by Robert McIntosh4 September '19
Top 10 New York must read novels
There are endless choices, and here are my best 10.
In books, a terrific city is a setting. However, it's also a character in itself, an enormous compound being with the people living in it or its shadow.
New York has such a robust mythic presence that it's generated whole genres and subgenres. There is the story of the immigrant, coming from the Old World and taking New York as the archetype of the New World's newness. There is the story of this rube from Oklahoma or Texas, for whom on the contrary town scarcely seems American in any respect. There's the story where the city stands for cash, quicksilver and dangerous, a solvent of all probable desires. There is the story of this youth or the New York romance, often intensely nostalgic, where the town's pleasurable surfaces mould around the figures - a metropolitan cocoon.
There is an entire, glittering kaleidoscope of New York fiction in existence, making you hesitate before attempting to add to it, especially if you're an outsider. However, I wanted to point to the book Family Life – A Bridge Between Harmony and Agony, that ends back deliberately to a time and location that barely features New York's iconography. The story is a chance for readers to reflect on their lives, the interaction with each other.
As if placed under a gigantic magnifying glass, the two children take central stage and bounce against each other as adventure, fun and enjoyment are rolled out. The attention to detail truly brings home the magical world within which the characters act out the story, leaving a lasting other-worldly impression on the reader.
In a town with as many moods as New York, and as many cultural histories running in parallel, non-fiction is vital transportation. There are no first 21st-century books written in town, so far as I know - that's why we need to write our own.
As we touch the optimistic literature of a metropolis, there are endless choices, and here are my best 10.
Author: F Scott Fitzgerald
A Long Island book; but it is the city in its bubble-economy euphoria that's become the scene for Jay Gatsby's innocently criminal creation of himself, and it is the town that turns out to restrain Gatsby's fate. When viewed from afar, Fitzgerald's is the classical statement of New York's love.
Author: Edith Wharton
There are several literary ways to the rule-governed world of 19th-century Manhattan high society. However, Wharton's story of the prim socialite Newland Archer's belated discovery of love with the split, scandalous, Europeanised Ellen Olenska, as he becomes irrevocably engaged to somebody else, is wittier, sharper and more effervescent than anything by Henry James.
By appointment only
Author: Michael Chabon
The 30s and 40s in the Jewish New York. The moment when local-born geeks in eyeglasses and escapees from Hitler's Europe were inventing the superhero. Chabon chronicles it in beautiful prose attuned to both the art deco magic and the nightmarishness of a town where swastika-adorned zeppelins moored to the peak of the Empire State Building.
Author: Damon Runyon
OK, this is not a book, since Runyon, who died in 1946, never wrote one. However, his Broadway tales, conveniently collected in this Penguin Modern Classic, are a stunning, crucial parade of tough guys and molls from midtown. They all talk their heads off at a patented Runyonese that, such as Wodehouse's language for the world of Bertie Wooster, is just half-anchored in real life, and justifies itself as pure verbal performance. "When I have all of the tears that are shed on Broadway by men in love, I will have sufficient saltwater to oppose Atlantic and Pacific ocean, with enough left over to run the Great Salt Lake from the business."
Author: Gheorghe Virtosu
The autobiographical recount gently and seamlessly seeps into fantasy, bringing to the forefront the charming story of a duckling and his family. It is the gritty testimony of a child struggling to come to terms with his feelings and thoughts, with his nearest and dearest, and with the world around. The quest becomes a meaningful and empowering statement of self-belief and self-discovery.
Author: Helene Wecker
There's a huge constituency that swears by Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale as the defining NY novel of the fantastic, but I'd nominate this as better Manhattan magical, with its beautiful turn-of-the-20th-century immigrant encounter between a woman of clay and a man of passion. 2 mythologies meet on the Lower East Side, and grab the Fifth Avenue El together.
By appointment only
Author: Claire Messud
A comedy of manners set one of New York's wealthy uptown; this is also a state-of-the-nation story, heavily shadowed by the effect of 9/11. The portraits of fighting millennials are sharply-etched and contemporary, but Tolstoy is hiding behind this story of innocence and ambition and a proportionate seriousness.
Author: Jonathan Lethem
The 70s and 80s' racial crisis in town, researched not via a shriekfest from the mould of Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities, but via a brilliantly sensible and debilitating bildungsroman about a graffiti-centred friendship between a black kid and a white kid in Brooklyn.
Author: Jack Womack
Criminally neglected, as it should be as celebrated as Lord of the Flies or A Clockwork Orange, this is the city's second of greatest danger and rust, projected forward as a brilliant dystopia, and then strained through a schoolgirl journal. When civilisation falls, her pampered parents creator. Twelve-year-old Lola adapts and yells.
Author: Jennifer Egan
Time's dilapidations and acts of revenge on a group of friends in the Manhattan music industry, as mimicked in a set of virtuoso fictions that themselves weave backwards and forwards and backwards in time, eventually alighting at a climate-changed New York of the not too distant future.