Sunday, June 15, 2008

New York Books

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.

15 comments:

rmellis said...

Sophie's Choice is a great New York novel. It's only partly in New York, though. Also, the latest Philip Roth. It too is only partly in New York, but I like that, that sense of NY as a temporary or former home.

Paula Fox's Desperate Characters must take place in New York, because I think of it that way.

Harriet The Spy is the echt New York novel. John, have you even read it yet??

JWOOD said...

Sounds like NYC envy. What about all the writers who grew up, or spent significant amounts of time, in New York? Richard Yates, Richard Price, Henry Roth, IB Singer, Jonathan Franzen, Jhumpa Lahiri, Don Delillo, etc. Of course a city represented in a book is not the actual city; it's still just a New York-like place unique to the story. A lousy, or lazy, writer may reference Avenue B or the F train and be satisfied with some kind of ready-made image, but a thoughtful and discerning reader will just put the book down. New York attracts thousands writers, and some of those writers are probably awestruck by New York (a forgivable fault, considering New York is awesome). A setting shouldn't be dismissed just because it's popular.

Warren Adler said...

Why write about New York? Despite all the mutations and permutations, it is still, quintessentially, New York as it was and always has been, the Big Apple: unchanging, exciting, energetic, multi-layered, creative, gloriously alive, where the sense of “being” is validated. Above all, it is the city of hope and aspiration. People come to my hometown from every point on the globe carrying their dreams with them. In this great city hope springs eternal and the spirit of optimism permeates the very air we breathe.

You have to be away a long time, like myself, to understand how unchanging New York really is. It is the city of romance and fantasy, of vision and imagination, of wonder and curiosity. It is welcoming and, under its tough veneer, softhearted and giving. Even if you are defeated in New York, your dreams dashed, your prospects dimmed, you know in your gut that you dared to fight the good fight on the toughest turf in the world.

jrlennon said...

"NYC envy!" Love it. That is SUCH a New York thing to say--anyone who criticizes our great regional literature must certainly be jealous.

That said...you're right. I am jealous. The New York Novel is a form that I really have no legitimate access to, as a writer, even as I admire and, in some cases, strive to emulate the writers in jwood's list.

Indeed, this is kind of a theme for me. I started out writing, back in college, by doing these Toni Morrison pastiches...all of that black history and dialect and cultural-historical weight, how could I not wish to get some of it for myself?

Part of the process of achieving artistic maturity, for me, has been to realize what great potential my own, far less spectaucular, cultural and georgraphical background possessed, as a wellspring of good writing. It's inexhaustible, really--anyone's background is. The difference is that, unlike with New York books, there aren't any suburban-New-Jersey wannabes out there, muddying the waters with mediocre fiction. That's an advantage to me as a writer, but a disadvantage as a reader, as it's left me a bit suspicious of any new New York novel, which is far more likely to be derivative crap than the next Henry Roth.

jrlennon said...

And Warren, thanks for the eloquent tribute, there. New York feels more alive than anyplace else I've ever been, and every time I go, I bring some of that feeling home with me. Every American ought to spend some time there--it should be a federal law. (And you could be forgiven, walking through Times Square on a summer's day, as we did on Friday, for thinking it already is.)

Jay Livingston said...

It probably makes a difference which comes first in your life - the book or the city - and I wonder how knowledge from one affects the experience of the other. I reread The Catcher in the Rye after I'd lived in NYC for a while. It was a different book.

jrlennon said...

So how'd it change?

5 Red Pandas said...

After reading your post I've gone ahead and given myself the right to claim an exception.

I do think that the Brooklyn Bridge no longer needs to be rhapsodized over in fiction (and I look at the damned thing every morning on my way to work as my subway trundles over the much humbler Manhattan Bridge). The same way Times Sq. isn't interesting, and just name checking a neighborhood or landmark won't make your fiction better than if it was set somewhere else. I think what should make fiction set in New York great are the characters.

I have noticed that people wait for buses differently in Queens and the Bronx. They actually line up for the bus in Queens, and in the Bronx a woman kept yelling at me and shouting that I was retarded because she thought I was cutting ahead of her.

Ah well. I've had a job in every borough except Staten Island so I think that gives me the right to set some of my fiction here.

jrlennon said...

I guess I'm not making a case for other writers not to set their fiction in New York. I'm more making a case for them not to suck. And it is depressing to see New York used as a conduit for suckiness.

Pandas, that's a good detail, in my view! And you can write about New York whenever you want.

BTW, come to NYU tomorrow night! I promise, no free-form electronic music.

5 Red Pandas said...

I don't expect my professor to be any more enlightening than she already hasn't been, so you might see me down at NYU. Maybe you can write me some kind of note.

Jay Livingston said...

Rereading a book after you've come to know the city: It's like hearing a piece of music live when you had heard it before only on AM radio. Knowing the geography, the route a character covers (like Bloom and Stephen in Dublin) adds something; it's hard to specify, but it's real.

A Japanese man once taught me the famous Basho haiku: Furu ike ya / Kawasu tobikomu / Mizu no oto. (An old pond / a frog jumps in / the sound of water). But if you have never seen furu ike, he said, you can't really understand this poem. And furu ike existed only in Japan. An American old pond was not the same.

jrlennon said...

Yeah...but that whole "if you haven't seen the pond, you can't understand the poem" schtick...I don't buy it. Even two different Japanese are going to read two different poems, if one of them discovered pirate treasure in his furu ike, and the other drowned her dog in one.

I think my overarching point may be that, regardless of what city the writer puts on the page, we're all going to have a different city in our heads. And so the reality of the city in fiction is perhaps not as important as its reality to the characters in that story.

Warren Adler said...

You are quite welcome, J.R.

max said...

Warren Adler, some time back: "If a literary magazine rejects a cold submission, the chances are that the editors are making their choices from coteries of sycophants and favorites that are part of their backslapping clique."

Warren Adler said...

Sorry, Max. I don't follow.