Can the rising cost of cosmopolitan real estate have brought the New York City novel to a low point? Tom LeClair measures recent fictions from and about New York City - including three "9/11 novels" - against the Systems Novel of the mid-1970s.
This essay is adapted from a lecture given March 1, 2011, at the University of Cincinnati in a series of lectures on "The City and the Novel."
A shorter version of this essay originally appeared in the April 7, 2011 issue of The Barnes and Noble Review. (http://bnreview.barnesandnoble.com/t5/Reviews-Essays/The-Death-and-Life-of-Great-New-York-Novels/ba-p/4591)
This year is the fiftieth anniversary of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs' ground-breaking 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. Although her study is full of careful economic and political analysis, Jacobs' 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?
In 1971 the British critic Tony Tanner published a book entitled City of Words on the American novel from 1950 to 1970. His title referred to the variety of American fiction writers and to the novel as a lexical playfield. In 1989 I published a book on American novels published since 1970. It was called The Art of Excess and claimed - though I didn't use Tanner's phrase - that the best and most important individual novels of the 70's and 80's were cities of words. These Great American Novels had the qualities of the cities that Jacobs praised in The Death and Life of Great American Cities: the books were dense, diverse, and influenced, like Jacobs' work, by the biological sciences' discovery of "organized complexity." Like New York, the novels were massive, sometimes overwhelming works with their own unique architectures. Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow was the master text. Others included Le Guin's Always Coming Home, Barth's LETTERS, Heller's Something Happened, Gaddis's JR, Coover's The Public Burning, and McElroy's Women and Men. If I'd waited another ten years, I could have included DeLillo's Underworld.
The last five of those eight novels happen to be set largely in New York City. For me now, they set the standard for recent New York fiction, just as New York sets the standard for cities, at least American cities. What distinguishes these works are the following three qualities:
1) The authors comprehend human life through systems not limited to the social and psychological, which rule most traditional realism. Systems more like those found in nineteenth-century naturalism. Scientific systems or fields of knowledge influenced by Ludwig von Bertalanffy's General System Theory, which placed a high value on analyzing how information works in any human or organic organization. Gravity's Rainbow is probably the best-known contemporary example of what I called the "systems novel."
2) To correspond to the new systems of information the books incorporate, the authors deform well-mannered linear narrative and push toward imitative forms, structures, and styles. For example, Coover's anthropologically influenced The Public Burning has the structure of a three-ring circus that becomes a sacrificial ritual in Times Square. The structure of McElroy's Women and Men has 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 a sense of excess that may alienate readers until they recognize that a new paradigm - a new way of understanding human life - is generating the text. The art of excess consists of using seeming overload to reformulate the novel as a genre and to transform readers' understanding of crucial subject matter, such as the contemporary city.
Two novels by DeLillo - Cosmopolis, published in 2003, and Falling Man, published in 2007 - introduce what I see as two strains of recent fiction explicitly about New York as a city: the allegorical and the referential. Novels of the allegorical strain are Jonathan Lethem's Chronic City (2009) and Colson Whitehead's The Intuitionist (1999). Novels of the referential strain are Joseph O'Neill's Netherland (2008) and Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin (2009). By direct treatment or by implication, Falling Man, Netherland, and Let the Great World Spin are 9/11 novels. Of the many novels set in New York City during the last decade, these six have received the most attention and, in general, the most acclaim.
In Cosmopolis DeLillo has a character say, "'Genius alters the terms of its habitat" (95). The character is the billionaire protagonist's "chief of theory." The protagonist, Eric Packer, is a money manager who takes a day-long trip across midtown Manhattan in April of 2000. Packer has a genius for seeing profitable patterns in massive and apparently random data. DeLillo has a genius for observing instructive patterns of ideas and behavior that alter the terms for understanding the habitat of 21st century New York City. The 28-year-old Eric Packer is a larger-than-life character. He also represents the large city he moves through and reflects on. In the city that never sleeps, Packer is an insomniac.
Although Cosmopolis is set eleven years ago and was published eight years ago, it is the most sensitive of the six novels I'm treating to the newest ways of conceiving the urban habitat.
First, the physical city as information. As Packer crosses the island on 47th Street, he sees buildings in Times Square and elsewhere sheathed with information - ads, news, stock tickers running almost too fast for the eye to comprehend. Packer's stretch limo, with its TV monitors and communication devices, is an island of information. People enter the limo to give him bursts of information - his chief of technology, his currency analyst, a doctor, his chief of finance, and his theorist. Perhaps echoing Tom Wolfe's "masters of the universe" in Bonfire of the Vanities, Packer is a master of systems of information who wants to turn his body into pure information.
Second, the city as nomadic space. Packer has a 48-room apartment with every possible amenity and an office, but when he decides to cross the city for a haircut he can monitor global finance, undergo a prostate exam, and have sex in his limo, which comes equipped with a toilet. Packer feels that skyscrapers are anachronisms and sees bank buildings that he imagines as empty because money has turned into cyber-capital that can be managed from a cell phone. The streets he observes are spectacles of information in motion - the president's motorcade, a violent demonstration, a rapper's funeral procession.
Third, the city as representative of accelerated time. Although Packer's limo runs into many delays moving east to west, the events he witnesses, the actions he takes, and the information he processes come faster than the proverbial New York minute. Packer is betting heavily on the yen's fall, but its rise accelerates at such speed that he loses most of his and his independently wealthy wife's fortune during one day. Packer's wealth has come from his computers' ability to predict the future, even if that future is only in nanoseconds. On this day, he sees events a second or two before they appear on TV screens as the future is compacted into the present.
Fourth, the city as a metapolis - about itself. This quality of self-reference surfaces through the numerous manifestations of videotape in the novel. Packer watches himself on his limo's spycam. Surveillance cameras record action in the streets. News reporters film the demonstration, and Packer participates in a movie near the novel's end. As he pursues his eventual assassin, he thinks of himself as cinematic and finally he sees himself dead on his wristwatch, which is a camera.
The same year that DeLillo released Cosmopolis, William J. Mitchell, a professor of architecture and media arts at M.I.T., published ME++: The Cyborg Self and the Networked City, which analyzes in detail the new urban phenomena represented in the novel and explains how information and communication technologies should affect the design of urban spaces. Mitchell is quite the cyber-optimist. DeLillo is not. Though Packer has a pharaoh's power over information, money, and people, he seems alienated by his power and frustrated by his inability to understand the asymmetry of his prostate and the rise of the yen. Although he employs the pattern-recognition of chaos theory, he refuses the random element or what Nassim Taleb several years later called "The Black Swan," the outlier not figured into the models of "quants" like Packer. In an indirect way, then, DeLillo (and Taleb) forecast the financial fall of 2008. DeLillo's Packer falls all the way to self-punishment and self-negation when, at novel's end, he allows a disgruntled employee to kill him in the old industrial wasteland of the far West side.
DeLillo doesn't drive a car, doesn't own a computer or cell phone, and writes on a manual typewriter. To me, Packer's death is novelistic wishful thinking, the suicide of the new world city that Packer represents. Packer's chief of theory perceptively describes distinctive qualities of contemporary urban space and time, but DeLillo suggests with Packer's end that humans can't "'cherish the excess'"(28) of this new habitat. Packer's retreat is a familiar action in DeLillo's fiction. But not one that feels very compelling because Packer is more a symbol of and occasion for discourse about the city than a credible character. The plot's many coincidental meetings also strain credulity as they develop DeLillo's allegory of failure. The assassin does give Cosmopolis a double voice, but DeLillo's title raises expectations of a fuller, larger treatment of his native city and how its systems affect people not at the extremes of the wealthy Packer and the homeless squatter who kills him.
Like DeLillo, Jonathan Lethem has lived much of his life in New York and has written other novels about the city - Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude - both set in Brooklyn. In Chronic City, Lethem turns his attention to Manhattan. Early on his narrator offers a promising perception: "To live in Manhattan is to be persistently amazed at the worlds squirreled inside one another, the chaotic intricacy with which realms interleave, like those lines of television cable and fresh water and steam heat and outgoing sewage and telephone wire and whatever else which cohabit in the same intestinal holes...." (8). The phrase "chaotic intricacy" even sounds like Cosmopolis.
Lethem's material Manhattan is a slightly alternate world where a tiger roams the streets destroying property, where a gray fog covers downtown, and where it snows during the summer. This alternative reality and Lethem's numerous uses of the word "allegory" suggest a symbolic world. But much of the novel occurs inside familiar, realistic spaces - apartments on what a character calls the "immutable" Upper East Side, several restaurants, the mayor's residence, a hospital. Time does not seem speeded up, as in Cosmopolis, or futuristic - just a bit different from the present. The intellectual magnet of the novel, a former rock critic named Perkus Tooth, does have to move from his rent-controlled flat to an apartment in a building set aside for dogs, but the canine residence seems more a satiric swipe at misguided philanthropy than a world inside a world.
Revolving around Tooth are a few characters in the media. Lethem's focal character, Chase Insteadman, is a former child actor known for his superficiality; Chase's lover, Oona Laszlo, ghostwrites celebrity autobiographies; and Richard Abneg is a former housing activist who now does public relations for the mayor. Except for Tooth, the characters aren't much affected by the alternate urban world in which they exist. Most of Lethem's 467 pages are given over to personal problems and social relations one might find treated on Seinfeld.
