New York’s Greats
From Barnes and Noble Review:
This year is the fiftieth anniversary of The Death and Life of Great American Cities , Jane Jacobs’s groundbreaking 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 because of, briefly put, its density and diversity. Although her study is full of careful economic and political analysis, Jacobs’s 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?
Between 1970 and 2000 we had Heller’s Something Happened, Gaddis’s JR, Coover’s The Public Burning, McElroy’s Women and Men, and DeLillo’s Underworld, all set in New York and at least partly about it as a city. My reasons for calling these books “Great” are three:
1) The authors comprehend human life through systems not limited to the social and psychological, which rule most traditional realism. Jane Jacobs very early recognized the value of new analytic systems offered by cybernetics, biology, and physics, and these are the systems that gave the late twentieth-century novelists their original purchase on urban life. Gaddis’s JR, for example, has as its conceptual model the positive feedback or “runaway” system.
2) To correspond to the new systems of information the novels incorporate and employ, the authors deform well-mannered linear narrative and push toward innovative structures and styles, the kind of formal diversity or “mixed uses” that Jacobs praised in urban architecture. Perhaps the best example is McElroy’s Women and Men, which has both small-scale episodes and “angelic” meditations, both the dissonance and 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 the density in fiction that Jacobs said was essential for lively city life. Coover’s The Public Burning, about the Rosenberg “atomic spies,” is a comprehensive mosaic of American life that culminates in the fission of a sacrificial ritual in Times Square.
In the last decade or so, probably hundreds of novels set in New York have been published. The best—or most widely praised—seem to me the following eight, all by writers who live or have lived in New York: Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis and Falling Man, Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City, Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist, Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children, Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, Teju Cole’s Open City, and Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin.