The Death and Life of Great New York Novels

Thisyear is the fiftieth anniversary of TheDeath and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs’s groundbreaking and ground-revealingbook that still influences urban planning and design. For Jacobs, a resident ofGreenwich Village when she wrote, New York City was the Great American City because of, briefly put, its density anddiversity. Although her study is full of careful economic and politicalanalysis, Jacobs’s basic approach to cities was aesthetic, how they avoided “TheGreat Blight of Dullness,” which led, in her view, to other kinds ofblight.

Reading Jacobs again, Ibegan to wonder: if New York remains a Great American City, and is the centerof 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 wonderfulthing about writing for an online publication: readers will immediately posttheir candidates, some with fervid denunciations of my stupidity foroverlooking them, which is the not-so-wonderful thing about online publication.Let the comments begin.

Between 1970 and 2000 wehad Heller’s Something Happened, Gaddis’s JR, Coover’s ThePublic Burning, McElroy’s Womenand Men, and DeLillo’s Underworld, all set in New York and at least partly about itas a city. My reasons for calling these books “Great” are three:

1)The authors comprehend human life through systems not limited to the social andpsychological, which rule most traditional realism. Jane Jacobs very earlyrecognized the value of new analytic systems offered by cybernetics, biology,and physics, and these are the systems that gave the late twentieth-centurynovelists their original purchase on urban life. Gaddis’s JR, for example, has as its conceptual model the positive feedbackor “runaway” system.

2)To correspond to the new systems of information the novels incorporate andemploy, the authors deform well-mannered linear narrative and push towardinnovative structures and styles, the kind of formal diversity or “mixeduses” that Jacobs praised in urban architecture. Perhaps the best exampleis McElroy’s Women and Men, which hasboth small-scale episodes and “angelic” meditations, both thedissonance and the self-similarity of fractals in non-linear science, one ofits subjects.

3)Systems information and artistic deformation, when presented at these novels’great length, create the density in fiction that Jacobs said was essential forlively city life. Coover’s The PublicBurning, about the Rosenberg “atomic spies,” is a comprehensivemosaic of American life that culminates in the fission of a sacrificial ritualin Times Square.

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

DeLillo’s short novelsrepresent two strains of the period’s fiction. Cosmopolis, about an obscenely wealthy money manager whoseeks his own destruction, is allegorical, a kind of novelistic wishfulthinking. Falling Man, about a survivor of and witness to the TradeTowers’ collapse on 9/11, is referential, a direct description of twoindividual lives. While Cosmopolishas the earlier “Great” novels’ knowledge of systems and information,its plot lacks plausibility. Falling Manis self-limiting in another way: instead of focusing on his usual crowds andpower, DeLillo pays close attention to the significance of private lives. Reviewersof both novels were disappointed that neither had the allegorical and referential range of Underworld, and yet Cosmopolis and Falling Mando establish a baseline against which novels dealing with the systems ofcontemporary New York or with the events of contemporary history can bemeasured.

Jonathan Lethem has oftenwritten about New York, particularly his native Brooklyn. When awarded aMacArthur genius grant, he said he felt the need to embark on an ambitiousproject, which turned out to be ChronicCity, an allegorical or alternative reality fiction setin a Manhattan where a tiger roams the streets destroying buildings and whereit snows in the summer. Although thick (almost 500 pages), Chronic City is intellectually thin, its characters eitherinsistently superficial or obsessively nostalgic for issues of the 1960s. Nextto Cosmopolis, Chronic City seems an anachronism. Lethem’s novel has runningreferences to David Foster Wallace’s InfiniteJest, with whichChronic City shares some subjects, such as dope and entertainment, butLethem is neither as smart nor as inventive as Wallace, whose book would havemade my list of Greats had it only been set in New York.

A considerably moreprofound and ingenious allegory is Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist. About the first black woman elevator inspector inNew York, the novel layers meanings that include the epistemological, theeconomic, and the racial. Whitehead’s information about elevators and skyscrapersgives 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 whenthe author was a New Yorker, TheIntuitionist uses its indefiniteness and allusiveness to solicit readersinto a thoughtful critique of technology—the skyscraper as rocket leavingbehind the poor, the people of color, the denizens of the outer boroughs.

Of the realistic novels I’mtreating, O’Neill’s Netherland probably received the most consistently positivereviews. Like Falling Man, itfeatures a young husband and father, a Dutchman named Hans, who is displacedfrom his home by 9/11, falls into a state of emotional lassitude, and begins torecover by playing cricket and listening to Chuck Ramkissoon, a Jamaican ofIndian extraction who resembles Gatsby. Traveling with Chuck through the outerboroughs, Hans is entertained by their complicated ethnic diversity, but O’Neillis more interested in Hans’s domestic problems than in the city’s internationaldemographics 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 ofmannered 30-somethings-going-on-20-something who gather in a glitteringManhattan to make fortunes, marriages, or artistic reputations. The Emperorappears to be an ageing journalist, a fraud who has no clothes when beddingyounger women. They and the young men have lots of clothes but not muchsubstance. Messud is capable of Tom Wolfe observation and gentle ’90s satire,but the book she was writing was overtaken and made to seem, perhaps, moresuperficial than it is by the events of 9/11, which Messud rather awkwardlyappends to her 400 pages of comedy.

