I was in the city the other day and will be there again on Tuesday evening (if anyone's interested in saying hi, it's for this event at NYU), and I find myself thinking about fiction set in New York. Personally, I've always been slightly annoyed by books set in real cities. I realize this is kind of insane--indeed, it means that I am annoyed by some of my favorite books ever--but I really can't stand the kind of ready-made detail this tactic sometimes results in, the sort of gratuitous I'm-an-urban-novelist kind of crap, you know, the lists of street names and subway routes; the tenement apartments that smell, without fail, "of boiled cabbage," as if this is something anybody eats; the rich mixture of immigrants; the prostitutes and wiseguys; etc. There is a kind of writer who is so damned proud of himself for living in New York that he will remind you of this cool insider knowledge at every available opportunity, until you feel as though you're reading a condemnation of your own town, as much as you are a celebration of New York.
That said, I sure would never turn up my nose at, say, Edith Wharton. I think she's sufficiently pre-hip to have avoided any whiff of pretension, and The Age of Innocence is a classic. When I was younger, I admit, I really liked Paul Auster, whose writing is so closely affiliated with the city; but I can tell you the exact moment he lost me forever. It was in the novel, I forget which, where the protagonist is following another guy through the streets for weeks, in apparently random directions. And eventually the protagonist realizes that his quarry has been spelling out words with his travels, if you were tracing his movements on a map. This concept bugged the crap out of me--not its implausibility, which I had no problem with, but the adolescent obviousness of the thing, and its arbitrariness. New York's streets: I love them, Auster seemed to be saying. Whatever, dude, I found myself replying.
Much more my speed is the early Stephen Dixon stuff, particularly the bizarre "The Hole," which begins, audaciously, "The city planetarium blew up." I also love Madison Smartt Bell's "The Lie Detector," with its complicated arrangements of landlords and apartments (that's set in New York, right? Maybe it isn't--I don't have the book here with me. But it has become New York in my mind. Maybe it's Hoboken), and the earlier stories of Siri Hustvedt (maybe they're Hoboken too), whom I haven't read until Auster stuck her into one of his novels, along with himself and their kids, as a character. If you don't know what I mean, I urge you not to seek it out. I enjoyed Jonathan Lethem's "Motherless Brooklyn," but couldn't get myself excited about "Fortress of Solitude," which celebrated the legendary borough with what seemed to me excessive enthusiasm. This might well be my own bias, though--I am generally a fan of Lethem's.
And though I've never lived in New York, I've put some stuff there myself. One story, about a guy who escapes the Twin Towers and starts a new life, was freaking awful, and I got all the streets and parks wrong, and I threw it out. Another, "Zombie Dan," never actually mentions New York, though it's obvious that's where it is set.
Ultimately, I love New York. But I don't want to read novels about it unless I really have to. I like a fictional city to be fictional--I love the profound intimacy of a fully invented world. In a way, writing set in New York is too easy--the place is so damned interesting, so thrilling and multifarious, and every time I see it in fiction I roll my eyes. It's like chocolate bars or naked girls: its value is inherent, permanent, and obvious. There's nothing to be convinced of, and writers are most interesting when they have to work for your attention.