We arrived home after our annual Northeast Regional Christmas late last Friday. We were overladen with gifts (Our car, which had seemed quite a nice size a year ago, struggled mightily to hold two car seats and their respective occupants, a small dog, all said respective occupants’ lounging and sleeping gear, four suitcases, many, many parcels AND a three foot stuffed T-Rex). There were many new books for my older son, and I was particularly eager to read him one of the set of literary classics that had been redone as board books (Little Women! Peter Pan! Sense and Sensibility!), but after we’d taken off his little shoes and flopped down on his rug and done our customary investigation of his lightswitch, he turned to me and said “Taxi?” Taxi being shorthand for one of his favorite books, wherein a family and their cat explore our fair city. Big city / so much to see city / how will we get around? After Taxi, he wanted Little Blue Truck (“Beep Beep?”), and then Little Blue Truck’s Halloween (“Beep, Beep, Boo?”), followed by My Feminist ABCs and I Love My Daddy and rounded out with 101 Trucks.
These books make up my son’s current canon; though he will countenance A Year at Maple Hill Farm and happily point at the geese in The Oxcart Man, it is the aforementioned sextet that he turns to multiple times a day. It made sense, after three nights in three different beds, after a whirlwind of presents and less familiar faces and long, boisterous gatherings that he would seek them out again.
Seeing him return to his canon had me thinking about my own. Specifically, given our homecoming and my having just finished Brightness Falls, I started mulling on its New York tranche, and came up with the following:
- My Year of Rest and Relaxation
- American Psycho
- Brightness Falls
- The Emperor’s Children
- City on Fire
With honorable mention to:
- Bonfire of the Vanities (I LOVE the beginning, but tire of Sherman soon after)
- The Flamethrowers (is located just as much in Italy and Nevada as it is in New York, though ’70s Soho and the art world’s wildly disparate treatment of genders and that old exquisite loneliness the city fosters so well stick in my mind)
- The Goldfinch (like Flamethrowers, spends large portions outside New York, and is less a story of making it than of getting away with it. Also, have only read once; all canon entries must have been read at least twice)
To me, a great New York novel situates itself full-bore into one or more of the city’s economic and social microcosms: publishing, finance, punk music, art, academia, old, old money, comfortable intellectual money, new leveraged buy-out money (but always, money; its presence or absence a character unto itself). In a great New York novel, the neighborhood is at least a supporting actor, given restaurants, bars, bodegas, burnt-out warehouses, homeless encampments. Parties have specific vibes, dress codes, totemic guests. People who are only just beginning to find their footing, or have failed to, or have flamed out, will brush elbows with those whose success seems as solid and established as the granite steps of the Met. There will be scheming and knocked pedestals and at least one savage wit. For me, reading a New York novel is a comfort, a delight, and a reminder of why I wanted to move to this city in the first place.
My second son is a Brooklyn baby but we gave him a Manhattan name: Irving. As in Penn and Berlin and Irving Place, home to one of the city’s oldest operational taverns. As in Washington Irving, with his headless horseman and twenty year sleeps. For the middle, we chose Wilder. Not so New York, but he was born on September 11th — the most New York date of all. Doing our bit to brighten the date’s somber associations; letting the high-priced banality of the area around the memorials do the bulk. His birthday burning bright and sunny, all cerulean sky and light glinting off shined surfaces, the skyscrapers and the water in the fountains.
What does it mean to be a New York baby? It’s a question I’ve wondered often; my sons are not old enough to tell me. I was a New Hampshire baby, born in the middle of a blizzard on generator power to a young mother just over a year into her first teaching job and a young father who’d already come to realize that being a country lawyer was more proasic in reality than literature had made it out to be. In a year, we’d move to Massachusetts. Big law. Another baby (and then another, and another). But there’s a bit of New Hampshire in Irving, too: my husband and I share a fondness for John Irving, who has written few novels that don’t cross that state’s line.
We drove Irving home from the hospital the night after he was born, listening to the third democratic debate on Youtube because we couldn’t find it on the radio. The Kosciuszko, newly widened, was empty; we shot through its violet ribs. The city a thick slate apart from the blue lights of televisions glimpsed through bare apartment windows. My mother had caviar and champagne and crab and avocado salad waiting — even that felt New York, though we were too bleary to partake in much. All fall I watched the colors change and ebb in Fort Greene Park. Gradually, then all at once. I read lots of campus novels. It was only once the lawns were brown, the branches bare or rust, that I grabbed the New York canon by the arm, starting with My Year of Rest and Relaxation.
My Year of Rest and Relaxation is not comfort food. It is prickly, even though it is mostly about trying to sleep for a year. But it is, very much, a novel made possible by its setting: New York is a city of 24-hour convenience and anonymity-by-default; with enough money and the right psychiatrist (it is also a city of psychiatrists), anyone living here could undertake their own year of downer-enabled R&R.