Late in the novel, Tooth tells Insteadman, "`You're living in a snow globe.'"(406) Lethem's Manhattan does seem like a domed artificial preserve where people have a lot of time to sit around, smoke dope called "Chronic," engage in stoner conversations and goofy enthusiasms, and then maybe have sex. Tooth frequently talks about the city as a conspiracy of simulations, Baudrillard is mentioned, and the characters may be simulations of what they once were or could be, but Lethem seems uninterested in producing real or invented evidence to support Tooth's rants. Lethem includes an extended bit about virtual reality that's on the level of sophomoric speculation that we may all be living in some simulator's grand design. Tooth says the virtual has penetrated Manhattan, but the primary demonstration is the main characters' transient obsession with a hologram they see on E-Bay.
The word "chronic" has the association of illness. The deeper association is "time." The city changes in time, but the characters deny or resist change. Their illness is a malaise of stunted ambition, diminished imagination, perhaps avoidance of a vaguely mentioned downtown disaster. Unfortunately, while diagnosing the malaise Lethem seems to have contracted it from his characters. In an interview, Lethem used Tooth's "snow globe" to describe the novel itself ("Interview/Gaby Wood"). Unless snow globes have become a lot more artful since I was a kid, they are kitschy decoration and simple entertainment.
It may be difficult to think of a 467-page book as the product of malaise. Lethem was writing the novel on a MacArthur genius grant that required, he said, an ambitious project ("Interview/Kerry Lauerman"). But literary allusions within the novel suggest that Lethem knows his novel isn't as ambitious as he might wish or we might think. Perkus Tooth has the reversed initials of Thomas Pynchon as well as that writer's media-saturated paranoid fantasies, but Tooth is only a guest lecturer in, not the presiding spirit of, this book.
Early on, Tooth is reading Ralph Warden Meeker's Obstinate Dust. Insteadman throws it away and then returns to this "bulky masterpiece"(465) at the end. Obstinate Dust and its triple-named author are allusions to Infinite Jest and David Foster Wallace. About some of the same subjects as Chronic City - dope, entertainment, self-absorption - Infinite Jest could never be described as a snow globe, for the novel uses its stylistic excesses and systems of information to probe much deeper into lives and cultural conditions than Lethem does.
You might wonder why I've spent so much space dismissing Chronic City. Lethem's title promises a comprehensive urban vision. The novel received some strong reviews, was selected by the New York Times as one of the ten best books of 2009, and could be mistaken for a sophisticated urban fiction, but I think it's a conventionally executed exercise in nostalgia that avoids engaging the contemporary New York represented in Cosmopolis.
Like DeLillo and Lethem, Colson Whitehead grew up in New York City, and he now lives in Brooklyn. Although The Intuitionist is a first novel, is the oldest of my allegorical three, and is set in what seems to be the early 1950s, I think it is the best of the three because it combines DeLillo's systemic acumen and Lethem's interest in characters who could be real. In both its subject matter and form, The Intuitionist explores what the contemporary urban theorist Edward W. Soja - following the French urban philosopher Henri Lefebvre - has called "Thirdspace." First space is the perceived or real city. Second space is the imagined city. Thirdspace is lived space or the real-hyphen-imagined city. Less abstractly, Thirdspace consists of those margins and borderlands and hybrid spaces between the central city and the suburbs. Thirdspace has also been extended to mean spaces of public gatherings, such as plazas, cafes, and restaurants.
Whitehead's protagonist and focal character is Lila Mae Watson, the first female and second black elevator inspector in a northern metropolis. The city is never named, which helps establish an allegorical atmosphere, but the setting is definitely New York. When a new elevator that Lila Mae has just inspected crashes, she suspects sabotage with political motives. A guild election is going on, and the incumbent is an Empiricist. The challenger and Lila Mae are Intuitionists. A plot of detection and multiple deceptions ensues. Pursuer and pursued, Lila Mae resembles Oedipa Maas in Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49, for both have to sort through stores of competing information to get at the truth of a legacy. For Lila Mae, that legacy is the unpublished writings of the elevator theorist James Fulton, the founder of Intuitionism.
Whitehead's novel is short - 255 pages - but thick with layers I can only mention here: the psychological, the epistemological, the sociological. There's the personal history of Lila Mae, a very up-tight, armored, and sexually inactive woman from the South who is quite easily deceived by a charming black employee of an elevator company. Given Lila's repressed personality, one can see why she'd be attracted to Intuitionism, a method of inspection in which the body feels the condition of a personified elevator. But Intuitionism is a joke perpetrated by Fulton, a black man passing for white. With this revelation near the end, Whitehead breaks down the seeming epistemological binary. Lila Mae is fooled by black men because she believes in the deception of northern urban uplift - racial and social - the men have adopted from white culture, even though Fulton's version may mock the American ideal of progress.
