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New York Trilogy

By (September 1, 2009) 2 Comments

Homer and Langley
By E.L. Doctorow
Random House, 2009

By Colm Tóibín
Scribner, 2009

Let the Great World Spin
By Colum McCann
Random House, 2009

In his strolling 1949 essay Here is New York, E.B. White famously separated the city into three groups:

There is, first, the New York of the man or woman who was born here, who takes the city for granted and accepts its size and its turbulence as natural and inevitable. Second, there is the New York of the commuter – the city that is devoured by locusts each day and spat out each night. Third, there is the New York of the person who was born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something. …Commuters give the city its tidal restlessness; natives give it solidity and continuity; but the settlers give it passion.

Not hard to guess, is it, which category White fell into? As with every beloved and iconic figure, New York inspires an element of jealousy in all its representations. To live in New York, whether you’re a native or an immigrant (from just over the border in Westchester County in White’s case), is to be subject to perpetual attacks of insecurity. You give yourself wholly to the city, but the city has countless other commitments that don’t involve you; you enjoy the unique privileges of harem life, but suffer the loneliness and envy that are part of that package.

This is why, behind most literary depictions of New York you can find some amount of special pleading, a writer’s anxious impulse to assert the primacy of his own experience. So an ambitious interloper like White will elevate the importance of the ambitious interloper – to which a musician from Bedford-Stuyvesent or a restaurateur from Astoria might reply with something to the effect of, “How’s this for ‘solidity,’ you milky, banality-spouting tweed-wearing pansy.” (The bridge-and-tunnel crowd, of course, has no willing spokespeople and so takes its lumps in silence.)

homerlangleyE.L. Doctorow may be one of those inclined to such a retort. He was born in the Bronx and in his long and notable fiction-writing career he has duly claimed provenance over the city’s history. His is a New Yorker’s New York that centralizes the eccentrics and makes local color its dominant hues. The Book of Daniel is a take on the lives of Lower East Side denizens Ethel and Julius Rosenberg; the title character of Billy Bathgate is a protégé to the 1920s Bronx mobster Dutch Schultz; and The Waterworks is a Faustian fantasy surrounding Boss Tweed and the Croton Aqueduct.

Homer and Langley is Doctorow’s new addition to his fictionalized catalogue of local lore. Historically, Homer and Langley Collyer – the first blind, the second traumatized from injuries in World War I – were a notorious pair of shut-ins who choked their familial brownstone with three decades (and literal tons) of accumulated newspapers, appliances, and other junk (including, picturesquely, a Model T). The brothers were a source of complaint and, eventually, tabloid voyeurism until 1947, when a stench brought authorities inside their building and they were found dead amidst (or in Langley’s case, buried beneath) the rubbish. Doctorow takes the premise for his own, but changes facts as it pleases him – most notably, he has the brothers live on until sometime in the 1970s, so that their increasingly reclusive habits can be set against the backdrop of a diversifying and continuously tragedy-prone century. (Doctorow also transplants the Collyers from Harlem to the East 70’s, although the rationale for this is less apparent, since Harlem would seem to offer a better setting to show the city’s fluctuations than the relatively intransigent Upper East Side. Perhaps Doctorow simply wanted access to Central Park.)

Doctorow’s narrator is Homer, who is fated to his seclusion due in part to his blindness but mostly because of his loyalty to Langley. A wry detachment therefore marks his voice: he’s a prisoner as much to his brother’s gentle derangement (and to his name, which seems to predestine his sightlessness) as his brother is a prisoner to the tragedies of the age. A morbid news-ticker of modern savagery rolls across the story, devastating the Collyers even as they sever all their personal ties. Doctorow ascribes a bunker mentality to their isolation. Even Langley’s compulsion to hoard newspapers is given a motive transcending a straightforward pathological disorder: he wants to create a quintessential day’s edition that will somehow encompass and explicate all the crimes and horrors that man is capable of perpetrating.

Homer deals with it all equably, partway between bemusement and sorrow. You can sense his philosophical helplessness here as he describes his reaction to discovering the Model T in the dining room:

At this time, the end of the thirties, early forties, cars were streamlined. That was the word for the latest up-to-date thing in auto design. Streamlining cars meant warping them, not showing a right angle anywhere. I had made a point of running my hands over cars parked at the curb. The same cars that made purring sounds on the road had long low hoods and sweeping curved fenders, wheel covers and built-in humpbacked trunks. So when I was well enough to come downstairs I said to Langley, If you were going to bring a car into the house, why not a modern, up-to-date model?

