I do not venerate New York City. I never have. Despite living a stone’s throw from it (rather, a fairly short bus ride from it), I almost never visit The City. The limited appeal it holds for me has always been tempered by the anxiety I’ve sometimes felt when I have been there; the crush of the crowds, the busyness, the claustrophobia, the overwhelming New York City-ness of it all, and until recently, I never saw a need to challenge that. Other writers and artists (Woody Allan comes immediately to mind) have essentially based their careers on fetishizing the city, and this is something that has distanced me from their work. I just don’t feel it. So I wondered when I began to read this book whether I would be able to identify with the authors, or whether I’d feel left out in the cold.
This concern was not well founded.
Despite my coolness towards New York, the ostensible subject matter, this collection still pulled me right in. I caught on pretty quickly that these essays aren’t just about New York; they are about having an intimate relationship with a place and being so fundamentally changed by it that it ceases to be home. They are about transformation; New York is merely the backdrop. Not all New Yorkers go through this transformation. Some never leave. But these writers allowed themselves to be changed; they grew, and they spread their wings and flew away.
In odd ways, the writing reminded me in places of Barry Lopez’s descriptions of his relationship to the land in Arctic Dreams. I never thought that I would come across writing that so beautifully evokes a similar sense of relationships of reciprocity with an urban landscape, but here it is.
Although the references are all local and specific, the experiences of the writers are universal. A few passages hit me hard:
When it comes to place, there are two kinds of writers: those who more or less stay where they’re put and look around themselves, and those who need to go somewhere else to look around themselves there. p127, “Losing New York,” Lauren Elkin
I thought I fell firmly in the former category, but I wonder if it’s as simple as that for me. I remember telling K after our trip to Guatemala that one of the benefits of travel is getting to see home differently. I do most of my writing in Ulster County, where I live, but the ink sometimes seems to flow most readily when I have some separation from my day to day life. The important thing, I think, is the looking around and within myself, regardless of where that happens.
I liked to observe non-loner-alien people, and New York City was the best place to do that…. Here, on foot, I was free. Wherever my feet took me, I was happy to have the city as my sole companion. I loved the feeling of being alone but among people. p154, “Real Estate,” Sari Botton
I love that feeling, too, though it’s not New York, specifically, where I go for it. An odd quirk of my own flavour of introversion/extroversion is that I do need to be around people, even if I don’t want to interact with them all of the time. It’s reassuring to see that others feel this as well.
My relationship to New York City – home – is and always has been about my relationship to yearning. p235, “Captive,” Dana Kinstler
Full stop. Yes. This is the most powerful sentence in the book for me. My relationship to home is also about my relationship to yearning. What would home even mean if I actually arrived there? If I actually had what I wanted, if I did the messy work of removing it from the abstract and bringing it to the real, what then? Would I, too, be changed, and discover that I now wanted or needed something else? That is why these essays touch me so deeply. It’s a courageous act, bordering at times on desperate, to go after what you want, but it’s an even more courageous act to realize later that it no longer suits you, and that you must let it go.
So, my review in short: this essay collection is deliciously written, exquisitely introspective, and thought provoking. Buy it. Read it. Thank me later. I’m not even going to edit out or apologize for all of the adverbs I just used to describe it. It’s just that good.