It's literal uplift - the elevator - that gives Whitehead a multi-purpose metaphor and a tool for representing New York space. Otis's invention enabled Manhattan skyscrapers that made New York, Whitehead says, "the most famous city in the world" but altered economic and spatial conditions in ways that are still present (12). Skyscraper offices replaced industrial buildings, required more educated workers, and drove up the value of land. Only well-to-do office workers or other professionals could afford to live in the shadows of their workplaces. So Lila Mae and other recent arrivals were exiled by what Whitehead calls "architectural excess"(37) to Harlem and the outer boroughs, from which the Manhattan skyline looks like a "row of broken teeth, an angry serration gnawing at the atmosphere."(17) To reach the skyscrapers, the commuters are forced underground, into the auto tunnels and subways. In the building occupied by the elevator inspectors' offices, the commuters stay underground, working in the car pool, while the office workers are speeded to their upper floors.
The teeth of what Soja calls First Space are mobile. Lila Mae's two-room apartment in Spanish Harlem is twice broken into by corporate goons. Then her refuge at Intuitionist House is infiltrated. To protect herself, she sleeps in a car and, at the end, rents a single room in an anonymous neighborhood where she can be invisible. Although Whitehead describes several residential streets with informal communities, Lila Mae's Thirdspaces, her lived spaces, come to resemble the elevator that has drawn her to the Second Space of New York, the city imagined and advertised as salvation.
In The Intuitionist New York is a deceptive city, a characterization Whitehead repeats in his non-fiction book, The Colossus of New York, where he says "the skyline graphs the hubris of generations ... and inevitably all who see it extract the wrong morals from the stories" (114). Even Lila Mae, after all she has learned, is still deceived at the end when she continues to believe in her intuition, the perfect elevator, and the vertical fantasy city of the future. Whitehead encourages the reader to see through Lila Mae's continuing delusion and to resist the appeal of what he calls "The Big Skyscraper"(208) by detailing the city's infrastructure, the technological systems inside the impressive buildings, and the extrastructure, the spatial systems created by the high rise.
At seemingly random intervals, Whitehead interjects into his detective plot material about elevators that isn't really needed for the plot or even for the skyscraper as symbol. This material includes passages from Fulton's books, a test answer on the kinds of elevators, descriptions of models by different companies, elevator conundrums, and even a brief biography of the patron saint of elevators. Like the Pompidou Center in Paris, this material exposes the working guts of symbolic structures. The material also, I think, makes a claim for knowledge independent of intuition or basic empiricism - for specialized information not usually found in fiction. Call this information a Thirdsource. The passages about the elevator in turn make the pages of The Intuitionist a textual Thirdspace, for the elevator material is, in Soja's terms, both real and imagined, researched and invented. The material may seem marginal to plot and character but is central to the book as a hybrid work of fiction.
The master of embedded information about technological and other systems is Pynchon. Near the end of The Intuitionist, there's a passage from Fulton's notebooks that describes the ascent of an elevator that breaks free from its building and rises toward the heavens. The passage very closely resembles a passage at the end of Gravity's Rainbow when the rocket with its childlike victim inside rises toward desired transcendence but actual destruction. For Whitehead, the skyscraper is like the rocket, a symbol of technical ingenuity and social failure.
I don't want to claim too much for The Intuitionist, and I certainly don't want to scare off potential readers with my comparison to Gravity's Rainbow, but my association of the two gives me a shorthand way to summarize the importance of Whitehead's novel. It diagnoses cultural delusions and provides the systemic information to substantiate the diagnosis. The novel also shows the consequences for the people that Pynchon called the "passed-over," a phrase Whitehead uses. Finally, The Intuitionist has the heterotopic form of the city it is about.
In Cosmopolis and The Intuitionist, New York could almost be any world city. In the next novels I'll discuss, New York is insistently particular, not so much a representative space as an historical place, one where the novelists' attention shifts from systems and settings to city dwellers and how their lives are affected by the symbolic World Trade towers.
If DeLillo is the most allegorical in Cosmopolis, he's also in Falling Man the most realistic or referential of the 9/11 authors, for he imagines characters inside one of the towers before it fell and a character inside one of the planes before it hit. DeLillo tells the story, basically, of one family's response to 9/11, and he incorporates the voice of one jihadist. The journalistic story was about crowds, the thousands who died, the millions who mourned. Then journalism shifted to analysis and brought us the global Muslim crowd. In Mao II, DeLillo said the future belongs to crowds, and he had a character say that terrorists had usurped the novelists' role. He may have been right, but in Falling Man he resists by emphasizing the individual - the individual New Yorkers he treats, the individual novelist's creation of an intentionally circumscribed art.
In the first pages DeLillo describes the collapse of the towers where Keith Neudecker, one of his two protagonists, worked and the downtown apartment where he can no longer live. As Keith walks through Soho, a few blocks away, its space has changed: "There was something critically missing from the things around him" (5). What's missing from the rest of the novel, for Keith, is the city itself. He walks across Central Park, and he picks up his son from school, but DeLillo does not have him engage with or participate in the city of crowds. For Keith, New York is essentially absent, and it's the effect of this absence that is one of the subjects that DeLillo explores.
