Friday, July 10, 2009

Mad Sq Reads: The New York Novel

Thursdays in the summertime easily test my decision making skills. It's like suddenly finding yourself in the front of a long and impatient line at Starbucks with no idea if you want a tall skinny vanilla latte, a grande peppermint tea, or an extra hot regular Colombian blend. 'Tall! Decaf! Cappuccino!' (Name that movie.)

Brooklyn Bridge began its free summer outdoor film series tonight (shhh, don't tell anyone, I want the crowds to stay small and non-touristy), Chelsea offers its final group shows before closing down in August, and the great Alison Hughes hosts a summer reading series in Madison Square Park.

I chose the later this evening, in favor of a night outdoors celebrating the 'New York Novel'. I hadn't read either of the evening's novels, and to be quite honest, haven't been reading any novels as of late. I've been stuck in the memoir and biography category, which has proven mighty interesting.

I ditched the novel after the 'best novel of 2008' (Edgar Sawtelle, I will never understand your selling power) made me nod off on the subway and miss my stop this past December. In addition to a few lovely books by people like Molly Wiezenberg, Isabel Gillies, Ruth Reichl, and Julia Child, most of my chosen memoirs are actually really embarrassing. Sandra Lee, anyone? Kristen Chenoweth? ummm... Hugh Hefner? (His family is from Nebraska, don't judge.) Yes, I could probably stand to read a novel or two.

The readings are held at the North end of the park, each week is themed, and the crowd a group of namely uptight intellectuals, a famous ballet dancer or two (maybe that was just last night?), and me. I have been to three this summer, but this was the first without a rainstorm. Thank goodness.

The readers, Elinor Lipman and Laura Jacobs, seemed so shy and proud of their New York novels, reading each word with care and visible love. We could tell they were excited to share their created worlds with those in attendance and wanted so badly for us to like them. It was refreshing, it was dear.

But as the reading concluded, I felt that pang of deep empathy when the crowd once again sat silent during question and answer time. They looked out expectantly but were met with nothing more than the noise of honking cabs, screaming children, dogs in heat. So as is becoming custom at these things, I searched my brain for something to relieve these two sweet women from their awkward babbling about whether or not they should leave the stage. (Painful, I tell you!) I stood up, marched to the microphone, asked the authors about the city itself.

New York is a city of secrets. It's all insider knowledge, its a big secret society, and we can't help but judge those who don't speak the language. When writing a New York novel, how does one keep the rest of the world interested? Can someone from, say, Minnesota read a book about the Upper West Side without knowing what Zabars is?

I often wonder this when watching old reruns of Sex and the City, Seinfeld, and Gossip Girl. The references are SO very site specific. The language isn't dumbed down and the characters never explain themselves. I honestly still don't quite understand how it works.

I watched Sex and the City for years before I moved here, yet felt like I was watching them for the first time as soon as I started recognizing street corners, as soon as I knew what Duane Read, Sushi Samba, and the Meatpacking district were. As soon as I started picking up on these things I really didn't understand how it could ever be interesting to someone who doesn't live here.

The funny thing is... the authors didn't quite know how to explain it either. Both of them have lived in New York long enough that they too have forgotten what its like to not belong to the club. It's like when John and Michael entered Neverland and forgot what it was like to not be a Lost Boy, to not spend their days chasing mermaids and fighting pirates.

Elinor commented that her New England readers assume that she's making up places like Gracious Home and H&H Bagels, and giggled at the thought. Laura said that she likes her characters to leave New York every once in a while to give us all a break from the city. (Well, that didn't really answer my question, now did it, Laura?)

The truth is that one you're in you're in. Once you know the language you can't imagine not speaking it. This is why we raise the volume of our voice when speaking with someone who doesn't understand English, and why we think that talking slower will somehow help.

I could have asked many more questions on the topic, as well as questions about how to write a novel and how to create a world and a dialogue that doesn't yet exist. It would be fun, wouldn't it? To create a New York all your own? Maybe I'll try one of these days. We'll see. :)


La said...

you've got mail. :-)

Sarah Butler said...

good girl.