The Death and Life of Great New York Novels

This year is the fiftieth anniversary of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs's groundbreaking and ground-revealing book that still influences urban planning and design. For Jacobs, a resident of Greenwich Village when she wrote, New York City was the Great American City because of, briefly put, its density and diversity. Although her study is full of careful economic and political analysis, Jacobs's basic approach to cities was aesthetic, how they avoided "The Great Blight of Dullness," which led, in her view, to other kinds of blight.

 

Reading Jacobs again, I began to wonder: if New York remains a Great American City, and is the center of publishing, and is the home of many of our most celebrated fiction writers, why haven't we had in, say, the last decade, a Great New York Novel?

 

Here I note the wonderful thing about writing for an online publication: readers will immediately post their candidates, some with fervid denunciations of my stupidity for overlooking them, which is the not-so-wonderful thing about online publication. Let the comments begin.

 

Between 1970 and 2000 we had Heller's Something Happened, Gaddis's JR, Coover's The Public Burning, McElroy's Women and Men, and DeLillo's Underworld, all set in New York and at least partly about it as a city. My reasons for calling these books "Great" are three:

1) The authors comprehend human life through systems not limited to the social and psychological, which rule most traditional realism. Jane Jacobs very early recognized the value of new analytic systems offered by cybernetics, biology, and physics, and these are the systems that gave the late twentieth-century novelists their original purchase on urban life. Gaddis's JR, for example, has as its conceptual model the positive feedback or "runaway" system.

 

2) To correspond to the new systems of information the novels incorporate and employ, the authors deform well-mannered linear narrative and push toward innovative structures and styles, the kind of formal diversity or "mixed uses" that Jacobs praised in urban architecture. Perhaps the best example is McElroy's Women and Men, which has both small-scale episodes and "angelic" meditations, both the dissonance and the self-similarity of fractals in non-linear science, one of its subjects.

 

3) Systems information and artistic deformation, when presented at these novels' great length, create the density in fiction that Jacobs said was essential for lively city life. Coover's The Public Burning, about the Rosenberg "atomic spies," is a comprehensive mosaic of American life that culminates in the fission of a sacrificial ritual in Times Square.

In the last decade or so, probably hundreds of novels set in New York have been published. The best—or most widely praised—seem to me the following eight, all by writers who live or have lived in New York: Don DeLillo's Cosmopolis and Falling Man, Jonathan Lethem's Chronic City, Colson Whitehead's The Intuitionist, Claire Messud's The Emperor's Children, Joseph O'Neill's Netherland, Teju Cole's Open City, and Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin.

 

DeLillo's short novels represent two strains of the period's fiction. Cosmopolis, about an obscenely wealthy money manager who seeks his own destruction, is allegorical, a kind of novelistic wishful thinking. Falling Man, about a survivor of and witness to the Trade Towers' collapse on 9/11, is referential, a direct description of two individual lives. While Cosmopolis has the earlier "Great" novels' knowledge of systems and information, its plot lacks plausibility. Falling Man is self-limiting in another way: instead of focusing on his usual crowds and power, DeLillo pays close attention to the significance of private lives. Reviewers of both novels were disappointed that neither had the allegorical and referential range of Underworld, and yet Cosmopolis and Falling Man do establish a baseline against which novels dealing with the systems of contemporary New York or with the events of contemporary history can be measured.

 

Jonathan Lethem has often written about New York, particularly his native Brooklyn. When awarded a MacArthur genius grant, he said he felt the need to embark on an ambitious project, which turned out to be Chronic City, an allegorical or alternative reality fiction set in a Manhattan where a tiger roams the streets destroying buildings and where it snows in the summer. Although thick (almost 500 pages), Chronic City is intellectually thin, its characters either insistently superficial or obsessively nostalgic for issues of the 1960s. Next to Cosmopolis, Chronic City seems an anachronism. Lethem's novel has running references to David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, with which Chronic City shares some subjects, such as dope and entertainment, but Lethem is neither as smart nor as inventive as Wallace, whose book would have made my list of Greats had it only been set in New York.