Keith's estranged wife Lianne is the opposite: she watches TV replays of the attack, reads all the profiles of the dead, keeps her job, continues volunteering with Alzheimer's patients, continues to live in her apartment (now with Keith), visits her mother's apartment, keeps circulating through city streets (though she refuses to take the subway). DeLillo describes her in Grand Central Station, in an art gallery. Lianne's is a sketchy New York, compared to the depiction in Cosmopolis, but, in contrast with Keith, Lianne does occupy concrete settings even if they are not enough to prevent panic attacks in the night.
The person in the novel who most participates in the city is the performance artist called "Falling Man" who draws crowds all over New York by imitating, with a safety harness, the people who jumped from the towers. The performance artist reminds his audiences of an event. The novelistic artist tells his readers of the contradictory and subtle and mysterious ways a traumatic event can deform - or even reform - an individual and family. Lianne feels that in the three years since 9/11, "all life has become public. The stricken community pours forth voices and the solitary night mind is shaped by the outcry."(182) DeLillo works to restore the private, the personal, the solitary.
In place of his usual high-concept talkathons, DeLillo employs the methods of the Italian painter Giorgio Morandi, whose work is written about by Lianne's mother. Morandi's still lifes - "Natura Morta" in Italian - were of domestic vessels such as jugs and bottles and cans that he painted over and over again, moving them around in different compositions. The background is blank - absent - but oddly present because of its unexpected absence. In the novel, New York is this negative space for the silent tableaus that DeLillo arranges. Keith does talk with another survivor named Florence, and Lianne talks to her mother, but Lianne and Keith rarely talk. They are still because there can be little communication between the survivor and the witness, and they are still in a more figurative way because they are suspended, like the Falling Man in his safety harness, by the event.
"Death in life" was the psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton's term for this suspension in his study of the survivors of decimated cities. The suspension or paralysis was often caused by profound ambivalences: attraction to and repulsion from the traumatic event, guilt for surviving and anger against the perpetrators. Lifton also found a regressive psychic numbing or a grandiose search for a cosmic understanding that would explain the absence of the cities.
As DeLillo switches back and forth between Keith and Lianne, between past and present, between events in the towers and events of the following three years, we see his characters manifesting the symptoms Lifton describes. Keith and Lianne want to both remember and forget. Keith suffers from survivor guilt for not being able to save his friend Rumsey. Lianne's survivor guilt goes further back, to the suicide of her father. Keith gratuitously punches a stranger, Lianne assaults a neighbor. Keith's recovery takes him out of Manhattan on trips to Las Vegas where he becomes a professional poker player, numb to everything but the cards on the table. Lianne waits for his returns and thinks more and more seriously about the Catholic faith that she has lost.
Summed up this way, the psychology will probably seem schematic, but the patterns arise from fragments of the protagonists' experiences in what is described as a "spatial void."(95) DeLillo suggests the difficulty of recovery from the trauma of spatial absence in a scene with Lianne's Alzheimer's patients. One named Rosellen forgets where she lives. This haunts Lianne, "the breathless moment when things fall away, streets, names, all sense of direction and location, every fixed grid of memory."(156) Keith has literally lost his home, his apartment, and Lianne has lost the landmarks of her city. With Keith and Lianne, the jihadists have been at least partially successful. "What [Americans] hold so precious," DeLillo's jihadist thinks just before hitting a tower, "we see as empty space."(177) When DeLillo published his Harper's essay on 9/11 a few months after the event, he said the "writer tries to give memory, tenderness, and meaning to all that howling space" (39).
Near the end of the novel, Lianne describes the photograph that inspired the performance artist Falling Man: "The mass of the towers filled the frame of the picture. The man falling, the towers contiguous, she thought, behind him. The enormous soaring lines, the vertical column stripes."(221) What DeLillo has done is reverse the photograph's foreground and background, magnifying the human individual, reducing the setting. Eventually we learn the actual name, Edward Janiak, of the abstract Falling Man. That name is the title of one of the novel's three major parts. The other two titles are also individual names. Ironically, the three shorter episodes about the jihadist are given titles related to the space he occupies. The irony is that the jihadist wants to be out of space and time and gets his wish. Keith and Lianne want to be back in their space but can't return. Lianne sums up their loss by rephrasing a poem to make it say "Even in New York - I long for New York."(34)
Because New York is iconic in all media, DeLillo could risk depicting the city's absence and focusing on two individuals instead of crowds. Some reviewers - and I admit I - wanted more from DeLillo, wanted an Underworld or a Libra of 9/11, but Falling Man has very specific information, a hybrid form, and its own admirable logic for limiting its representation of New York City on 9/11 and after.
