Essay Two

New York City in Transit

In this essay, you will be asked to perform a specific type of literary analysis called close reading. This technique is traditionally deployed in essays about literature, but can be helpful in any situation in which you’re trying to show how an author’s presentation molds his or her message. We close read political speeches, text messages and commercials—to name just a few examples—all the time, often without even noticing it.

In four to five pages, make an argument about one aspect of Jay McInerney’s New York classic Bright Lights, Big Cityusing the technique of close reading. Your paper should focus on a close reading of one to three passages, but you may bring in other parts of the text as they are relevant to your thesis. Keep in mind that you are not trying to reiterate ideas we have discussed in class or summarize the text; rather, you are endeavoring to express your own, original idea about the text. You might, for example, show how one or a few passages illuminate something about the text we might not see on first reading, or you might use them to agree or disagree with one of the characters’ appraisal of another character or a situation.

Questions to get you started:

  • How does his characterization of Vicky compare/contrast to that of Amanda?
  • Does the narrator dislike Clara because he sees himself in her?
  • What does the link between coma baby and the narrator tell us about the narrator?
  • Is the narrator purposely placing himself in ironic situations?
  • What does the narrator mean by “you will have to learn everything over again”?
  • Does his mother’s lack of experience make him want to do more ‘elicit’ things?
  • What is the source of the narrator’s emotional instability?
  • Is Tad Allagash a creative or destructive force? How does the narrator’s relationship with Tad reflect upon his view of himself and/or his mental state?
  • What do the narrator’s descriptions of the city reveal about his own perspective and views?
  • Does the novel have a climax? How does it operate with regard to traditional novelistic structures and expectations?
  • Why does the narrator feel like an outsider?

Essay Prompts:

  • What is the effect of the author’s use of the second person (“you”)?How does the protagonist treat the women in his life? What does this reveal about his attitude towards women in general, or the function women serve for him, or his relationship with any one of them in particular?
  • Yasu Wade tells the protagonist “Even Lear had a clown” (100). How does humor function in the novel?
  • It seems significant that the protagonist works in the Department of Factual Verification but wishes he worked in the Fiction Department. You could go in two (or probably more) directions here. On the one hand, you might consider how the Department of Factual Verification and his work there affect, symbolize, reflect, etc. the protagonist’s mental state. What is the protagonist’s relationship to the “facts” and capital-T-Truth? As the Talking Heads song goes, “facts all come with points of view. Facts don’t do what I want them to.” On the other hand, you might consider how the protagonist differentiates (or doesn’t) between fantasy and reality.
  • In response to the reporter’s questions about the magazine, the narrator (you) “tell him you don’t have any ideas. Your information is imperfect. Everything you thought you knew turned out to be wrong. You tell him you are an unreliable source” (147). Is this true with regard to his relationship to the reader as well? In what way? In answering this question, you could look for moments in which the narrator proves his general reliability or lack thereof, or you could focus on his portrayal of a particular character or situation. For instance: Is the narrator reliable with regard to his portrayal of his relationship to Amanda? What do his varying ways of portraying her tell us about him and/or their relationship?
  • Choose your own adventure!

Nuts and Bolts:

  • The assigned length for this essay is 1400-1750 words—approximately four to five pages, not including the bibliography. (To be clear, this paper must have a bibliography, since you will all be referring to McInerney’s text).
  • As with all papers for this class, this one should be written using MLA formatting: Times New Roman, 12 point font, double spaced. Refer to the Purdue OWL website or my MLA Mini-guide if you have any questions.
  • Here is the rubric by which you will be graded.
  • Here is a handout on the basics of integrating quotations into your essay. The Purdue OWL is a helpful resource for questions along these lines as well.
  • The Draft Workshop will take place on Friday, October 10th.
  • The final draft is due on Friday, October 17th by the beginning of class.

What is a “close reading”? This kind of assignment, so often used in college courses, involves looking at just a single text in isolation from contextual sources such as biography, sociology, or history. In a close reading, you should seek out patterns within the work itself, and suggest why those patterns are significant. In addition, you might show how these patterns are sometimes violated or varied. A close reading searches for some meaning behind the words themselves, some meaning that is perhaps not on the surface of the text itself but is implied, hinted at, or perhaps even inadvertently conveyed by the work. Your job is to show how your interpretation, your explanation of the work’s meaning, can be supported by details of the text itself. Don’t arrive at a meaning that everyone will see immediately (this would be so obvious as to be not worth discussing), but a meaning or an interpretation that you, having taken great care analyzing the work, have arrived at and need to convince your readers of.

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