The narrator wakes up shortly before 9/11, though the story feels contemporary before then, with its gallery satire and nonchalant pharmacopeia and the superficial demons plaguing the narrator’s erstwhile best friend and foil. There is constant conversational skewering and deadpan asides; everyone but the men at the bodega who supply the narrator with her daily two cups of coffee and random packaged goods are such epitomes of their type (nutty, scatterbrained, cat-loving psychiatrist; bulimic, exercise-obsessed, material magpie best friend with serious daddy issues; art world wunderkind with a penchant for taxidermied pets and bodily effluvia) that they should be caricatures — except, as any New Yorker knows, they are all very real.
In a sense, My Year of Rest and Relaxation is the inverse of American Psycho. A young gallerist seeks to escape the world she so abhors, and in so doing, inadvertently becomes a better person; a young M&A banker seeks to fit into the world he also abhors, and in so doing, very vertantly becomes a serial killer. I can’t entirely recommend American Psycho; it is so very nihilistic, very Wolf of Wall Street, the high of a great story and savage dialogue and love-to-hate characters turning sour, leaving you squeezed out with a headache and a stubborn metallic taste in the back of your throat. But there may not be a more vivid opener, a real welcome to the 80’s jungle, grit and money in an unequal, jittery coexistence.
ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE is scrawled in blood red lettering on the side of the Chemical Bank near the corner of Eleventh and First and is in print large enough to be seen from the backseat of the cab as it lurches forward in the traffic leaving Wall Street and just as Timothy Price notices the words a bus pulls up, the advertisement for Les Misérables on its side blocking his view, but Price who is with Pierce & Pierce and twenty-six doesn’t seem to care because he tells the driver he will give him five dollars to turn up the radio, “Be My Baby” on WYNN, and the driver, black, not American, does so.
A different New York, the edges in it sanded by the Clintonian era of My Year of Rest and Relaxation, sanded to nearly nothing today. Sanded to nothing or else I’ve gone callused. When I first moved here for school, in 2006, I gave freely to the homeless; now I send donations to the Food Bank and mutter “I don’t have any change,” more to myself then to them. I used to speculate about the lives of the people around me on the subway; now I bury my face in whatever reading material I have on hand. But that is New York too, the en-route read, even if more and more people watch videos on their phones.
The other day, we took the boys to Soho. Fools! It’s got to be the least toddler-friendly neighborhood in Manhattan, if not the entire city. At the Arrivals pop-up, I allowed my son to play with the fine, white sand that had been poured into what looked like a sandbox, but was actually a surface on which to display thick-cut acetone sunglasses in clear lime green and black. The salesmen, also thick-cut, with Nordic accents and navy boiler suits, seemed unphased by this. The area where the checkout counter was had another large display box, this one filled with moss and, where the moss had grown away, mud. I did not venture into the back area, but I could see that it too had a display box filled with large, glossy white stones. I knew that if I had allowed it, my son would have happily played in all three boxes for as long as it would take me to try on every shearling moto jacket in the store. There were vague manifesto-type statements on the white walls, espousing outdoor living, stoicism, environmental communion. It reminded me of both American Psycho and My Year of Rest and Relaxation: viral wearable animals that enable the wearer to fit into this slice of the world while also remaining impervious to its literal elements.
But what of the New York that is most aspirational and actual? The New York that is unabashedly elitist, but is also creating, or assisting the creation, of literary art? That was the New York of my dreams, and I spent my college years climbing its bottom rungs, interning at Page Six and Conde Nast Traveler, spending a summer as a social reporter in Bridgehampton, writing Paris dispatches for my town paper during a semester abroad. After graduation, I wrote lifestyle features for Worth, a twenty-two year-old telling those with tenfold as many zeros in their bank accounts which underground Japanese steakhouse was the hardest reservation to snag, which swiss summer camp the best for budding Federers, which sports car the most suitable for driving Argentina’s Route 40. As “research” for the last, I got to tool around Colorado in a eggplant-purple Bentley. Eventually, I decided I’d rather write for fun and track people on the internet for money, but oh, I still love to read books set in the publishing world, and Jay McInerny’s Brightness Falls and Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children are prime examples. The former takes the trope of the golden couple coming undone — he a recherche literary editor, she a stockbroker with a heart of gold — and situates it at the height of Reaganism and the AIDs crisis, when it seemed like everyone and their mother were either making bank as amateur investors or dying of pneumonia. The book ably explores the effects being tangential to so much money can have on the young and ambitious: give a moose a muffin (or a lone vote of confidence) and he’ll soon come to believe that he, a just-thirty editor with a few hits under his belt and a few thousand dollars to his name, is qualified to head a leveraged buy-out coup and install himself as the venerable old publishing house’s new editor-in-chief. It also serves as a Big Short-style testament to the ridiculousness of the leveraged buy-out in general, and what catnip it is to hubris. And it’s chock-a-block with parties, with rowdy after-work drinks, with try-hard socialites and a cool-girl financier and even a memorable beached whale. It’s not a perfect book — Corrine, the couple’s female half, is a bit of a limp lady Madonna — but it’s a sparkling and often heady read.