Of the novels I'm discussing, O'Neill's Netherland probably received the most consistently positive reviews. Like Falling Man, it features a young husband and father who is displaced from his home by 9/11 and who - later - is estranged from a wife who fears New York City. Like Keith Neudecker, Hans van den Broek falls into a state of emotional lassitude after 9/11, begins to recover by playing a game (cricket in Hans's case), and eventually reunites with his wife, who has fled to her native London. There are some significant differences: Hans is Dutch, he narrates the whole novel, and has much more contact with the city and its inhabitants than Keith. As the only white man on his cricket team of West Indians and South Asians, Hans meets people he would not have met as a stock analyst. Hans is also befriended by Chuck Ramkissoon, a Jamaican of Indian extraction, who solicits Hans as a business partner and conducts informal tours to boroughs of New York that Hans, who lives in Manhattan's Chelsea Hotel, would never have seen.
The Chelsea Hotel is famous for its eccentric residents, and O'Neill has Hans observe a large sample, including one he gets to know a little, a young Turkish graduate student who wears angel wings wherever he goes. When Hans goes to a cricket party, he mixes with an Indian businessman, a Sri Lankan pathologist, and some Jamaican women who "'look like they had just run over from Belmont,'" the horse racing track (136). Later Chuck introduces Hans to his Jewish Moldovan business partner, Abelsky, as Chuck makes his rounds as a boutique numbers runner, a business that takes him to neighborhoods of ethnic diversity surprising to Hans. Here is Brooklyn's Coney Island Avenue:
"assorted small business proclaiming provenances from Pakistan, Tajikistan, Ethiopia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Armenia, Ghana, the Jewry, Christendom, Islam: it was on Coney Island Avenue ... that Chuck and I came upon a bunch of South African Jews, in full sectarian regalia, watching televised cricket with a couple of Rastafarians in the front office of a Pakistani-run lumberyard."(146)
When Hans is in New York, he uses Google Earth to zoom in on the house where his son is living in London, and when Hans is in London, he zooms back into personal spaces in New York. His use of Google reminds one that "cognitive mapping" is a relatively new way to think about urban space. The term was first used by Kevin Lynch in The Image of the City to describe personal spatial orientation and was taken over by Frederic Jameson to express personal orientation to ideology. It was Lynch's notion that each resident of or visitor to a city creates his or her own distinctive internal map to cope with the otherwise overwhelming data that would need to be processed. A cognitive map might leave large areas unrepresented while coding in great detail other neighborhoods important to the map-maker.
Hans's zooming into small personal spaces represents the limited mapping O'Neill does in Netherland. Although Hans mostly enjoys his "tours," he doesn't return to the nether lands without Chuck and seems satisfied to merely notice idiosyncratic spaces in passing. We get more detail about the Chelsea Hotel and surroundings than about nether regions, except for a cricket field that Chuck is grooming in deepest Brooklyn. While Hans's narrow selectivity is cognitively plausible, it confines the novel's representation of urban space.
Hans is also largely incurious about the players on his team. He doesn't discuss 9/11 with them or with Chuck, though Hans does record many stories from Chuck's immigrant past and shows unusual tolerance for Chuck's current anecdotes and actions. Late in the novel, Hans's wife accuses him of "exoticizing" Chuck, making him an "anthropological curiosity,"(167) and I think the charge sticks to O'Neill and his treatment of New York City, which is described early as "that ideal source of the metropolitan diversion."(24)
For Hans and O'Neill, New York is exotic entertainment, like the alien game of cricket. The oddities of the cricket field are described, but never a match or the other players. The alien neighborhoods of Brooklyn are visited, but the residents are rarely engaged. O'Neill gives the effects of 9/11 similarly perfunctory treatment. Hans is too self-absorbed with his own personal problems to wonder how others were affected by 9/11. Although that event was the occasion for Han's wife's leaving him, he resists discussing the consequences of the event with her.
Both 9/11 and the exotica - from the Chelsea Hotel to the "real Brooklyn" - are dramatic or uncommon materials that O'Neill uses to intensify what is essentially a conventional psychological story that often returns to Hans's childhood with his single mother in Holland or travels to London where his own young son resides. In a revealing metafictional episode, Hans takes a stack of photos of his son to Chuck's mistress, Eliza, who makes albums from random photos. "`People want a story,' she tells him. `They like a story.'" Hans replies, "`A story....Yes, that's what I need.'"(131) And a story is what O'Neill provides, a story of marital separation and reintegration, rather than a robust cognitive map of post-9/11 New York City.
