Living Just Enough: New Novels of the City

Nicole B. Wallack

If you tell a story of the city, rather than merely stage a story there, you lay claim to it, but not always as a fan, a lover, or a life-long insider. Rather, you insist your characters take on the city as a foil or familiar—something powerful with its own memory and will. Recent novels by Jenny Offill, Matthew Thomas, and Courtney Moreno, set in New York and Los Angeles, explore how their characters’ abilities to thrive in their most intimate relationships reflect their bonds with the cities they inhabit.

Among its many achievements, Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation weaves through its mere 177 pages the story of a couple’s romance, marriage, early parenthood, and emotional foundering when two artists try to raise a child in the city. The story is told entirely from the point of view of “the wife,” who along with almost all of the other characters in the book remains unnamed, although neither anonymous nor generic. This book rewards reading both rapid and slow. You can consume it in gulps on your commute for a couple of days; or portion out its tiny 46 chapters over weeks, lingering over the wife’s epigrams and lists about child-raising, love, art, space travel, infidelity, bugs, and suffering.

Offill’s book works by juxtaposing voices and subjects, creating sympathetic resonance among them. Critics have celebrated this novel, the author’s second, and focused on her formal risk-taking, her wit, and her compassion toward her prickly protagonist, who more than anything wants to dedicate herself to writing. “My plan was to never get married,” the wife explains early on. “I was going to be an art monster instead. Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things. Nabokov didn’t even fold his own umbrella. Vera licked his stamps for him.” In the wife’s formulation, she cannot dedicate herself to art without becoming entirely solipsistic, and the wife is too much in the world for that.

In recounting her romantic life prior to meeting her husband, the wife describes falling in love with skittish boys, one a “drunkard,” one a drug addict. She has taught creative writing courses in college for 20 years, and ghost-writes a book on the history of the space program for a rich man, because she needs the money. The language of the materials she finds in her research for this book—“Russian ground control had a traditional sign-off for the cosmonauts: May nothing be left of you, neither down nor feather”—amplify the power of spoken and written words in her own story. It is tempting for the wife to disappear into her desires and her pain, but as a mother, “she signed away the right to self-destruct years ago. The fine print on the birth certificate, her friend calls it.” Taking care of one’s lover, students, and children is challenging even for people who aren’t art monsters. It is particularly difficult if you feel alienated from the city you call home—especially if that city is New York.

But we can’t say we weren’t warned. In 1949, E. B. White opened his long essay “Here Is New York” with this promise: “On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy. … The capacity to make such dubious gifts is a mysterious quality of New York. It can destroy an individual, or it can fulfill him, depending a good deal on luck.” From the beginning of Offill’s novel, we know that the wife and husband have fundamentally divergent experiences of New York’s disposition and possibilities. They have—and invite—different kinds of “luck.”

Before he meets her, the husband, a transplant from Ohio, spends his days making what their mutual friend calls “soundscapes of the city.” The wife cannot imagine what a “soundscape” would be or why someone would want to make one, but, early in love, she accompanies him around the city as he records it. The husband attends to the city and he permits it to make sense to him. He believes in the city’s goodness, perhaps as a reflection of his own. Midway through the novel they have to put his beloved cheap piano on the street with a sign that says “Don’t Take,” because it has become infested with bedbugs in their apartment. We know before the wife does that this action severs an essential connection between their home and the world beyond it.

The wife, who we learn spent at least some of her teenage years in Savannah, Georgia, has never had an easy relationship to New York City. Indeed, she seems to experience anxiety about cities in general. “To live in a city,” the wife muses, “is to be forever flinching,” and for most of the book we witness just such a reaction, as she increasingly comes to believe that the city is at odds with her family’s happiness and safety, and perhaps with her own psychic stability as well. She and her husband have to take jobs they don’t want to pay for babysitters they need to keep those jobs that pay their rent; they live far from their extended families; they hear mice in the walls, but no birds outside; they cannot afford to see their friends very much; they suffer the scourge of bedbugs.

Once it becomes clear that the husband is having an affair with a woman young enough to be called “The Girl,” someone he meets at his bad job, the wife finds even fewer comforts in the city. (No need for a spoiler alert, since nothing anyone tells you about this book can spoil it for you.) Perhaps worst of all, she realizes, “there is nowhere to cry in this city.” However, “the wife has an idea one day. There is a cemetery half a mile from their apartment. Perhaps one could wander through it sobbing without unnerving anyone. Perhaps one could flap one’s hands even.” The wife cannot imagine anywhere in the city where it would be acceptable to express her grief except among the dead.

Offill’s unnamed protagonist comes to believe that New York City is at odds with her family’s happiness and safety.

Ultimately, the wife takes her family away from the city before it takes everything away from her. New York’s gifts are too “dubious” for this family; but the wife, art monster still, knows that the city can offer others sustenance: “She’ll leave the city to her students, the ones whose shoes are held together by electrical tape, the ones who tear up at the sight of discarded umbrellas, the ones who buy the inscrutable Russian candy and the halal goat meat.” In their new rural home, her daughter “cries for Brooklyn” for a while, but she is small and her roots shallow.

