by Jay McInerney; New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 2006, 368 pages, $25
Dr. Rakfeldt is professor in the Department of Social Work, Southern Connecticut State University, and a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at the Department of Psychiatry, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut.
In his latest novel, Jay McInerney details the impact of September 11, 2001, by portraying the overwhelming tragedy while showing its effects upon people who survived and must in some way get on with their lives. The Good Life focuses on two couples: Corrine and Russell, and Luke and Sasha, who are wealthy, privileged members of the Manhattan demographic, whom McInerney has described in other novels.
As the story begins, both marriages are emotionally empty and strained by past affairs, mistrust, and indifference. Corrine and Russell lead distant lives. She focuses on the children and he on his work as a literary editor. Luke's feelings for his exmodel, socialite wife have devolved into viewing her as a vapid courtesan. But the tragic events of September 11, 2001, move these couples toward reassessing their situations and seeking more meaning in their lives. For Corrine and Luke, this means volunteering in a soup kitchen for rescue workers at Ground Zero, where they slowly come together in a torrid adulterous affair.
The Good Life provides horrific descriptions of the events of September 11 itself, particularly about the people who jumped from the World Trade Center. It also captures the atmosphere of New York following the attacks, describing the sidewalk picture galleries and the firefighters working at Ground Zero.
The book is not, however, about the terrorist attacks. It is about yearning for intimacy and finding life-affirming human contact, even in the midst of such a horrific calamity. While making love to Luke, Corrine relinquishes herself: "She thought she had lost this desire—no, it was more that she'd never even found it until now. She'd never felt such craving, such desire to be possessed and filled, never known she had so much desire inside of her, so urgent a need."
Corrine and Luke aren't just looking for emotional and physical catharses but seek deep, almost spiritual, communion in their lovemaking. And although much has undoubtedly changed because of the attacks, their lives return to normal. Ultimately, Corrine and Luke are drawn back into their commitments to their families, particularly to their children, and to the routines of their largely empty domestic lives.
In Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud described our core conflict as one between our innate yearnings and our desire for pleasure with the demands of society and our responsibilities toward others. This is the central theme of Jay McInerney's The Good Life.
Because the book peels back the multilayered ambiguities, lays bare the contradictions and complexities of intimate human relationships, and serves as a compelling case study for Freud's assertion that civilization itself leads to our discontents, it would be of interest to the readers of Psychiatric Services. It also thwarts our deepest, most intimate, aspirations for joy and fulfillment.