Netherland has been compared to The Great Gatsby - a self-described romantic narrator attracted to a self-described romantic gangster. O'Neill piggybacks on Fitzgerald for what I think is ultimately an exploitive novel - one that uses 9/11 as a come-on and presents thinly rendered ethnic micro-communities as a symbol of restored normalcy. Like Lethem's Chronic City, Netherland claims to re-name New York or, at least, offer an encompassing metaphor for the city, but just as Hans doesn't want to chance alienating acquaintances by trying to explain cricket, O'Neill doesn't chance alienating readers by trespassing outside the conventions of his familiar, Gatsby-like story. The map, we know, is never the territory, but the scale of representation, the angle of orientation, and the quality of information in the cognitive mapping of Netherland make it a superficial and disappointing urban novel, more disappointing than Chronic City because of what O'Neill might have done with his outer borough material.
The novels I've discussed emphasize the spatial qualities of the city and the characters' actions within its spaces. Most of the works are third-person narrations. Netherland is narrated in the first-person, and DeLillo gives his killer in Cosmopolis brief first-person interchapters, but in these five books New York is more seen than heard. Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin restores the audio to the visual. McCann has said that "language is deeply influenced by landscape," has called his novel a "song of his adopted city," and refers to Whitman in the book (Johnston). McCann's first-person narrators are an immigrant Irish bartender, a downtown painter, a computer hacker, a Bronx prostitute, a Guatemalan nurse, and a middle-aged African-American woman. 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, are composed in their 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").
Almost twenty years ago, the urbanist Robert Beauregard published a book entitled Voices of Decline in which he offered an alternative to the mainstream urbanism of the time that was dominated by the disciplines of geography and economics. Beauregard analyzed the public discourses of cities, their "voices," to see how they constructed - not just represented - urban spaces and behaviors. While Beauregard concentrated on political and media discourse, at about the same time some urbanists recognized the value of oral histories, particularly the voices of private citizens without access to public expression. I'm not suggesting that McCann was influenced by Beauregard, but Beauregard's discourse analysis does provide an urbanist rationale for the kind of book that McCann has composed.
McCann has called Let the Great World Spin an allegorical novel and an "anti-9/11 novel," which is a little awkward for my classifications, but I think I can explain what he really meant ("Let the Great World"). McCann's father-in-law barely escaped from one of the towers and was disgusted by the media circus that the event inspired. Every little thing in New York had meaning in those days, McCann has said, so he decided to treat 9/11 indirectly or, as he says, "allegorically." In the novel, all New Yorkers' eyes in 1974 are on Petit; only those few who are associated with the two McCann characters who die on that day register their passing. For McCann, the two are symbolic towers, little people lost in a larger event. While thousands died in the "Great World" event of 9/11, McCann suggests, dozens or maybe even hundreds were dying largely unnoticed in old familiar ways.
As the novel progresses, Petit receives less attention and the fictional characters' response to and recovery from the deaths of their two family members receive more attention. As McCann puts it, the novel comes to be about "healing in the face of grief" ("Let the Great World"). When DeLillo wrote his Harper's essay about 9/11 several months after the event, he said that the city's future hope rested on its "taken-for-granted greatness," its ability to "accommodate every language, ritual, belief, and opinion" (40). McCann gives this hope fictional representation as his characters from different classes and races collaborate to care for the two young children of one accident victim.
Although set in 1974, the novel's first-person stories often seem contemporary, for life on the streets in the Bronx and in the courthouse on Center Street has not changed much. Mothers get together to mourn sons killed in Iraq rather than Vietnam. Immigrants still find it difficult to have their credentials accepted. Crack replaces heroin. Computer hackers become more sophisticated. In an epilogue - dated 2006 - McCann brings the novel close to the present as one of the surviving African-American children returns to New York to visit the dying white matron who helped raise her and send her to Yale. Off-stage, Phillipe Petit makes his own comeback in the documentary movie Man on Wire.
McCann has a character think "you've got to go up to a very high floor to see what the past has done to the present" (306). McCann's historical perch puts 9/11 into perspective - or one perspective. One of the characters calls the towers "monstrosities," which reminds us that the towers were not much-loved buildings before 9/11. In the novel, their importance is more symbolic than real, an occasion for a performance and, perhaps, a doubled performance themselves of American or New York exceptionalism. I think McCann implies - not an easy thing for a New York writer to do - that the fall of the towers created an unfortunate symbolic black hole that sucked into itself mass emotion, cultural activity, and political decisions. The quotation from Tennyson that gave McCann his title finishes with "forever down the ringing grooves of change." The "great world" of public catastrophes is only a part of the changes that occur in millions of lives every day. If this is, indeed, McCann's sky-high perspective, Let the Great World Spin is Faulknerian: intensely local in its history, characters, and voices, insistently universal and far-seeing in its stance.
Just as the 1950s gave Whitehead a remote perspective on the space of contemporary New York, the 1970s give McCann a listening post to examine human changes in the city - to establish continuities and measure disruptions, however tragic they might be. Although Let the Great World Spin doesn't have the systems information of The Intuitionist, McCann's description of Petit and his preparations are a bit like Whitehead's elevators, for Petit is a specialist in elevation, a savant of safety and risk, who provides a model of balance to lower, stumbling mortals.
