Fans of Jay McInerney will unquestionably recognize the characters in his new novel Bright, Precious Days. Russell and Corrine Calloway, the Manhattan glam couple whom McInerney first introduced in the mid-1980s with Brightness Falls, and continued to chronicle their relationship and initiation into parenthood and existential crises in the aftermath of September 11 with The Good Life, are once again the object of McInerney’s singular prose in Bright, Precious Days. When asked if at the time of writing Brightness Falls he had envisioned the possibility of continuing Corinne and Russell’s story for so long, he stated: “I had no idea I’d write a follow up, let alone two.”
Does this third installment signify the last of the Calloways? About this, McInerney is rather enigmatic in his response: “I haven’t decided, but another book is possible,” he said. However, in an interview with The Guardian in August, McInerney was a bit more emphatic about being done with the Russell and Corrine story, but didn’t dismiss the idea of possibly writing a novel that focuses on their twins, Jeremy and Storey.
An alumnus of Raymond Carver, McInerney reached the cusp of success with his debut novel, Bright Lights, Big City in 1984. Although the novels centered on the Calloways may not be as praised, they definitely stand in a realm of their own. The three novels not only mean to shadow the decades-long marriage of Russell and Corrine, but also the significant changes surrounding their relationship and that of their friends and family. The Calloway novels can be viewed as a testament of the social, political and economic issues that ambushed the country in the span of more than two decades, and how deeply the lives of these Manhattanites were transformed as a result.
In Brightness Falls, the first novel about the Calloways, the year is 1987 and Corrine and Russell are the epitome of the perfect early-thirties Manhattan couple in the eyes of their friends and acquaintances. Russell is an editor at a prestigious publishing house and Corrine puts her mathematical genius to work as a stockbroker.
The fact that she is growing tired of the endless parties that she and Russell attend, while her job is becoming deeply unsatisfying, are things that continuously nag at her. Corrine is often overcome with occasional mood swings and insecurities regarding her self-professed physical decline especially when she turns thirty-one. A conversation with Russell before a dinner party with their friends to celebrate her birthday, gives ample proof that even though she is an attractive woman who was viewed in college as “something of an erotic totem figure”, Corrine is often blind about her own physical allure:
“I like the old version better,” he says again, taking her in his arms.
She reaches back and unhooks his hands. “You shouldn’t use that word with a girl who just turned thirty-one. God, thirty is one thing.
“The O word.”
“You’re still my blonde bombshell.”
“A mere shell of my former bomb.”
Their marriage is abundant with the ups and downs that domestic life brings, but their love for each other seems to pull them through. This nearly falls to pieces when Russell discovers that Corrine was unfaithful to him with his best friend, best-selling novelist Jeff Pierce, who consequently is also one of Russell’s writers. The fact that Corrine’s dalliance with Jeff happened while Russell was studying abroad in England only serves to deepen the blow. Reconciliation happens but their perfect marriage has now a definite chink in its armor, while having shortly after to sustain another blow in the form of Jeff’s death.
McInerney confesses that The Good Life, the second novel about the Calloways, was the hardest of the three books for him to write, and the reason is self-explanatory. Set before and after the gut-wrenching events of September 11 and the devastation it left behind, The Good Life is undoubtedly the more emotional and introspective one. After the attacks, the realization that nothing will ever be the same again hits Corinne hard enough to make her want something different from her life besides being a wife and mother to five-year-old twins, a product of donor eggs from her volatile sister Hilary, whom she’s never managed to get along with.
While volunteering at a soup kitchen on Ground Zero, she meets and later precipitously falls in love with Luke McGavock, a former investment prodigy who was a hair-breath’s away from being inside the World Trade Center when the planes hit, but decided to change his plans at the last minute. This narrow escape leads Luke to contemplate his life, and search for a more significant existence, leading him to volunteer at the same soup kitchen as Corrine.
When the soup kitchen shuts down, so does Luke and Corrine’s whirlwind affair, which lasts exactly ninety days. In The Good Life, Corrine muses that she has never felt for Russell what she feels for Luke, and is convinced enough of this to contemplate leaving her husband rather callously, after Christmas. Of course, we are taking Corinne at her word regarding her intentions, but McInerney is quick to point out that “all narrators are to some extent unreliable.”