This was my joke as I sat in the Model T and added exclamation marks with two quick squeezes of the rubber-bulb horn. The honks seemed to bounce around the room and add clownish echoes all the way to the top floor.

You can also see in this passage, however, Doctorow’s sidetracking preoccupation with period-piece minutia. Surprisingly, Homer’s limitations as a narrator have nothing to do with his blindness – he can describe people rather wonderfully based on touch, voice, and the signatures of their footfalls. But Doctorow’s biggest weakness as a storyteller is his urge to act as a docent at the New York Historical Society. The inner life he gives to Homer is desultory – apart from a few brief love affairs, Homer’s days are marked by boredom and decline. To be additionally saddled with a grandfatherly tendency to long-windedness is a trait the novel can’t recover from.

There are nice moments in Homer and Langley, especially when fissures in Homer’s deterministic worldview appear and allow in a deeper anguish or joy. And some of those period pieces are undeniably charming. But the book suffers from a want of invention; too often, Homer’s narration is bloodless and explanatory, as though he first learned about his own life in a newspaper article. The novel feels simultaneously slight and verbose – a stable, solid book, to borrow E.B. White’s bit of backhanded praise.

There is a danger early on that Colm Tóibín’s new novel Brooklyn will be similarly coated with the must of the museum. The book begins in Enniscorthy, a small town in economically-depressed 1950s Ireland, where Eilis Lacey learns that her mother and older sister have decided to send her to New York City in the hopes that she can work and attend night school. There are competing conventions in the plot, of course, each as old as the Statue of Liberty. The first is epitomized by the Second City counterpart Sister Carrie, in which a young woman’s coming-of-age is a lens through which to view the pressures of a city and an era. The second is the Irish immigrant story, a subgenre that has become sicklied over with sepia-toned sentimentality. (Indeed, Homer and Langley stars a pale, beatific creature named Mary Elizabeth Riordan who is that stereotypical double whammy, orphan and nun.)

Tóibín does not exactly subvert either of these conventions – subversion is not on his literary résumé – but he makes you forget them. New York City and immigration, while both shown with a careful attention to detail, are combined in order to explore a more universal experience of trying to live a single life with two different homes.

Eilis’ second home is a lonely one near Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, where she lives in a boarding house with five other women and works at the counter of a department store selling stockings. The sheer inaccessibility to Ireland (Tóibín gives an unforgettable and nauseating description of Eilis’ rough passage by steamship) and the indeterminate nature of her move worsen the schism between the life she’s left behind and the new one she has to fill out. Tóibín, almost a scientist of the psyche, is acutely sensitive to every gradation in this process. Here are Eilis’ thoughts shortly before she is to leave Ireland:

She had already packed one case and hoped, as she went over its contents in her mind, that she would not have to open it again. It struck her on one of those nights, as she lay awake, that the next time she would open that suitcase it would be in a different room in a different country, and then the thought came unbidden into her mind that she would be happier if it were opened by another person who could keep the clothes and shoes and wear them every day. She would prefer to stay at home, sleep in this room, live in this house, do without the clothes and shoes. The arrangements being made, all the bustle and talk, would be better if they were for someone else, she thought, someone like her, someone the same age and size, who maybe even looked the same as she did, as long as she, the person who was thinking now, could wake in this bed every morning and move as the days went on in these familiar streets and come home to the kitchen, to her mother and [sister] Rose.

In Brooklyn she is at first caught up in the jet stream of an unfamiliar routine, the rigors of her new job (a lot of standing and smiling) and the silly melodramas of the boarding house. But once the novelty thins, the realization sets in that she has been separated from her family, perhaps permanently. She endures a terrible night feeling that, instead of two homes, she has none at all, and these thoughts too are powerfully identifiable:

It was like hell, she thought, because she could see no end to it, and the feeling that came with it, but the torment was strange, it was all in her mind, it was like the arrival of night if you knew that you would never see anything in daylight again. She did not know what she was going to do….

None of them [her family] could help her. She has lost all of them. They would not find out about this; she would not put it into a letter. And because of this she understood that they would never know her now.

But wallowing in melancholia is (gratefully, for the reader) not allowable for Eilis: “you cannot work here if you’re sad,” her manager tells her. She goes to church and begins accountant classes, but in an irony that seems profoundly real, she only begins to find her independence when she finds a boyfriend, an earnest Italian boy named Tony.

