How did we all get so AMBULANT anyway? —Lucy Ellmann, Dot in the Universe
Before we meet our conversants, a little context. Sylvia Beach brought out James Joyce’s Ulysses 81 years ago, in Paris, on the author’s 40th birthday—and for a certain kind of writer, and a certain kind of reader, the novel has never been the same. As Stanislaw Lem has written, Joyce “condensed the Odyssey into a single Dublin day” and “with an army of four hundred thousand words descended upon Victorianism, which was demolished with all the stylistics that lay at the disposal of the pen, from stream of consciousness to trial deposition.” This year alone, two high-profile works of literary fiction have drawn from Joyce’s masterpiece. In Nobelist J.M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello, the titular character is the author of The House on Eccles Street, in which the heroine is Marion (Molly) Bloom, wife of Leopold, the advertising man who forms part of Ulysses‘ wandering dyad. The other half, young Stephen Dedalus, can be seen, refracted, in the figure of Eric Packer, the 28-year-old master of the universe in avowed Joycean Don DeLillo’s recent Cosmopolis, which unfolds on one fateful Gotham day—in crosstown traffic, no less.
But 2003’s most stylistically Ulyssean offerings come from first-time novelist Andrew Lewis Conn, author of the audacious P (Soft Skull), and Todd McEwen, whose fourth novel, Who Sleeps With Katz (Granta), is just about the best thing I’ve read all year. Both take Manhattan for a canvas, and transpire in 24 hours or less. And both marry refreshingly extravagant prose (acronyms and exclamation points aplenty in P, many delirious italics and CAPITAL LETTERS and sometimes ALL-CAP ITALICS in Katz) to simple, heartbreaking narratives: Conn’s pornographer Benji Seymour mourns lost love Penelope and helps locate missing girl Finn, while McEwen’s radio announcer MacK (say it like the knife) walks downtown to reveal his just-learned terminal lung-cancer diagnosis to bosom friend (and bookseller) Isidor. In a relaxed conversation at the Gramercy Park Hotel’s High Bar recently—relaxed despite the nonstop piping of the greatest dance hits of the ’70s—Conn (b. 1973) and McEwen (b. 1953) talked about their influences, Joycean and otherwise, and the shoe-leather-lacerating inspiration of this our town.
Conn, a native Brooklynite, started writing P when he was 23. “I had just read Ulysses, and to read it at that age is sort of a shattering experience. If you have any self-respect, you’ll just put your pen down and never write again,” he says. “Or you can wrestle with the book.” The resulting smackdown is both reverential and original. Conn explicitly adopts many of Joyce’s formal conceits, but transcends mere homage with vigorous set pieces. He transposes Ulysses‘ “Circe” chapter, a stage-directed trawl through Dublin’s nighttown, into a phantasmagoric screenplay in which the Disney Store in Times Square becomes a pornosophical whorehouse; apropos Disney’s appropriation of Hugo’s Hunchback, a sign reads “WELCOME TO QUASI-LAND!” P mimics the big U.’s concluding “Penelope” chapter—Molly Bloom’s nearly punctuation-free interior monologue—but there’s a subtle, poignant twist: Instead of the words pouring out of Benji’s late, lamented mate (and onetime on-screen co-star), Penelope Pigeon, the stream of consciousness belongs to the divorced mother of Finn, a startling note of optimism to cap an often wrenching tale.
Allusions abound. A rival porn purveyor is known as Scylla & Charybdis; there’s a Bloomian cast to Benji’s staccato impressions as he drifts through the no-man’s-land around Penn Station. Ithaca, home in Homer, is the acknowledged title of Ulysses‘ penultimate chapter, and in P it becomes a real place again—the upstate town that’s home to Benji’s (and Conn’s) alma mater, Cornell. Which is, of course, where Vladimir Nabokov—another of Conn’s literary heroes—lectured on, among other things, Ulysses; P pays tribute to that other master with a cameo by Vivian Darkbloom, Nabokov’s anagrammatic double, followed by a female pornographer named “Winnow Screenlad,” who is (eureka!) Conn’s lexical twin. (Conn screenladdishly works in movie PR, and has written for Film Comment.)
Set mostly on June 17, 1996 (Father’s Day, and a day after Joyce’s Bloomsday), P turns ambient cultural details into part of its grand design. “The real research came in finding out when it rained, what was on TV that day,” says Conn. “There’s a scene when Finn goes into a magazine store and reads the covers of all the magazines and newspapers. Patrimony’s such a great theme in the book, and the day it’s set is the day after Michael Jordan had just returned to the NBA and won the championship—after his father was murdered—and all the covers of the newspapers said ‘One for Dad.’ ” Leafing through Conn’s book, McEwen spots a mention of the host of TV’s Love Connection. “That is excellent,” he says. “The first and only time Chuck Woolery has appeared in a work of literature.” He imagines future scholars debating its significance: “Who was he? Who was Chuck Woolery?”
