In the fall of 1984 Bright Lights, Big City, the debut novel by Jay McInerney, was published by an imprint of Knopf. The book seemed to its early readers not simply a piece of fiction but a kind of talisman; it appeared to summon the cultural promise of an entire generation coming of age under Reagan. It was told in the second person, and the insistent “you” was like a serial invitation, one to a new kind of life, in Manhattan, lit by a string of parties in the city’s hipper quarters that might exhilarate you or make you feel despondent, but which certainly made the city itself feel alive again. For a stretch of time people had stopped believing in cities, even this one, and had, in patches, abandoned them, even this one. But Bright Lights was composed in the insubordinate spirit of a creative revival; it helped proclaim, to those who came and those who dreamed of coming, that New York City was available once more to the audacious and the reckless young.
In the spring of 1985, Knopf published Self-Help, an acerbic collection of stories by the precocious aphorist Lorrie Moore. Self-Help was also a debut, and it was also written largely in the second person, but it told a very different story about the allure of city life and the comforts of living in close quarters. One would not want to change places with anyone in Moore’s New York–“it is like having a degree in failure,” she wrote of living there–or, for that matter, with those characters in Scranton, Rochester or Owonta, who viewed the ’80s not as a new frontier but as a deadening stretch of the same old disappointments, romantic, professional, intellectual and filial. A mordant series of devotional texts, Self-Help traced those disappointments, mapping the lean inner life of the American boom years. The second-person voice of Bright Lights was flat, credulous and smug; Moore’s prose was briny, superior and self-loathing. The book was a study of the dream life of fatalism, and it was narrated in the clairvoyant mood.
“Meet in expensive beige raincoats, on a pea-soupy night. Like a detective movie,” begins “How to Be an Other Woman,” the cheeky first story in the collection. “Whisper, ‘Don’t go yet,’ as he glides out of your bed before sunrise and you lie there on your back cooling, naked between the sheets and smelling of musky, oniony sweat. Feel gray, like an abandoned locker room towel.” “Smoke marijuana,” advises an entry in “How to Talk to Your Mother (Notes).” “Try to figure out what has made your life go wrong. It is like trying to figure out what is stinking up the refrigerator. It could be anything.” “How to Become a Writer”: “First, try to be something, anything, else. A movie star/astronaut. A movie star/missionary. A movie star/kindergarten teacher. President of the World. Fail miserably.”