It is difficult to say too much more without ruining some of the finer moments in Brooklyn. But after Eilis and Tony’s relationship has developed in ways both emboldening and constraining, a tragedy forces Eilis to go back to Ireland for a month. Once there, just as Enniscorthy had existed only as a “strange, hazy dream” when she was in Brooklyn, her memories of Brooklyn seem to vanish with an abruptness that is alarming:

Upstairs on the bed Eilis found two letters from Tony and she realized, almost with a start, that she had not written to him as she had intended. She looked at the two envelopes, at his handwriting, and she stood in the room with the door closed wondering how strange it was that everything about him seemed remote. And not only that, but everything else that had happened in Brooklyn seemed as though it had almost dissolved and was no longer richly present for her.

Yet all that had happened in Brooklyn has its claims on her just as Enniscorthy does, and her future is pulled simultaneously in two different directions – until she must choose one over the other. Humane, softly-registered perceptions of Eilis’ state abound in Brooklyn. It’s a novel that grows outward from its characters; consequently, the New York it presents is meticulously bound by Eilis’ experiences. Her relationship with Tony brings her to Coney Island and Ebbets Field, but for the most part her New York is as provincial a place as Enniscorthy, and rarely stretches the boundaries of her boarding house, church, university, and workplace. At one point, the owner of her department store decides that he will carry women’s wear specifically tailored for African-Americans. But the national implications of the decision are mostly lost on Eilis – in fact, she’s selected to tend to the black customers because she’s not oppressed by the stigma of doing so.

This tight focus causes the only lingering moments of compunction in the reading of Brooklyn: Sister Carrie flashes in the mind. The writing is so good that you can’t help but yearn for a more pervasive sweep. Eilis goes to Manhattan only once that we see, and she meets a Jewish man who mentions the Holocaust to her. But she does not really understand what he means – she thinks of it as merely another aspect of the war – and he takes on a “resigned, almost stubborn look” and refuses to discuss it further. At that moment we are in Eilis’ place, uncomfortably aware that things vast and beyond our ken are taking place outside the framework of the story, but faced with a cautiously withholding storyteller.

Tóibín is the most precise of writers. You can even sense his punctilio in setting Brooklyn during the relatively uneventful 1950s. Tenement housing, street gangs, Tamany Hall – these things are perhaps too volatile and messy to suit him. But the regrets we might feel are only passing and are quickly absorbed by our investment in Eilis’ fortunes. Ultimately, Brooklyn does not feel limited. Tóibín makes a single incision, but it’s extraordinarily well-placed and strikes against countless nerve-ends. The novel is a compassionate reminder that a city must be made of people before it can be made of myths.

Such an approach, however, is atypical of New York novels (the explanation may be that Tóibín has not, to my knowledge, lived in New York for any period of time – his depictions of Enniscorthy, his hometown, may be more tellingly subjective). A New York without mythology is, well, Newark – clearly intolerable to anyone who has called the city home. This is why Colum McCann’s new novel Let the Great World Spin, about a series of interrelated incidents on the day in 1974 that Philippe Petit walked on a tightrope between the Twin Towers, has received far more acclaim in this country. It’s a book that prizes monuments above men, skylines above sensibilities. McCann is a settler to New York, but his book corresponds to a fourth category missing from White’s taxonomy: the New York of tourists.

Tourists’ New York is magical place whose inhabitants exist to validate a fantasy, so it’s no surprise that the first character of Let the Great World Spin is about Corrigan, a saintly Irish religious man who immigrates to the Bronx and takes up with a community of prostitutes, like Mother Theresa among the lepers. On the day of Petit’s tightrope walk, Corrigan and a prostitute named Jazzlyn die in a car accident while returning home from a city court hearing. The following chapters finger out and around that accident, embedding in the points of view of a woman who was in the car that caused Corrigan’s crash, Jazzlyn’s mother, the woman who eventually adopted Jazzlyn’s children, the judge who sentenced Jazzlyn’s mother to prison, and so on. The chorus of voices is meant to do what we sometimes missed in Tóibín’s novel, reveal the diverse layers of the city and the intricate ways these layers overlap. But none of McCann’s characters are actual people – they’re agents in service of a mystique, in which everyone in this multi-cultural, multi-borough city is linked by spiritual forces that transcend race or class. A heaving confessional tone strenuously underscoring that transcendence marks each of these people’s voices: everyone is forever feeling things “with sudden clarity” or “like a slam in the chest” or as a “deep-down feeling that must’ve come from long ago.” And the thumbnail biographies McCann gives them, such as this one of a Greenwich Village painter and her boyfriend Blaine, make them seem about as genuine as the sketches from a Battery Park caricaturist:

He got a Guggenheim but after a while most of the money was going toward our habits. Coke, speed, Valium, black beauties, sensimilla, ‘ludes, Tuinals, Benzedrine: whatever we could find. Blaine and I spent whole weeks in the city hardly sleeping. We moved among the loud-mouthed sinners of the Village. Hardcore parties, where we walked through the pulsing music and lost each other for an hour, two hours, three hours, on end. It didn’t bother us when we found the other in someone else’s arms: we laughed and went on. Sex parties. Swap parties. Speed parties. At Studio 54, we inhaled poppers and gorged on champagne. This is happiness, we screamed at each other across the floor.

