The space of a city has always been an effective setting throughout literature, whether it’s the gothic London of the nineteenth century, or the dystopian metropolises of Huxley or Orwell’s imaginations. The very nature of them as overwhelmingly large, artificial and endlessly diverse spaces makes them perfect vehicles into which authors can inject meanings or underlying themes. New York is certainly no exception with its towering skyscrapers and distinctive and unique personality, so it’s hardly surprising that there seems to be a never ending list of novels, poetry, and nonfiction that have all grown out of its inspiring streets. Of course we’ve all read The Great Gatsby, or at least seen the film – more accurately the montage of Leo trying to pull off the phrase ‘ol’ sport’ set to a soundtrack of Will.I.Am – but what about some of the other writers that have walked these avenues? From Mark Twain and Walt Whitman to E.L Doctorow and Philip Roth, the history of this city has been consistently documented, preserved, warped and exaggerated in literary form. The writers themselves have each left their mark on the history of the streets, giving this comparatively young city a rich and dense culture. Poet Dylan Thomas famously died shortly after drinking eighteen shots of whiskey in renowned literary watering hole The White Horse Tavern (which you can still visit today on Hudson Street), and exclaiming ‘I’ve had eighteen straight whiskies. I think that’s the record!’ Following him, Beats such as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsburg walked (or rather, drunkenly stumbled) among the streets of Greenwich Village, and from the village there is only a short walk to the Washington Square of Henry James’ novel of the same name. North from there, you will find Holly Golightly’s apartment from Breakfast at Tiffany’s and the Central Park carousel featured in The Catcher in the Rye and so on and so on all over the city. And of course all of these books can be purchased from The Strand on Broadway, a bookshop that boasts eighteen miles of books in one building: something of a paradise for bibliophiles. Make sure you clear several hours (or days) in your diary for getting lost in rows of every book you can imagine, and be warned that you will never come out with the book that you went in to look for, but rather a stack of novels that you never even knew you wanted, many of which can be picked up for only a dollar! There’s also the Housing Works Bookstore Café down on Crosby Street where you can browse, buy and read books all in one room, and which was frequented by the late David Bowie who lived just one street away. From these ramblings, you can see that it was no easy task for me to pick just a few New York based books to recommend, but here are three very different but distinctive works from the last thirty years that are definitely worthy of recognition and recommendation.
Jazz – Toni Morrison (1992)
“When I look over strips of green grass lining the river, at church steeples and into the cream-and-copper halls of apartment buildings, I’m strong. Alone, yes, but top-notch and indestructible – like the City in 1926 when all the wars are over and there will never be another one.”
Jazz is characteristic of Morrison: the beautiful, poetic and ingenious use of language in ways that it has never been used before, the scrupulous study of race and identity and a bittersweet notion of dark subject matter being portrayed in such a tantalising manner that you can’t help but love it. Morrison meticulously narrates the story of Violet Trace and her husband in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920’s in such a way that the rhythm of the writing adheres to the rhythm of jazz music itself. After we hear about how Violet brutally slashes the dead face of her husband’s lover at her funeral, Morrison goes on to reveal the series of events and stimulants that caused this horrifying event: the unhappy marriage of Violet and Joe after their hopes of life in the city were dashed by reality, the unintentional seduction of Joe by the much younger Dorcas, and the mental deteriorations apparently caused by the city which leads to both Dorcas’s death and her mutilation.
“Pain. I seem to have an affection, a kind of sweettooth for it. Bolts of lightning, little rivulets of thunder.
And I the eye of the storm.”
There has always been some debate over the ultimate feeling towards the city in Jazz. On the one hand, it is a beautiful love letter to the city and its seductive and hopeful nature. Its constant presence makes it an individual character in itself, a lover, a protector, or a wild friend that leads you into doing things you never imagined you would. On the other hand, the city is corruptive: ‘“Come,” it said. “Come and do wrong”. People find themselves lost both physically and metaphorically in its streets as crowds blur together and individual identities become merely aspects of a dark and corrupted past, or perhaps just illusions that never really existed at all. Despite the supposedly free and glittering present in which the characters find themselves, the novel is permeated by flashes of African American past, of the horrors of slavery that refuse to be supressed, and the struggle to get to the New York that held so many promises; and becomes a study of Morrison’s fear that African-American identity will be changed by the city and become lost once more to white America. She attempts to marry the blues rhythms of the rural past with the jazz music of the present, in hopes that this union will create one solid African-American identity for the people who are at risk of being lost to the city. The novel also deals with issues of rising capitalism as characters like Violet struggle with her hairdressing business and scorns the fact that ‘white people literally threw money at you’; as well as the sexism of patriarchy that is so inescapable, as all the women are held under the male gaze and frequently reduced to mere sexual objects. Morrison is a most powerful writer who can make you feel everything from guilt and anger to love and excitement with her truly incredible manipulation of the English language. I could not recommend Jazz, or any of her other works, more.