 

A considerably more profound and ingenious allegory is Colson Whitehead's The Intuitionist. About the first black woman elevator inspector in New York, the novel layers meanings that include the epistemological, the economic, and the racial. Whitehead's information about elevators and skyscrapers gives the novel a systemic quality as well as the hybrid form of the earlier "Greats." Like Gravity's Rainbow, another novel that should have been written when the author was a New Yorker, The Intuitionist uses its indefiniteness and allusiveness to solicit readers into a thoughtful critique of technology—the skyscraper as rocket leaving behind the poor, the people of color, the denizens of the outer boroughs.

 

Of the realistic novels I'm treating, O'Neill's Netherland probably received the most consistently positive reviews. Like Falling Man, it features a young husband and father, a Dutchman named Hans, who is displaced from his home by 9/11, falls into a state of emotional lassitude, and begins to recover by playing cricket and listening to Chuck Ramkissoon, a Jamaican of Indian extraction who resembles Gatsby. Traveling with Chuck through the outer boroughs, Hans is entertained by their complicated ethnic diversity, but O'Neill is more interested in Hans's domestic problems than in the city's international demographics or other characters' responses to 9/11. Hans's wife accuses him of "exoticizing" Chuck, making him an "anthropological curiosity," and I think the charge sticks to O'Neill and his treatment of New York City, which is described early as the "ideal source of metropolitan diversion."

 

Messud's The Emperor's Children is itself a metropolitan diversion, a comedy of mannered 30-somethings-going-on-20-something who gather in a glittering Manhattan to make fortunes, marriages, or artistic reputations. The Emperor appears to be an ageing journalist, a fraud who has no clothes when bedding younger women. They and the young men have lots of clothes but not much substance. Messud is capable of Tom Wolfe observation and gentle '90s satire, but the book she was writing was overtaken and made to seem, perhaps, more superficial than it is by the events of 9/11, which Messud rather awkwardly appends to her 400 pages of comedy.

 

The most recent of my eight is Nigeria-born Teju Cole's Open City, a first novel published this year. Its mixed-race narrator, Julius, is a psychiatric resident at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital who aimlessly walks the streets of New York—and Brussels midway through the book—for reasons that are never clear. A very literary physician, Julius is a sensitive flaneur, but his mysterious alienation keeps him detached from other people. The city may be "open" to a wide variety of residents and visitors we see in passing, but it is closed to Julius. Because this separation seems more personal than cultural or economic or political, Open City is claustrophobic and muffled, as if intentionally avoiding the large and vibrant world of the conventional immigrant novel for a form that is part "memoir," part travel writing. One reviewer thought Cole a prospective writer of the "Great World Novel," but Open City is too self-involved, too proud of its aestheticism, to qualify as a Great New York Novel.

 

Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin comes closest to the range of the earlier "Greats" by employing several first-person narrators—an immigrant Irish bartender, a downtown painter, a computer hacker, a Bronx prostitute, a Guatemalan nurse, a middle-aged African-American woman—and composing third-person sections—about a white Upper East Side matron, a judge in criminal court, a young Puerto Rican graffiti photographer, and Phillipe Petit, the Frenchman who walked a cable between the Trade Towers—in those characters' idiosyncratic linguistic registers. Much of the narration is about or occurs on the August day in 1974 when Petit avoided a deadly accident and when two of McCann's characters are killed in an accident on the FDR Drive. Both events bring together characters—from different races, classes, and ethnic backgrounds—in a New York that McCann has called a "polyphonic city." Let the Great World Spin also dares to treat 9/11 indirectly and historically, not as an event that "changed everything" but as another trauma in the long-spinning world, an event that created an unfortunate symbolic black hole that sucked into itself mass emotion, cultural activity, and political decisions. For this and other reasons, the novel won the National Book Award—the only novel of my eight to be given that recognition (although Cole is still eligible for next year's prize).

 

Gertrude Stein said the United States is the oldest country in the world because it was the first to enter the twentieth century, the modern age. In their disorienting scale and hybrid complexity, cities were postmodern before postmodernism. Cities defamiliarize, provide cognitive dissonance, furnish new information and resist interpretation of that information. If a city is too easy or too familiar, we lose interest. The city becomes a simple story or a strip map, succumbs to Jacobs's "Great Blight of Dullness."