We’re dealing with types here, clearly – the pill-popping bohemian, the Upper East Side matron, the martyred holy man, the pious Latina nurse, etc – and the obverse of the type is the symbol. Philippe Petit’s tightrope walk – a moment “still capable of myth in the face of all other evidence” – has no actual bearing on the stories being told and is reduced to the form of pure metaphor: “Everything had purpose, signal, meaning,” and therefore nothing about it has truth. Petit’s amazing act of hubris was deservedly brought back to the public’s attention in last year’s documentary Man on Wire, but McCann is so huskily insistent on its visionary, even supernatural stature that he turns it into a homily out of Jonathan Livingston Seagull:

Within seconds he was pureness moving, and he could do anything he liked. He was inside and outside his body at the same time, indulging in what it meant to belong to the air, no future, no past….

The lousy feeling that you’ve been duped into buying a bogus product increases as you read Let the Great World Spin, and like all chintzy things manufactured for tourists, the book can’t withstand the slightest amount of tensile pressure. Apply a little scrutiny to the artistic decisions being made, and worse and worse details appear, from the awful prose, which ceaselessly pitches and yaws between staccato bursts of one-word sentences and breathless run-ons, to the gaudy, exhibitionist displays of grief. But tackiest of all is the way that McCann deals with his African-American characters, who come off as nothing more than anthropological specimens.

If you walk around Harlem you will eventually see a tour bus pass through and you will see German and Japanese people (to say nothing of Nebraskans) lean over the top-deck railing to take photographs of black people. This exact impulse is the besetting vice of Joseph O’Neill’s decorated novel Netherland, which is essentially about how a bored rich white man found temporary distraction in the kooky antics of ethnic New Yorkers. But O’Neill is at least meditative about this patronizing fascination with the darker-skinned, accented outer boroughs (so ditheringly meditative, in fact, that he neglects to give his book a plot). McCann is burdened by no such awareness, and uses his artistic carte blanche to wedge the word “nigger” into virtually every chapter of his book, to demonstrate that he knows how black people talk. And how they talk, apparently, is like this:

In New York you work for your man. Your man’s your daddy, even if he’s just a chili pimp. It’s easy to find a daddy. I got lucky early on and I found TuKwik. He took me on and I worked the best stroll, Forty-ninth and Lexington. That’s where Marilyn’s skirt blew high. Up by the subway vent. The next best stroll was way over on the West Side, but TuKwik didn’t like it, so I didn’t go over there much. There wasn’t as much scratch to be made on the West Side. And the cops were always throwing their badges, strictly on a prop’rty basis.

If you can read such stuff without wanting to bite through your lower lip, you have a more stoic temperament than I do. But it’s what always happens when types are created out of races, the same now as when it was being done on the minstrel circuit one hundred fifty years ago.

Of course, there is one more portentous aspect to Let the Great World Spin, and you surely guessed it at the first invocation of the Twin Towers. The peril of the New York novel now is that its most prominent myth is being made from its most terrible tragedy, a tragedy that is not even ten years old. Doctorow and Tóibín steer far clear of it, but McCann leaps twenty years forward in his final section to be able to mention it. And in general, native New Yorkers and outsiders have been circumspect in writing about September 11 – it’s so far been the settlers, with all their “passion,” who have felt most free to make fiction from it (the exception is Don DeLillo, but although he was born in the Bronx he really seems to come from another planet entirely). The attacks are dangerously close to being converted into pure symbol, a literary tarot card that can be turned over to signify tragedy and grief. It’s strange that this trend has been celebrated, especially considering how unanimously New York City turned against Rudy Giuliani during his ghoulish presidential bid. When you transform New York into New Atlantis, you can fashion it in any way that gratifies you – but that’s a form of manipulation that’s often more self-serving than artistic.

Sam Sacks is the Fiction Editor for Open Letters. He is a settler to New York City.