The Emperor’s Children is a little more measured, a little more detached about its glittering setting, but it is a jewel box with hidden spikes, like all of Claire Messud’s books. It chronicles the lives of three college friends — a writer, a critic, and a documentary film producer — a decade out from graduation. The first of these, Marina Thwaite, is the daughter of a well-known theorist and professor at Columbia; the book which she has been writing, or failing to write, for the past few years is about children’s clothes, a topic her father finds trivial, even as he helped broker its large, and long-gone advance. The critic, Julian, a half-Vietnamese gay Michigander, is finding the precariousness of his financial situation wearing as thin as the lapels on his Agnes B suit — and thus greatly resents the lap of relative familiar luxury into which Marina has retreated. The third friend, Julia, at first appears to float serenely above her friends’ maelstrom, only to find herself drawn in through a developing relationship with Marina’s father. There is also a fourth character, Marina’s upstate cousin Frederick, with the unfortunate nickname “Bootie,” who drops out of college and heads to the city to learn from his revered uncle. Bootie’s sections and his storyline are what I like least about the book: he is slovenly, heedless, a boy whose contempt of traditional education and mainstream culture feels both earnestly honest and like an easy grab in the aftermath of his father’s death. He expects a great deal from others, an Emersonian truth being paramount, while demanding little of himself, though the one thing he does accomplish serves to lay bare the artifice and hypocrisy of his uncle’s positions and career.
Anyways, at its core, the book is about the dangers of the participation trophy, and the fleshly lengths the participants will go to to assure the trophies keep coming. I have just awarded Irving trophies for most fingers slobbered on in one go and longest-running nose whistle, by the way.
It occurs to me that there are not many children in my New York canon. Real children, I mean; there are plenty of extended adolescents. I could burrow into my own childhood bookshelf and come out with The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankenwriter, but I haven’t read it as an adult. Does it hold up?
What does hold up is Caitlin Macy’s Mrs. I touched briefly on it in an earlier post about Rachel Cusk, but this book hits all my Manhattan erogenous zones. We’ve got the greek chorus of Upper East Side moms as they convene before and after preschool pickup and dropoff; we’ve got the exclusive, obscenely well-endowed Episcopal preschool itself, we’ve got insider trading and good old money and bad new money, we’ve got slasher heels and furs and a tragic, alcoholic ex-model and an ambitious, chip-shouldered DA. We have the preschoolers, who, blessedly, really are just kids, despite the gauntlet raging above them. Oh, it’s so good! Juicy, finely, acerbically observed. A Big Little Lies meets Gossip Girl meets Billions, if you will. I don’t know that it has a MESSAGE, exactly, but it’s a book I wholeheartedly recommend to anyone. As a bonus, it makes me feel very content with my decision not to even try to get our older son into St. Ann’s or what have you.
Should I close out with something truly glorious, sweeping, a Bonfire of the Vanities that could? City on Fire grabbed, shook, waltzed, raged with me from the get-go. I mean, goodness… talk about a book that does everything, and aces almost all of it. It’s a multilayered, multi-perspective story of the disintegration and machinations of one of the city’s industrial titan families alongside the attempt of an asthmatic Long Island high schooler to solve his best friend’s murder. It takes place in the late, Ford to NYC: Drop Dead ‘70s, and dives into the rise of punk, zines, fireworks operators, and street kids, among other subcultures. There are masked parties at the family’s Sutton Place estate and seething, shrieking downtown mosh pits, the burning South Bronx and sedate Brooklyn Heights and tract house LI and grimy Alphabet City; first kisses in dappled Greenwich Village and fevered exchanges in the bowels of Grand Central. For a long while, the storylines run on parallel tracks, only to converge in a stunning, sweeping crescendo. The writing, both conversational and descriptive, is brilliant; it crackles with conflatagory energy for nearly all of the 900-odd pages. It is among the most ambitious books I’ve ever read, and that too feels right, for, My Year of Rest and Relaxation notwithstanding, this is not a city for the listless.
New York’s energy courses through my sons. Irving’s arms wave even in his sleep; awake, his eyebrows wraggle, his eyes dance or go wide as shooter marbles; his legs chuff. He croons and purrs — except during his hot hour, when he stands board-straight in my lap and howls hot tears into my neck. Peregrine is a whirling dervish; five minutes after waking, he’s upended five toy bins, constructed a leaning tower of duplos, pulled all of his pants out of the drawer, and signed his name, in pencil, on the wall. His dinosaurs are migrating from his bathroom to the living room; he’s imploring me to sit, sit, sit! In front of the freezer and quiz him on the locations of the animal magnets. He can hardly string two words together, but he knows the yak, the sea urchin, the flamingo and the jellyfish.
We exhaust the magnets; we go to the couch. With both boys on my lap, we kick off the canon. Big city / so much to do city / what will we do?
 A great New York novel will take place, at least primarily, in Manhattan — the Brooklyn novel is a separate beast; its slimmer, and less glittery tranche consists primarily of buildingsroman (A Tree Grows, of course, and Michael Chabon’s magical, sneakily brutal Fortress of Solitude).