The most recent of myeight is Nigeria-born Teju Cole’s OpenCity, a first novel published this year. Its mixed-racenarrator, Julius, is a psychiatric resident at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospitalwho aimlessly walks the streets of New York—and Brussels midway through thebook—for reasons that are never clear. A very literary physician, Julius is asensitive flaneur, but his mysterious alienation keeps him detached from otherpeople. The city may be “open” to a wide variety of residents andvisitors we see in passing, but it is closed to Julius. Because this separationseems 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 conventionalimmigrant novel for a form that is part “memoir,” part travelwriting. One reviewer thought Cole a prospective writer of the “GreatWorld Novel,” but Open City istoo self-involved, too proud of its aestheticism, to qualify as a Great NewYork 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, adowntown painter, a computer hacker, a Bronx prostitute, a Guatemalan nurse, amiddle-aged African-American woman—and composing third-person sections—about awhite Upper East Side matron, a judge in criminal court, a young Puerto Ricangraffiti photographer, and Phillipe Petit, the Frenchman who walked a cablebetween the Trade Towers—in those characters’ idiosyncratic linguisticregisters. Much of the narration is about or occurs on the August day in 1974when Petit avoided a deadly accident and when two of McCann’s characters arekilled in an accident on the FDR Drive. Both events bring togethercharacters—from different races, classes, and ethnic backgrounds—in a New Yorkthat McCann has called a “polyphonic city.” Let the Great World Spin also dares to treat 9/11 indirectly andhistorically, not as an event that “changed everything” but asanother trauma in the long-spinning world, an event that created an unfortunatesymbolic black hole that sucked into itself mass emotion, cultural activity,and political decisions. For this and other reasons, the novel won the NationalBook Award—the only novel of my eight to be given that recognition (althoughCole is still eligible for next year’s prize).

Gertrude Stein said theUnited States is the oldest country in the world because it was the first toenter the twentieth century, the modern age. In their disorienting scale andhybrid complexity, cities were postmodern before postmodernism. Citiesdefamiliarize, provide cognitive dissonance, furnish new information and resistinterpretation of that information. If a city is too easy or too familiar, welose interest. The city becomes a simple story or a strip map, succumbs toJacobs’s “Great Blight of Dullness.”

Great American City novelsshould have the postmodern qualities of cities, should be, in the Britishcritic Tony Tanner’s phrase, cities of words. DeLillo’s two novels areintentionally 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 DeLillotreats in his concentrated fashion. Cole’s cosmopolitan immigrant cannot breakout of his alienation. Although TheIntuitionist and Let the Great WorldSpin are set in the last century, in their information and methods they dothe best at imitating the dense space and specifying the diverse demographicsof 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 aestheticvision.

And yet I think these twobooks fall short of the twentieth-century works with which I began. For theirkind of bulk, range, and ingenuity, one has to turn to San Francisco and KarenTei Yamashita’s I Hotel, a 600-plus page novel comprised of 10 novellasset in 10 different years beginning in 1969. The book was a National Book Awardfinalist last year but lost to a much less ambitious novel. However, thecircumstances 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 justI await—the new master work about New York City, its twenty-first century Something Happened or Underworld.

The novelists I’ve treatedall live or have lived in New York. All are published by mainstream, commercialhouses in New York with offices in Manhattan. Business and residential realestate is extremely expensive in New York, about twice the national average persquare foot. Saddled with what Jason Epstein has called an “otioseinfrastructure,” 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 Hotelwas or would have been rejected by New York presses. Blame safe low-floor NewYork fiction on Colson Whitehead’s skyscrapers, the kind of building whereDeLillo’s money man, Eric Packer, lived and had his office. Skyscrapers can bemodels of vaunting ambition and extravagant creation. For Phillipe Petit, theyinspired a courageous highwire performance. But skyscrapers also manifest thetriumph of corporate money, conglomerate values, market anticipation.

More disturbing than thewell-known situation of publishers is the possibility that the current cost ofliving in New York discourages resident novelists from taking on lengthy,time-consuming, and risky projects. The future of intellectually and aestheticallyambitious fiction is a huge and complex subject involving multinationalpublishing, new media, text technology, literary education, and literacyitself. That future is global, but New York may well be the representative leading—and double—edge. New York nourisheshomegrown writers such as Lethem and Whitehead, attracts writers from abroadsuch as O’Neill, Cole, and McCann, and honors its elder, DeLillo. New Yorkoffers the eight million stories of the naked city and makes a few writersmillions, but I fear that New York also tamps down novelists’ aestheticambitions, turns them into careerists of modest, consumable art—not minimalismor maximalism, but medianism—that will allow them to continue publishing in andmaybe living in cosmopolis.

Brooklynresident Paul Auster, with his bi-annual turning of the crank, is probably thebest-known representative of this market-savvy, careerist medianism. Part-timeresident Jonathan Franzen’s recent turn to bestselling high-concept soap operain Freedom is a case in point. As isManhattanite Gary Shteyngart’s popular sappy satire Super Sad True Love Story, his follow-up to twomuch sharper and more ambitious novels. I wouldn’t accuse these writers ofselling out, but they do seem to be leasing their talents.

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