Since their consolidation into Greater New York in 1898, the city’s five boroughs have vied for the status of “real New York” in literature, film, theater, and television. Manhattan dominated the literary imagination for most of the 20th century in poetry, fiction, plays, and essays. While one might argue that Brooklyn’s ascendancy to the most “authentic” New York began with Whitman, the borough truly began to dominate New York stories starting in the late 1980s. Current Brooklyn novels are, like Offill’s, often focused on the economically and educationally privileged; their characters, with some notable exceptions, are mostly white, and often writers.

The Mantle of Authenticity must therefore now pass to the borough of Queens. Matthew Thomas could not have picked a better moment to publish his hefty and compelling first novel, We Are Not Ourselves, which traces the life of an Irish family in Queens from 1951 to 2011. Like Offill’s book, We Are Not Ourselves features a family comprising only a mother, father, and child. The central figure here too is a woman, Eileen, whom we meet at the age of nine as she accompanies her father, “Big Mike” Tumulty, to his local bar in Woodside. Eileen grows up as an only child “in a four-story building set among houses planted in close rows by the river of the elevated 7 train.” Her hardworking, flawed parents raise Eileen to do everything that they could not: get a college degree; own a home outside of Woodside; avoid addiction; love an easier person than oneself; raise children who feel loved by their parents, and who remember their Irish heritage without being trapped in its clichés or by its insularity.

In its roughly 620 pages, Thomas follows Eileen’s own family as she tries to fulfill most of these goals for herself, her husband, Ed, and their son, Connell. They move from Woodside, over the neighborhood border to Jackson Heights, and finally to Bronxville—out of the city, and into New York’s northern suburbs. To all appearances, Eileen Leary makes good on her ambitions: she goes to college, trains as a nurse, and enjoys a long career at the top of her profession; her husband is a neuroscientist and a professor at Bronx Community College, equally dedicated to his research and his students. Eileen and Ed have a happy marriage and are successful parents; when the family realizes that Ed has Alzheimer’s disease, they have the emotional fortitude and the financial means to care for him all the way to the end.

Photograph by Bryce Edwards / Flickr

In less capable hands this family’s story could have collapsed under its own nobility and sweetness. However, Thomas lets Eileen and Connell reveal their least appealing attributes: envy, pettiness, arrogance, racism, denial, cruelty, and the willingness to betray others. In the process, he depicts Queens as a place whose racial and ethnic pluralism tests the characters, as their limits to cope with diversity test the reader. Of all the characters in the book, Eileen is the one who is most sensitive to demographic changes in Jackson Heights—the neighborhood north of the Irish enclave of Woodside to which she and Ed move in 1967 as newlyweds, directly from their parents’ houses. Jackson Heights “had exerted a powerful pull on her imagination” since childhood, when her father had taken her with him to visit a friend who worked as a superintendent of a large cooperative apartment building. While the men talk, Eileen looks through the basement window at the immaculately tended lawn:

 

A frame of connected buildings enclosed a massive lawn girdled by a short wrought-iron railing. … Gas laps stood like guardians of the prosperity they would light when evening came. She felt an amazing peace. … The people who lived in this building had figured out something important about life, and she’d stumbled upon their secret. There were places, she now saw, that contained more happiness than ordinary places did.

 

Eileen and Ed succeed in moving to Jackson Heights, albeit to a wood-framed multi-family house they share with Italian American neighbors, the Orlandos, who eventually become their tenants. Although Eileen mentally distinguishes her family from the Orlandos, who are too loud, Italian, and uninhibited for her, she counts on them to watch young Connell when she and Ed need to work late, and they quickly absorb her son into their daily life.

Turning 50 in 1991, Eileen decides she must leave Jackson Heights to buy the house of her dreams in Westchester. In what becomes a pattern for Eileen, she seeks to extract Connell from genuine friendships and community in order to shore up her family’s difference from working-class friends and neighbors. In order to convince herself, Ed, and Connell that they are moving to someplace not only different, but better, she must first construct a new narrative of Jackson Heights as unrecognizable, lonesome, and ultimately uninhabitable:

 

When she and Ed moved in, the neighborhood was Irish, Italian, Greek, and Jewish, and they knew everyone on the block. Then families started to trickle out, and in their place came the Colombians, Bolivians, Nicaraguans, Filipinos, Koreans, Chinese, Indians, Pakistanis. Connell played with the new kids, but she never met the parents.

 

Eileen knows what this kind of complaint sounds like, but nonetheless tends to her resentment carefully; walking home from the subway down 82nd Street, she realizes she wants to move to Bronxville because its globed street lamps and quaint mom-and-pop stores are “like a time capsule of Jackson Heights before the collapse.” In the middle of this bitter reverie, she crosses paths with a group of teenage boys who look Hispanic to her, forces a confrontation with them, and even after they respond to her provocations with articulate good manners, lies to her family about the incident, substituting “for the young man’s oddly delicate apology a bowdlerized version of the slurs she’d anticipated hearing—which was, in any case, closer to the truth of her lived experience than this inexplicable aberration.”