Not unlike fellow writer Ian McEwan’s untrustworthy narrators, McInerney’s characters have become so adept at lying to each other, that the possibility of them lying to us is not entirely far-fetched. Even Corrine and Luke in the midst of all their love and passion are not completely truthful to one another. In the end, it is Luke that abruptly changes his mind about the affair, hesitant to be the reason behind Corrine’s decision to break up her family. A final scene with the two of them meeting by chance outside a theater with their spouses and their children to see a holiday presentation of The Nutcracker, brings The Good Life and their relationship to an uncertain end.
Bright, Precious Days unveils a now middle-aged Russell and Corrine, whose marriage has survived decades of financial disasters, social upheaval, mutual infidelity and loss. The year is 2008, and the country is facing an unprecedented financial crisis and a monumental change in the political arena in the form of a historical presidential election. Manhattan has become a disemboweled utopia, and its inhabitants are forced to contend with the wreckage that’s left behind. But at the same time, an African-American man by the name of Barack Obama is close to becoming the first black president, and the hope that was lost with so many jobs and lives, has another opportunity at resurgence.
Russell and Corrine are now in their fifties, older, but not necessarily wiser. Russell is faced with economic collapse in the wake of the crisis, and Corrine teeters between feelings of unhappiness and dissatisfaction regarding her husband and her marriage, while the children and community work are the only things keeping her afloat. Corrine’s situation becomes even more precarious when Luke McGavock walks back into her life after years of absence, but shockingly effective in stirring up old feelings and making her doubt again what she really wants.
Corinne contemplating a love affair with Luke once again not only raises questions about her true feelings for Russell, but also about her ideas of love and relationships. She convinces herself that she loves Luke but she also claims to love Russell, just like in the past she loved Jeff and Russell. Corrine is convinced that loving two people is not only possible, but at least in her case, an absolute certainty:
“Back in her school days, she would not have believed it was possible to love two people, but she had learned that it was. And the sadder truth was that possession blunted desire, while the unattainable lover shimmered at the edge of the mind like a brilliant star, festered in the heart like a shard of crystal.”
The do-over in Bright, Precious Days of Luke and Corrine’s affair can seem redundant, once again revisiting the same mid-life crisis and mutual sexual obsession but now fueled by different motives on both sides. For Corrine, it is Russell’s abandonment and his unwillingness to share his financial dilemmas with her. For Luke, it perhaps boils down to coveting what he can’t have.
In an email interview, Jay McInerney offered an insider’s view into Russell and Corinne’s idiosyncrasies, intentions, love affairs, friends, their own relationship, and the complex city that bears witness to everything:
New York is very much a main character in not just Bright, Precious Days but in the two previous books as well. In all three books the city goes through drastic and devastating events: the crash of ’87, September 11, and then the financial crisis of ’08, tied with the election of President Obama. How are Russell and Corrine’s marriage and their relationships with friends and ultimately lovers conditioned by the city and by these events?
Russell and Corrine and all of their friends are all part of the living organism, which is the city; their lives are very much conditioned by the unique circumstances and opportunities and limitations of Manhattan; the publishing and financial industries are centered here. And the economic and social currents affect them in various ways. The new book is very much concerned with rising real estate values and the credit markets. They are struggling to stay in the city and Russell is struggling to keep his business afloat.
In The Good Life, Luke comes across as a man who displays a noble character and selfless actions. In Bright, Precious Days he comes across as arrogant and spoiled, willing to destroy his marriage to a devoted wife just to have a shot with the woman he had an affair with six years ago. Even his feelings towards Corrine seem more like possession than love. What prompted you to change Luke’s character?
Luke nearly dies in a car crash; it makes him question what he wants and reassess his life. Ultimately he decides he made a mistake leaving Corrine and he attempts to win her back.
Sometimes it seems that in Corrine’s mind desire and marriage are two separate entities. Would you say this is true?
Yes, I do believe it’s true. It’s very difficult to sustain passion over a period of decades. Respect and affection and love, yes. But passion, very difficult; hence the phrase the ‘seven year itch’.
The Calloways’ friends also have important POVs in all three books. Would you say that through their eyes we are able to see Russell and Corrine differently than how they see each other?
Indeed. Our friends always see us in a different and more objective light than we see ourselves
When you were writing Brightness Falls, The Good Life, and Bright, Precious Days did you ever toy with the idea of just breaking up Russell and Corrine, or was it your intention from the start to keep them together?
Indeed I thought about having Corrine run away with Luke. I tried to make it very tempting. I tried to make it suspenseful.
In Bright, Precious Days Corinne risks so much when she resumes her relationship with Luke. Why does she seem to get cold feet when he talks about a future with her when she was determined to leave Russell for Luke at the end of The Good Life after only knowing him for 90 days? What is the point of starting up the affair again so many years later if she doesn’t want a permanent relationship with him?
