Here’s something to toss out for discussion the next time your dinner party conversation begins to flag. Where are all the great Manhattan novels?
Ok, actually, don’t ask that. It’s just the sort of question that’ll have people reaching for their coats while muttering excuses about morning meetings and shut-in house pets. Nonetheless, it is a bit curious. From Washington Irving down through the present day, New York has played host to more writerly types than anywhere this side of Iowa City. And yet, despite fairly oozing for two-plus centuries with scribbling hordes, Manhattan has all the literary identity of Uniondale.
Now, granted, this all runs a bit counter to popular perception. In fact, the notion seems absurd on its face. Think it over, though. It’s true. Certain writers and certain places are inseparable. Dreiser and Bellow with Chicago, for instance. Or Joyce in Dublin. Dickens in London, Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha, Twain and the Mississippi. Now think, for a moment, of Manhattan. Who comes to mind? Jay McInerney?
Actually, we can probably do a little better than that. Salinger, for example. The Catcher In the Rye, I think most would agree, makes the grade as a great Manhattan novel. Edith Wharton, too, in The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth, managed to capture the sense of the place. Likewise, Ellison inhabits Harlem profoundly in Invisible Man, his narrator’s fever dream playing out amidst the neighborhood’s shadows and subterranean hollows. Given its name, one is tempted to add Washington Square to the list as well, but to be honest, the locale seems almost incidental to the book. It might just as easily have been called Hyde Park or Beacon Hill. The same, I think, could be said of a novel like V. The city is there, but functioning mainly in a practical sense — more as simply a setting than an organism worthy of exploration in its own right. Whether or not a person agitates for Bonfire of the Vanities, depends, I suppose, on what they think of Tom Wolfe as a novelist.
Similarly, The Beautiful and Damned is far from Fitzgerald’s best, but it is his clearest, cleanest stab at the island.
Regardless, though, this is a pretty short shelf given the talent pool. And while I’m sure everyone could add their own suggestion or two, few, I imagine, would loom particularly large in the public consciousness. Perhaps even more to the point is the fact that many of the aforementioned efforts are one-offs. Salinger has yet to publish another novel. Ellison did posthumously, but in it he seemed to have left Manhattan largely behind. Wolfe, after Bonfire, moved on to Atlanta with A Man in Full and then to the college scene in I Am Charlotte Simmons. Save for Damned, Fitzgerald largely contented himself with nibbling about the edges of the place.
Where, one begins to wonder, have all the obsessives gone? A half hour to the west, a person finds Philip Roth still wrangling with Newark 45 years after Goodbye, Columbus. Some 150 miles to the north, William Kennedy is working on decade four in Albany. Across the river Paul Auster and Jonathan Lethem both find themselves drawn back to Brooklyn time and time again. Who, though, has shown this sort of passion for Manhattan — the desire, almost the need, it seems, to spend a lifetime struggling to understand and explain it? Who has seen there what, say, Hawthorne saw in Salem, or Updike sees in his small Pennsylvania towns? Wharton, again, comes to mind. And, again, McInerney. One should also probably add Doctorow to the list. (A person might mention, too, Cheever’s short stories if they wanted, but for the sake of argument let’s stick to novels for now.) But still, this is a pretty pale crew considering the subject at hand. We have here the greatest urban spectacle of all time, and instead everyone’s split town to try their hands at dried upstate husks or dwindling steel towns or the blocks of the outer boroughs.
And Doctorow, in any case, strikes me as a somewhat different matter. Ragtime and Billy Bathgate and The Book of Daniel could all be called Manhattan novels, no doubt, but there’s a certain aloofness about them. Their historical natures lend a sort of journalistic distance.
Which brings to mind another point — the success journalism has had with Manhattan. It’s not as if the place is simply impossible to write about — too overwhelming, or too protean or what have you. From Thurber and White to Liebling and Mitchell to Wolfe and Talese and Plimpton the island has provided reporters with an endless, glorious supply of grist. It’s hard, in fact, to imagine a more fecund locale. The characters, the crowds, the heady absurdity of it all — the place is better than the circus. Every day down the pike comes a fresh supply of shining, shimmering anecdotes — those essential proteins of the magazine profile.
Fiction, though, seems to ask something else of a setting. Your Lethems, your Bellows, your Faulkners, your Roths — the writers who find themselves returning again and again to the same counties, the same cities, the same streets and patches of sidewalk — they are drawn by something more than just convenience or plotting or spectacle, or even simple honest fascination with the place. Reading them one is struck by the hopeless, helpless nature of their entanglements. The sad, desperate fierceness of their attachments. Their need to justify, to defend, to atone. It seems, in short, something not unlike love.
Not love as simple joy or desire or admiration, but something more tender and tragic. The sort of love that arises less from choosing than from circumstance. Like one’s own self, it is a thing you fall into, the sins, shames, secrets of the place all yours, simply by virtue of being born. And insofar as the place is ugly and inadequate, you are as well. These cities, these streets, call out for eyes able to discover what is beautiful amidst their wreckage. And by making these places understood, these authors, their characters, seek to explain, to excuse themselves.
But what understanding, explaining could Manhattan ever want? The island’s charms are fairly self-evident. It’s a glorious place, no doubt, but there’s something a bit cold about its grandeur. It delights and awes, but always at a distance. Quite simply, it doesn’t need you. These others — the Brooklyns, the Newarks, the “Brewers” — with their shuffling, sad, ramshackle ways, fairly cry out for people to embrace them. Manhattan, though, is a tougher place to wrap your arms around. More to the point, it would scarcely notice if you tried.