men need four things: food, shelter, pussy and strange pussy. Corrine is still worrying about this aside 14 years later in the sequel, The Good Life. That seems strange, given she has affairs in both novels and that her romances seem far more significant to her than her husband Russell's tawdry affair with his assistant Trish. Nevertheless, the recurrence of this phrase brilliantly plays on how silly jokes can echo for years, and is one of many neatly interlocking moments that link these two books.

The Good Life is a better read than Brightness Falls, which was burdened by over-elaborate sentences and a constant straining for deep significance at odds with McInerney's greatest gifts: his clarity and precision. From the opening pages of The Good Life, it's evident that while the characters have returned, the prose style has not. This comes as a relief, especially as The Good Life is also McInerney's 9/11 novel, a subject which has already led several novelists into serious lapses of judgement.

McInerney has been talking up this novel for nearly four years. The events of 11 September had an enormous, understandable impact on his creative process, inevitable for an author so associated with New York.

While some of the journalism he wrote in the immediate aftermath seemed solipsistic, it was clearly heartfelt and helped readers cope with their own pain.

Less admirable was his recent piece accessing the work of other novelists who have written about terrorism and 9/11, dismissing most, damning others with faint praise, and insinuating that only his novel would truly do justice to these events.

Given this pre-match hype, The Good Life comes as something of a surprise. It begins in a delightfully low-key manner, returning to the amusing literary satire of Brightness Falls as McInerney reintroduces his literary editor, Russell Calloway, and his wife Corrine, still hosting dinner parties for famous writers, including Salman Rushdie (in an entertaining gag, Corrine is shown on several occasions struggling to get through his 2001 novel Fury) and Paul Auster, who recently published his own more oblique 9/11 novel, Brooklyn Follies. He features no less than three aspiring authors among his characters, including Luke McGavock, a rich businessman who is now writing a book on samurai movies; Corrine, working on a script of Graham Greene's The Heart of the Matter, and her sister Hilary, writing a chick-lit book.

All these literary projects are abandoned when the towers fall. Corrine goes from adapting The Heart of the Matter to living it. Luke begins volunteering at Ground Zero, which soon leads him into an affair with Corrine, the first woman he encountered after the disaster. Hilary mainly drifts out of the action.

These characters are not the only ones changed. The events prompt Luke's 14-year-old daughter Ashley, a teenage society girl embarrassed that her mother shows up at the same clubs as her in the company of Damien Hirst and Courtney Love, to take an overdose and later run away from a rehab centre. And Russell is confronted by Trish, who approaches his wife with a print-out of every explicit email he ever sent her.

The Good Life is undoubtedly one of McInerney's finest novels, yet it seems unlikely to be remembered as the definitive response to the events of 11 September. It's too small a book, concerned with too narrow a stratum of characters. McInerney is good on details (the internet trade in gasmasks that followed the disaster), but finally the falling of the twin towers feels like a small detail in the lives of his characters.

That may be a true reflection of the way Manhattan life continues but it lacks the dramatic resonance needed for a truly authoritative book on the subject. It's no disgrace that The Good Life is nothing more than social comedy at its very best, but such a book cannot possibly capture the tremendous tragedy of so many lives lost.

Matt Thorne's latest novel is Cherry (Phoenix)