The New York Trilogy – Paul Auster (1985)
“Each time he took a walk, he felt as though he were leaving himself behind, and by giving himself up to the movement of the streets, by reducing himself to a seeing eye, he was able to escape the obligation to think, and this, more than anything else, brought him a measure of peace, a salutary emptiness within”
Each of this series of three stories set in New York are conceptually fascinating, so to save us all time I am going to focus only on the first: City of Glass. Contrasting the lively, vivid metropolis of Jazz, the New York in City of Glass is depicted as a monotonous and intrinsically anonymous labyrinth of concrete and glass. This is not so much a story as it is a fascinating study both of language itself and our own conceptions of existence. The protagonist, Quinn, spends his time either writing or aimlessly wondering the city as he tries to block his mind from thinking about the deaths of his wife and son, until he receives a series of phone calls from someone looking for a detective named Paul Auster, in other words the author himself (it’s all very meta). Eventually, Quinn gives up trying to tell the caller that he has the wrong number and goes to his house pretending to be the ‘detective’ Paul Auster. He decides to take the case that the caller gives him – tracking down and following the caller’s insane father, Stillman. Whilst you may expect from this summary a good old detective narrative that orders the world through clues and ultimately gives us a logical, sensible solution in the end, what Auster actually gives us is an ‘anti-detective’ story which subverts this ordering and comes to no definite conclusion at all, whilst simultaneously disrupting the notion of identity, the author-character relationship, and even language itself; making the text inherently postmodern. Throughout City of Glass, Auster focuses on the fact that words, like clues, have arbitrary and disconnected relationships with the things they describe. They are really nothing but tools with which we can only represent and reconstruct the world. Words never physically share the essence of the things they describe because that concept is impossible – for example the word ‘tree’ does not actually have any link to what an actual tree is, we all just know what image to conjure in our minds when we hear the word ‘tree’, and this is something that seems to bug Auster in the modern world as he, through Stillman, begins to hack away at these rules. If language is inherently ambiguous, how can an author make his version of the world meaningful? Language can only create a pseudo-reality – therefore the New York of both Jazz and The New York Trilogy only exist in the way that Morrison and Auster want them to – or rather in how they want their characters and readers to experience the city. Auster’s reality in City of Glass is barely a ‘reality’ at all – in fact most of his references are actually intertextual ones to other works of fiction by much earlier American authors such as Thoreau, Melville and Hawthorne, and so aren’t references to reality at all. By reducing himself to an Emersonian ‘transparent eye’, Quinn is evacuating sovereignty over his own self and becoming merely a vessel through which the universe flows, thus in the story urban experience is reduced to just a series of fleeting images, which makes this trilogy a commentary on the accelerated pace of twentieth century America.
By tracking Stillman’s movements, Quinn finds that he is deliberately walking in the shape of letters, therefore the city also becomes a readable text, a canvas onto which Stillman writes using Quinn as the pen. Stillman’s message only exists because Quinn is tracing it, otherwise it would be lost to the city. Via the act of following Stillman’s strange wanderings, Quinn writes himself into existence as he is no longer aimlessly wondering in order to lose himself like he was before. So, these two characters form a mutually dependent relationship of precarious existences: Quinn only exists as long as he is following Stillman, and Stillman’s wanderings are only given meaning because his actions are being documented and examined by Quinn; therefore by extension he only exists because Quinn sees him. The implication of this relationship is that despite the immense population of the city, nobody actually pays attention to anyone else and so they might as well not be there at all, hence the crowds of the city are depicted as being so repetitively large that people risk losing their own identity and therefore their existence. Like Morrison, Auster also uses motifs of seeing and being seen to imply that whilst a sense of existence can only be found by being in society, every community is actually made up of individuals that are isolated within themselves and it is this paradox which can cause people to feel lost. Auster’s writing poses a lot of strange questions like the ones I have addressed here regarding language and existence amongst other things, so if you enjoy books that make you think then this is a great one to go for.
A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara (2015)
‘His dark eyes had turned that same unnameable grey that only the very young or the very old possess; the colour of the sea from which one comes, the colour of the sea to which one returns.’
When asked about New York, many people’s minds will go straight to the sheer size of it. The same can be said of A Little Life – at over 700 pages, it is no small commitment. The length of it however is irrelevant, as this novel is so addictive that it takes no time at all to read, and by the end you’ll find yourself wishing it was longer. This is a complex tapestry of the lives of four young men who move to New York with big ambitions. There’s Malcolm, the rich aspiring architect but sexually confused young man, then JB, the confident joker of the group who becomes a troubled artist, and Willem, the handsome actor who never lets his fame compromise his humbleness or his friends. But the particular focus of the novel is the life of the fourth friend: Jude St Francis, the people he meets, the things he does, and especially the things that are done to him. The novel begins in a small flat in Lispenard Street when Jude and his friends are in their early twenties, and ends in Lispenard Street, some thirty years later. What lies between is the harrowing life story of a man that endures the most extreme human traits, from diabolical cruelty to unfaltering love, and experiences more pain and suffering than you’d think any one man could survive. Despite an immensely traumatic childhood that leaves him mentally and physically broken for the rest of his life, Jude remains one of the nicest, self-effacing and generous men, so that as each chapter of his long story unfolds you can feel your heart breaking for him. This is a strenuous account of every type of human relationship, often in their most extreme forms.
“All the most terrifying ifs involve people. All the good ones do as well.”
The New York City of A Little Life is a less discernible presence than that of Jazz, but it is present nonetheless. For Jude, New York is a city in which he can lose himself, hide himself, redeem himself and reinvent himself but, no matter how hard he tries, he can and will never forget his previous life. The significance of New York as a setting for this novel stems from that indefinable quality it has that means that anyone can be anyone and become anything amongst its streets and avenues and within its skyscrapers. It is simultaneously safe and unsafe for Jude, but it is also the closest thing he knows to a home and frankly, I’m not sure there’s anywhere else in the world where he could’ve existed. The horrors of this novel will leave you begging for a friend but also terrified of mankind itself, and it will teach you a whole new outlook on the appreciation of life. This is a recommendation that comes with a warning, a month on from reading it and I still have not recovered from its devastating conclusion – and yet I’d still pick this book up again in a heartbeat.