The trials that Eileen experiences in Queens are largely a product of her need to find enemies within. Her son finds enemies without, running the gauntlet of Jackson Heights’ street life. From middle school on, Connell is bullied almost unceasingly by all the other boys—Carlos, Gustavo, Benny, Shane, and Pete. In one of the strongest sections of the book, Connell tries to stave off his social panic with weightlifting. Connell’s physical strength is continually undone by the cruelty of the boys outside his small circle, and he cannot explain to himself why he does not fight back. We Are Not Ourselves provides the most poignant rendering of a boy’s body dysmorphic disorder in recent fiction.

Thomas could not have picked a better moment to publish a hefty and compelling first novel about Queens.

While Connell and Eileen have conflicted relationships with the city, Ed knows how to thrive in it. Born and raised in Brooklyn, Ed loves the Mets and takes Connell to LaGuardia airport, just west of Jackson Heights, to play catch and to watch airplanes arrive and leave for places he never feels the need to go. Not all novels have moral centers, but this one does, and Ed occupies it. He resists Eileen’s desire to leave Queens, both because the neighborhood’s familiarity is a comfort to him as his short-term memory fractures, and because he believes more than she does in people’s ability to understand one another. When the old Irish priest of their local church retires and an Indian priest replaces him, Ed is excited to meet and talk with him and shake his hand, while Eileen demurs.

Ed is the only character innocent and good enough to believe in his own capacities and to share this power with his son and his wife. Ed’s talent for connection outlives him, and it is no surprise when Eileen’s first trip back to Queens takes her to Shea Stadium, in 2000; she watches the last game of the season, a low-stakes affair since the Mets have already clinched their place in the playoffs (a place that would eventually bring them to the “Subway” World Series). In a Queens story, this ending counts as a genuine moment of grace—it is worth the wait.

Contemporary fiction is supersaturated with stories about New York, so it is exciting to encounter a novel of Los Angeles. Courtney Moreno’s debut novel, In Case of Emergency, follows Piper Gallagher, a 28-year-old woman in the first months of her training as an EMT, as she learns both the terrain of South Central Los Angeles, where her unit is stationed, and how to move toward crises rather than away from them. Piper is recovering from a breakup with a boyfriend who betrayed her and also forging a new relationship with Ayla, a woman she first notices stocking shelves at a health food store in her neighborhood, Echo Park. A veteran of the Iraq War, Ayla suffers from a traumatic brain injury that left her with acute vertigo, memory problems, and PTSD.

The book braids together three narratives—Piper’s family drama, in which she struggles to connect with her father and brother after her elusive mother dies; her love story with Ayla; and her EMT training. Moreno manages these threads deftly. The story of Piper’s training is itself a plural narrative, comprising episodes when Piper and the EMT crews answer calls in South Central and 15 separate sections in which she reflects on EMT procedural documents. But there is nothing you can do with your knowledge if you don’t know where you’re going. Piper needs most to learn how to show up at the right place at the right time for people who are closest to her. But timing is not everything; showing up is everything.

<i>South Central Los Angeles</i>. Photograph by David Holt / Flickr

Early in her training, Piper’s no-nonsense supervisor Ruth and her rig partner Carl have her practice mapping: “She and Carl point out landmarks. The pale pink church at the corner of Van Ness and Arbor Vitae, where you sometimes respond to congregation members who’ve fainted. The crack house at 92nd and Dalton … I learn about the dive bars, the convalescent homes, the elementary schools. Which restaurants get people sick. Which intersection has the highest homicide rate.” The map this exercise produces is not a grid, but a web of people, causes, and fault lines. EMTs develop an incremental intimacy with their neighborhoods that stems not only from doing their jobs, but also from caring about them. When Piper completes her first life-saving call, Ruth and Carl celebrate by buying her ice cream and eating it on the helipad of their designated hospital; they choose not the view of the ocean, or the lights of downtown, but “the south end of South Central, with its tiny houses and their tiny yards, its rundown churches and schools, its lack of freeways and greenery.” This is a sentimental choice, perhaps, but Piper learns that turning away from people and places we care for offers even fewer comforts.

In Case of Emergency reminds us there are many kinds of procedural language we use to manage our emergencies—from leaving our children (“I’ll be back by dinnertime”), to making it alive through a war zone, to finding a way to be compassionate and take care of people who call 911 because their crisis is loneliness, despair, chronic illness, or boredom. Piper is the only character in these three books who really takes to the streets of her city, and whose life and work is shaped positively by that connection. Her act of striving in the final moments of In Case of Emergency requires that she get closer to the unbeautiful LA landscape than she ever expected. Moreno shows how all of us city dwellers make our own landmarks less through the spaces we occupy than through the people we are able and willing to know.