 

Great American City novels should have the postmodern qualities of cities, should be, in the British critic Tony Tanner's phrase, cities of words. DeLillo's two novels are intentionally self-truncating, narrowed like the Cosmopolis protagonist's route along 47th Street. Lethem, O'Neill, and Messud use wider lenses but are inadequate to the subjects that DeLillo treats in his concentrated fashion. Cole's cosmopolitan immigrant cannot break out of his alienation. Although The Intuitionist and Let the Great World Spin are set in the last century, in their information and methods they do the best at imitating the dense space and specifying the diverse demographics of contemporary New York City. The protagonist of Cosmopolis makes money using systems Jacobs would have appreciated, but the novels by Whitehead and McCann are closest to Jacobs's aesthetic vision.

 

And yet I think these two books fall short of the twentieth-century works with which I began. For their kind of bulk, range, and ingenuity, one has to turn to San Francisco and Karen Tei Yamashita's I Hotel, a 600-plus page novel comprised of 10 novellas set in 10 different years beginning in 1969. The book was a National Book Award finalist last year but lost to a much less ambitious novel. However, the circumstances of publication of this Great San Francisco Novel—by Coffee House, a small press in Minneapolis—do segue into my conclusion. Or, more precisely, my speculation about why we await—or maybe just I await—the new master work about New York City, its twenty-first century Something Happened or Underworld.

 

The novelists I've treated all live or have lived in New York. All are published by mainstream, commercial houses in New York with offices in Manhattan. Business and residential real estate is extremely expensive in New York, about twice the national average per square foot. Saddled with what Jason Epstein has called an "otiose infrastructure," New York publishers are loath to take chances on large, expansive, expensive, possibly commercially unsuccessful projects. I'm sure, for example, that Yamashita's I Hotel was or would have been rejected by New York presses. Blame safe low-floor New York fiction on Colson Whitehead's skyscrapers, the kind of building where DeLillo's money man, Eric Packer, lived and had his office. Skyscrapers can be models of vaunting ambition and extravagant creation. For Phillipe Petit, they inspired a courageous highwire performance. But skyscrapers also manifest the triumph of corporate money, conglomerate values, market anticipation.

 

More disturbing than the well-known situation of publishers is the possibility that the current cost of living in New York discourages resident novelists from taking on lengthy, time-consuming, and risky projects. The future of intellectually and aesthetically ambitious fiction is a huge and complex subject involving multinational publishing, new media, text technology, literary education, and literacy itself. That future is global, but New York may well be the representative leading—and double—edge. New York nourishes homegrown writers such as Lethem and Whitehead, attracts writers from abroad such as O'Neill, Cole, and McCann, and honors its elder, DeLillo. New York offers the eight million stories of the naked city and makes a few writers millions, but I fear that New York also tamps down novelists' aesthetic ambitions, turns them into careerists of modest, consumable art—not minimalism or maximalism, but medianism—that will allow them to continue publishing in and maybe living in cosmopolis.

 

Brooklyn resident Paul Auster, with his bi-annual turning of the crank, is probably the best-known representative of this market-savvy, careerist medianism. Part-time resident Jonathan Franzen's recent turn to bestselling high-concept soap opera in Freedom is a case in point. As is Manhattanite Gary Shteyngart's popular sappy satire Super Sad True Love Story, his follow-up to two much sharper and more ambitious novels. I wouldn't accuse these writers of selling out, but they do seem to be leasing their talents.

 

Abdication of artistic ambition doesn't happen just in New York, of course. It can and does happen anywhere novelists fixate on the credentials and possible profit of New York publication. But perhaps it is no coincidence that the worthy heirs of the earlier Great New York novelists—David Foster Wallace, William Vollmann, Richard Powers, Mark Danielewski—have not lived or do not live in New York. Thomas Pynchon does, Joseph McElroy still does, Don DeLillo resides just outside the city limits. Maybe one of New York's senior citizens will do for Jane Jacobs's city what the scribbling masses of Brooklyn have not yet done.

July 23: Jessica Mitford died on this day in 1996.

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