Thursday, February 25, 2010

Guest-blogger Novelist Joanna Smith Rakoff: 5 Favorite Books of New York Stories

Madam Mayo is especially delighted to welcome today's guest-blogger, novelist Joanna Smith Rakoff, author of A Fortunate Age, a novel that has been receiving an avalanche of praise: it was a recent New York Times editor's pick, winner of the Elle Reader's Prize, an IndieNext pick, a San Francisco Chronicle best-seller and more. Over to you, Joanna!

New York Stories

The impetus for my novel, A Fortunate Age, came in part from a desire to capture a particular period in New York’s history. I grew up about 30 miles north of Manhattan, but always felt—like so many misunderstood suburban kids—- that the city was my spiritual home, my destiny. As a teenager, I spent every free minute wandering the streets of the Village and Morningside Heights, biding my time until I was old enough to move there on my own. At twenty-five, I inherited and moved into my grandmother’s apartment on the Lower East Side, a stroke of luck that also felt deeply ordained.

Throughout my life, I’ve gravitated toward fiction about the city. As a kid, I devoured Sydney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family books, about a Jewish family on the Lower east Side at the turn of the century, and dreamed of running away to live at the Met like the kids in E.L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. As a grown up, I perhaps read an overhealthy amount of New York-centric fiction. When I began pulling books off my shelf, in preparation for writing this blog post, the stacks covered my kitchen table: The House of Mirth and Washington Square, Dawn Powell’s A Year to Be Born and Mary McCarthy’s The Group (both of which I’ve talked and written too much about), Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections and Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, and that’s just the beginning. Below are five fictions about New York that have been on my mind lately:

1. Brightness Falls, Jay McInerney.
A sublime dissection of New York in the 1980s, when even the underpaid publishing slaves weren’t immune to the money fever that defined the period, Brightness Falls follows a striving bourgeois couple as they succumb to the madness of their time. Russell Calloway, an editor at a literary publishing house, launches a plan to initiate a leveraged buy out of his failing company, ousting his lecherous boss, an industry legend. Meanwhile, his wife, Corinne, who’s job as a trader really pays the rent, is quietly losing her mind. And then, of course, the market crashes.

2. The White Rose, Jean Hanff Korelitz.
I’ve written elsewhere about Korelitz’s latest novel, Admission, which is perhaps my favorite novel of 2009. Like Admission, The White Rose is a novel of manners, set primarily on Manhattan’s Upper East Side—and its eastern and northern colonies, the Hamptons and the Berkshires—among the wealthy German Jews and the nouveau riche who aspire to their social status. Though it’s based on the Strauss opera, Der Rosenkavalier, it reads more like a contemporary gloss on Wharton: A childless Columbia professor, Marian Kahn, at 48 has fallen crashingly—- and, she fears, absurdly—- in love with her best friend’s son, 26-year-old Oliver, who has also becomes—- through a series of absurdities—- the object of her closeted cousin Barton’s affections. Complications ensue. Korelitz perfectly captures the fabric of a particular segment of the city and a very specific sort of class yearning.

3. The Lost Language of Cranes, David Leavitt.
Leavitt’s lovely, melancholic first novel—- which is clearly and admittedly indebted to Woolf-— is the ultimate New York novel in that its plot centers on real estate: It’s the mid-1980s and a staunchly middle class couple, Rose and Owen, are on the verge of losing the rent-controlled apartment in which they’ve lived for decades—and raised their son, Philip. Their building is going co-op and they can’t afford to buy. The resultant anxiety—- which they can’t, of course, discuss—- threatens their fragile contentment. What they also can’t discuss: Philip is gay. And so is Owen. But what I love about this novel-- other than the perfect dialogue and the characters who eerily resemble my neighbors-- is the way the city becomes a character unto itself, from the very first lines, in which Owen is “hurrying down Third Avenue, past closed and barred florist shops and newsstands[,]” as the rain soaks his jacket and he tries not to think about the fact that “[b]ehind the lighted windows of apartment buildings people stretched, divided the Sunday Times, poured coffee into glazed mugs.”

4. The Best of Everything, Rona Jaffe.
A runaway bestseller in 1958, Jaffe’s first novel follows three young women who work as secretaries—- today, they’d be called “assistants”—- at a publishing house. One perseveres and makes it as an editor, at no small cost. The others meet less happy ends. Reminiscent of both Hardy and Dickens, this is ultimately both a cautionary tale about the perils of being a lone woman in the big city and a furious screed against the various forces that ensure those perils will never disappear. The urgency of Jaffe’s prose is almost jarring. I wasn’t surprised to learn she wrote the novel—- all 450 pages of it—- in a frenzied five months. But what did surprise me, when I first read it last year, was how little has changed in the half-century since she wrote it. “You see them every morning at a quarter to nine, rushing out of the maw of the subway tunnel... the hundreds and hundreds of girls.” Yep, I still see them. Ten years ago, I was one of them.

5. Bad Behavior, Mary Gaitskill.
I read this collection, Gaitskill’s first, in college and it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that it changed my life, in that it provided me with an entirely new concept of what constituted contemporary fiction. The stories in this collection, largely set in Manhattan in the 1980s, chronicle young men and women utterly unmoored from—- at odds with—- the world around them. They paint, they “medicate” and stay up for days, they think they want to be spanked, then are repelled by the banality of the experience. Gaitskill’s dry, almost deadpan prose perfectly captures the East Village of the period, the streets “buzzing with junkies and kids with big radios,” who mumble offers of drugs as you walk past.

--- Joanna Smith Rakoff

---> For the complete archive of Madam Mayo guest-blog posts, click here.

P.S. Check out Joanna Smith Rakoff's enlightening guest-blog post on the book tour for my amiga novelist Leslie Pietrzyk's excellent literary blog, Work-in-Progress.