If P captures mid-’90s Manhattan with reportorial precision, Who Sleeps With Katz freely mingles eras and attitudes, evoking the invisible Gotham in each of our skulls—portable, idiosyncratic, eternal. Decades sound like stretches of blocks, and vice versa: “West 58th felt like a New Yorker cover in the Seventies,” “The apartment buildings of Broadway in the 90s look heroic in a certain light—or perhaps if you are being heroic.” The friends at the core of McEwen’s book harbor an aggressive nostalgia that burns as bright as the fatal tobacco so dear to MacK and Isidor.
There are few clues to when, exactly, the story takes place; if it’s now, why do they refer to the subway as the IRT? And why is the F-word literally that? (“F***”—who knew asterisks could be so charming?) “I was going for a very benign ’30s, ’40s, ’50s feel—anything from a certain architecture to a kind of living,” McEwen notes. “Not the lives of glamorous people but just ordinary people: The older culture of eating out as a family, of kids scooting around on their own. MacK, who works for NBC, has sort of a nostalgia for his own building, the RCA Building. He’s not calling it the GE Building, changing the name because a company’s changed the name.”
Katz kicks off with a no-holds-barred rant against the sons of Eli (“The problem has always been Yalies”) that ends in a hilarious summing-up of “the great white culture,” at odds with multi-everything New York. MacK searches for anything worth preserving: “John O’Hara? Pearl Jam? Lawrence Welk? . . . Red Skelton? Hallmark, Microsoft? Mobil? Bill Clinton? Jane Fonda, Walt Disney, American Gladiators?” (Will the tweedy MegaHarvard guy in A.D. 2075 who pins down Woolery have a bead on the implications of Eddie Vedder?)
Since the ’80s, McEwen has lived in Edinburgh, which is probably why I think he resembles the actor Brian Cox (Conn will later suggest Brian Dennehy). Though McEwen visits New York periodically, Katz was written in Scotland—just as his previous books, grounded in a specific place, were penned somewhere other than where they’re set. The results are funnier, more intense, as if the flavors had gone slightly unreal from memory’s marinade. Recall the last words of Ulysses: not “Yes,” but “Trieste-Zurich-Paris.” (Katz is dedicated to McEwen’s wife, novelist Lucy Ellmann—daughter of Joyce biographer Richard Ellmann.) McEwen was “born in Disneyland”; his third novel, Arithmetic (1998), recounts an accurately confused, cartoon-California childhood under the sign of the Mouse and in thrall to space exploration. In 1971 he arrived in New York to attend Columbia; he worked briefly with the New York Shakespeare Festival, living on the West Side (and never below 70th Street). “Then I got interested in lots of very terrible folk music and ended up moving to Boston, because there was more going on in terms of traditional fiddling,” he explains. Beantown became the setting for his 1983 debut, Fisher’s Hornpipe, in which the narrator, musing on—actually, hallucinating—Thoreau, whangs his head on the ice of Walden Pond, then proceeds through a mock-epic existential romp, complete with a weird commune, hobo insurrection, and violin abuse.
Tradition-fiddling: Thoreauvian pastoral, hijacked by the spirit of Beckett. In Katz, the New York novel isn’t a tightly plotted way-we-live-now machine, but a nearly plotless, temporally elastic, elegantly timeless vehicle: Pace Howard Jones, if you haven’t got much time, why not try to live your life in one day? (Our friend of the future is now looking up on überGoogle: HOWARD JONES LIFE IN ONE DAY.) Of the book’s uptown-downtown trend, McEwen says, “I didn’t want to be too linear, too geographic. You couldn’t mention every street corner [that MacK passes]—it’d be crazy. ‘Now he’s at 34th and Fifth!‘ ” Though in Edinburgh he burrowed into The Encyclopedia of New York City and “old New York books about restaurants, dining, buildings—just kind of haphazard atmospheric stuff—in the end [I didn’t] want it to be all that concrete. That’s not how people think—’I am now walking by the Fred F. French Building!’ ” Thus the stolid Depression-era structure at Broadway and 73rd looms in MacK’s mind as the “Pillow Bank,” nothing concrete about it. The “absurd soft-looking stone,” recessed doors, indirect light: all reminds MacK of the tomb, and he sprints east before reaching it—”Straight for Amsterdam and the Park! With cancer!”
The delightful, antiquated endpapers for Who Sleeps With Katz come from a 1932 book that Isidor might sell: Helen Worden’s wordily titled The Real New York: A Guide for the Adventurous Shopper, the Exploratory Eater and the Know-It-All Sightseer Who Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet. While hunting down this title at the library—I am a stickler for research—I came across James Huneker’s whimsical guidebook New Cosmopolis (1915), the title conjuring DeLillo’s. Joyce’s chapters famously correspond to body organs (among other things), and Huneker’s Baedeker has an anatomical bent: chapter titles invoke the city’s eyes, “maw,” brain. The first section so named is “The Lungs”—a look at the city’s parks. Significantly, MacK’s lungs will be his ruin. (“Central Park,” he notes, “is a god and also the abode of the god.”) To live in the city is to breathe it in, to absorb it as memory and literature, as well as wa(l)king life: you take in the air, which is how we get inspiration.
Assistance: Jennifer Holmes, Darren Reidy