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. Or, to use Jacobs' phrase, the city suffers the "Great Blight of Dullness."
It has been my argument that the best individual novels should have the postmodern qualities of cities, should be cities of words. Lethem and O'Neill are just not adequate to the complexity of their subjects. DeLillo's two novels are intentionally self-limiting. Although The Intuitionist and Let the Great World Spin are historical novels, in their information and methods they do the best at imitating the distinctive space and specifying the diverse demographics of New York City.
And yet I think these two novels fall short of the master works of the 70s and 80s with which I began. For their kind of systemic orientation and reorienting excess, one has to turn to San Francisco and Karen Tei Yamashita's I Hotel, a 600-plus page novel comprised of ten novellas set in ten different years beginning in 1969. The circumstances of the novel's publication - by Coffee House, a small press in Minneapolis - 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 Underworld or JR.
My hypothesis has to do with urban space. More concretely, real estate in Cosmopolis. 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 particularly loath to take chances on large, expansive, expensive, and possibly commercially unsuccessful projects ("Publishing"). I'm sure, for example, that Yamashita's I Hotel was or would have been rejected by New York presses.
More disturbing than the well-known situation of commercial publishing is the possibility that the cost of living in New York discourages resident novelists from risking lengthy, time-consuming projects. The future of intellectually and aesthetically ambitious fiction is a huge and complex subject involving conglomerate publishing, new media, text technology, literary education, and literacy itself. That future is global, but I've come to believe that New York may well be the representative leading - and double - edge. New York nourishes home-grown writers such as Lethem and Whitehead, attracts writers from abroad such as O'Neill 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 medianism. Part-time resident Jonathan Franzen's recent turn to best-selling 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. Younger Brooklyn writers, such as Jonathan Safran Foer and Nicole Krauss, show no signs of attempting anything beyond an artful, comfortable medianism. The Brooklyn exception is Joshua Cohen, whose massive and learned Witz had to travel to Illinois to find a publisher.For a detailed study of New York literary sociology and its effect on artistic ambition, see an essay I discovered after writing most of this piece: Chad Harbach, "MFA vs. NYC," Slate, 26 Nov. 2010.
Abdication of ambition is the "falling down" of my title. It 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. I think it is no coincidence that the worthy heirs of my "systems novelists" - Wallace, William Vollmann, Richard Powers, Mark Danielewski - have not lived or do not live in New York (though they have been fortunate to be published there - with some sacrifices. Vollmann and Powers had to accept cuts in their most ambitious works, and Danielewski had to set his own type for House of Leaves.)
I began with "going up." Blame safe low-floor 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, dumbing down. Maybe that's why I was ambivalent when I read the 9/11 novelists' descriptions of the symbolic towers come "falling down."
Works Cited and Referenced
Beauregard, Robert. Voices of Decline. New York: Routledge, 2003.
DeLillo, Don. Cosmopolis. New York: Scribner, 2003.
DeLillo, Don. Falling Man. New York: Scribner, 2008.
DeLillo, Don. "In the Ruins of the Future." Harper's, Dec. 2001.
Harbach, Chad. "MFA vs. NYC," Slate, 26 Nov. 2010, http://www.slate.com/id/2275733/.
Jacobs, Jane. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Random House, 1961.
Johnston, Bret Anthony. "Interview with Colum McCann." National Book Foundation website http://www.nationalbook.org/nba2009_f_mccann_interv.html.
LeClair, Tom. The Art of Excess. Urbana: U. of Illinois Press, 1989.
Lethem, Jonathan. Chronic City. New York: Vintage, 2010.
Lethem, Jonathan. "Interview with Gaby Wood." The Observer, 10 Jan. 2010: 4.
Lethem, Jonathan. "Interview with Kerry Lauerman." ;Salon, 23 Oct. 2009 http://www.Salon.com/books/int/2009/10/23/lethem/print.html.
"Let the Great World Spin Q & A," Colum McCann website http://www.colummccann.com/interviews/LTGWSinterview.htm.
Lifton, Robert Jay. Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima. New York: Random House, 1967.
Lynch, Kevin. The Image of the City. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1960.
McCann, Colum. Let the Great World Spin. New York: Random House, 2009.
Mitchell, William J. ME++: The Cyborg Self and the Networked City. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003.
O'Neill, Joseph. Netherland. New York: Pantheon, 2008.
"Publishing: The Revolutionary Future," New York Review of Books, 11 March 2010 http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2010/mar/11/publishing-the-revolutionary-future.
Soja, Edward W. Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and Other Real-and-Imagined Places. Malden: Wiley, 1996.
Tanner, Tony. City of Words. New York: Harper and Row, 1971.
Whitehead, Colson. The Intuitionist. New York: Anchor, 2000.
Whitehead. Colson. The Colossus of New York. New York: Doubleday, 2003.