What does it mean for the city to be a character in a narrative? I’ve often wondered about that phrase. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a single novel where the city feels like a character. I’m not really that well-read though. It does seem to be a thing with certain contemporary tv shows, though. High Maintenance and Master of None both come to mind, at least when it comes to New York. I watched the HBO show High Maintenance, ostensibly about a weed dealer in the city, for the first time on a plane back to the United States. I was on my way to spend several months in New York, after years in Tokyo. Nothing I had ever seen captured the texture of New York quite like that show, successfully conveying the diversity of New York without falling into some kind of ‘colorful background for the petty dramas of bourgeois white people’ trap, but rather the sense that everyone you pass has a rich life, all equally worth exploring, and that any small point of contact between two residents could veer off into a fascinating story. It is done so well, so naturally. It’s one of the best shows I’ve ever watched. Master of None attempts something similar, and basically rips off High Maintenance in the second season episode ‘New York I Love You.’ It connects three stories: the Latino doorman of a fancy building full of white assholes, a deaf girl who works at a bodega who has a public fight with her boyfriend, and a Rwandan cab driver who gets a hit movie spoiled for him by two basic Beckys (what is the plural of Becky? Beckii? ) in the back of his cab. They are all well-done, showcasing easily the best acting on Master of None, and even the show’s trademark heavy-handed THIS IS THE MORAL OF THE STORY vibe was sorta chilled out.
It seems easier to capture something of a city’s ineffable essence in film or television, the background that is not really a background. I thought about this problem as I read Emma Straub’s 2016 novel Modern Lovers, which (spoiler alert) I fucking hated. The novel follows two married couples, one hetero, one lesbian, who live in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn. Three of these four went to Oberlin together, where they were in some sort of indie band. The fourth band member went on to have a solo hit with one of the band’s song, before dying at 27, leaving the surviving three with mixed feelings about the deceased girl who became a legend. Two of the four main characters come from a tremendous amount of family money and live lives free from any type of financial strain, and enjoy the kind of existential crises that really only get to fully bloom with the presence of a really secure safety net over the void. Each couple has a teenage child, these two teenagers end up sleeping with each other. Minor marital crises are overcome, someone stupidly loses one hundred thousand dollars but no one cares, youthful exploits are reexamined from the perspective of middle age, everything returns to status quo but just a little better, the novel ends.
There are plenty of glib ways to dismiss this novel. “White People Problems” or “First World Problems,” for example. They are both apt ways to sum up the absolute lack of stakes. (Should also mention that one character and her daughter are not white, though their Blackness is mainly invoked to describe their coolness and sexual allure to white people, so.) But right now I’m thinking about cities, and I’m interested in how a particular neighborhood, Ditmas Park, is flattened and flattened until it is only street names on a map and the metrics of a real estate agent. And yet, somehow, the reader gets the feeling that Straub really thinks these small details (the tiny playground on Cortelyou Road, the streets one crosses walking north to the Parade Grounds, how much one of the more run-down Victorian homes is now worth) recreate the feeling of Ditmas Park. Straub lives in Brooklyn, I’m sure she walked around, and the boutique real estate firm that one main character works for is modeled to a tee on the neighborhood’s most famous real estate company. The characters refer to themselves as ‘pioneers,’ the word all bougie people love to use to describe moving to an area where their every whim is not yet catered to. One character, a chef, says she loves “living in the only neighborhood in New York City that felt like the suburbs,” which is both monstrously unfair to Ditmas Park (there’s a lot more to the suburbs that stand-alone houses and lawns) and also, clearly no one’s ever been to Queens, let alone Staten Island. (Side note: would love to read a novel about the ‘pioneers’ of New Dorp, or Great Kills, which probably has better possibilities for double-entendre book titles.) The real estate agent considers which of her clients would make good book club members, once they buy into the neighborhood, because god forbid you hear a renter’s thoughts on the latest Emma Straub beach read. (Meta!)
I lived in Ditmas Park for four years, so clearly I have a lot of specific thoughts and feelings about what its characteristics are, the small and large details that make it different from Park Slope, or Prospect Heights, or Fort Greene, or wherever. There’s the houses, of course, and the trees. It’s not nearly as rich and white as Modern Lovers would lead a reader to believe, the homes are owned by families of all backgrounds, although of course with gentrification ramping up this will change. There are prewar apartment buildings all over. The area is a junction between South Asian, West Indian, Russian, and Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods. I used to walk by a barber shop with a sign in the window that said “We Speak English Russian Yiddish and Urdu.” My city councilman sent out fliers in English and Haitian Creole. I celebrated the 40th anniversary of Bangladesh’s independence with a local shopkeeper. But I wonder if any these details were woven into the text of Modern Lovers, if they would make any difference or not, or just add to the feeling that everything in the neighborhood, in the city, in the world, is to provide interesting backdrops for the dramas for the type of people who (spoilers, I guess) can lose one hundred thousand dollars or have their restaurant burn down with literally no consequence beyond minor inconvenience. The novel reflects, pretty accurately, I think, the worldview of such people, and how the city must cater to them- the restaurants they like, the architectural details they prefer, the yoga studios they enjoy, private schools for their children. They sass cops for not paying them or their offspring enough respect. They don’t need, nor care about, public transportation, public schools, affordable housing, etc.
In lieu of a conclusion to this post, I post instead a video from Ditmas Park’s most famous musical export, the National. They were around every where when I lived in Ditmas, as much a part of the neighborhood as the Bengali shopkeepers, Russian cobblers, and hipsters of all races at the coffeeshop. This song came out in 2010, and though this kind of sad-dad indie is exactly the kind of adult-contemporary music I pretend I never listen to, the chorus of “I still owe money to the money to the money I owe/ I never thought about love when I thought about home/ I still owe money to the money to the money I owe/ the floors are falling out from everybody I know” struck me then, as it does still, as a profound piece of post- housing bubble poetry, the cry of someone who is going to be killed by his mortgage.