If affairs of the heart were matters of simple calculation then we probably wouldn’t need novels. Corrine has just turned fifty and her marriage is not in an ideal spot when the book begins.
Does Corrine see a lot of Jeff in Luke? Is this possibly the true motive behind her attraction for him?
In her mind they have much in common, and they are the only two men besides Russell (that) she has loved.
In all three books Corrine always has violent mood swings, very similar to the ones her mother Jesse had when Corrine and her sister were growing up. How, if at all, are these emotional imbalances related to her relationship with her husband, and almost addictive relationships with Jeff and Luke?
I honestly don’t think Corrine’s mood swings are (all) that extreme; she seems to me a fairly balanced person in contrast to her mother and her sister.
At various times in all three books but particularly in Bright, Precious Days, it seems that Corrine is more in love with the idea of being in love than she is with any of the men she’s been involved with, including Russell. Would you say this is accurate?
I think we are all in love with the idea of being in love, though in our culture women seem to be even more so than men.
A question that probably many readers have, particularly the ones who read Brightness Falls and The Good Life, is why are Russell and Corrine still together? They’ve both cheated on each other, Corrine’s transgressions are even more significant because she actually loves Jeff and later Luke, while Russell under his own admission loves only Corrine. What keeps them together? Is it still love?
I don’t think life is binary; Corrine loves Luke and Russell, too. The interesting relationships are the ones that survive the crises and catastrophes. Ultimately she has more in common with Russell, including history, children and shared values, than anyone else.
McInerney’s answer to this last question is extremely significant. Russell and Corrine have been through countless storms together, and their marriage has somehow managed to survive, morphing into something less idealistic but at the same time a bit stronger. But can theirs really be “one of the great love stories” as Corrine professes to her husband in a letter, quoting in turn a missive that he wrote to her when he was studying abroad in ignorant bliss, while she betrayed him with his best friend? Truthfully, isn’t most of their alleged love story based on mutual lies and infidelity?
Conversely though, this is what may ultimately be the true value of their marriage, the ability to withstand weakness, half-truths, secrecy, economic distress, and betrayal. Many may argue that Bright, Precious Days is nothing short of an excuse to justify the frivolity of the financial and intellectual Manhattan elite, along with their Gatsby-esque way of living and loving. While this could be true, the novel is more of an ode to the ever-shifting nature of marriage, love, desire and friendships; the ability to forcefully withstand crises and surpass the hard times.
Corrine seems to innately understand this better than Russell, trying to debate the solidity of their marriage with him, even when she is being unfaithful. Russell is still oblivious to Corrine’s betrayal, but has become somewhat cynical towards their far-from-idyllic union:
“The phrase perfect marriage ought to be abolished,” he said. “It’s a pernicious oxymoron.”
“Do you really believe that?” she said. “People used to say that about us. We were that couple once.”
“Please don’t make me feel bad about stating the obvious.”
“But we do have a good marriage?”
“Let’s not play this game.”
“Humor me, Russell. I’m worried about you. And about us.”
“We’ll be fine.”
“But why aren’t we fine right now? It doesn’t feel fine. What’s wrong? You’ve been virtually catatonic the past two months.”
Corrine reminded herself to tread lightly, conscious of her own role in the estrangement. At the same time, she was weary of their lack of intimacy. Part of her just wanted a decision to be made for her.
The fact that Corrine finally decides to address the distance that has withered her marriage, indicates her first loyalty lies with Russell. Despite what she may feel for Luke, it’s Russell’s detachment that gnaws at her enough to confront him about it. Once she realizes that he needs her to pull through with him and face a difficult financial situation, Corrine decidedly and convincingly stands at her husband’s side.
The conclusion of Bright, Precious Days is bittersweet and visually poetic, but also frustratingly ambiguous. Did McInerney have this ending in place when he started writing the closing chapter of Corrine and Russell’s story? “I wasn’t at all sure how it would end,” he commented. But McInerney did make clear that he purposefully left certain details in the dark and certain crucial situations between some of the characters somewhat unresolved. “I like to leave room for the reader’s imagination to operate, and I hate spelling everything out,” he affirmed.
Despite its ambivalent ending, Bright Precious Days holds a uniquely powerful message about relationships and marriage; that both are made of much more than physical passion, but are forged instead in the ability to move forward together and stronger after the battle.
Author’s note: Jay McInerney’s answers and interviewer’s questions have been edited.