Writing the City: On Never Can Say Goodbye and One Book, One New York

I’ve been working on drafting a new project this month, so I haven’t has as much time for reading as usual! But it’s also been that gorgeous NYC spring weather—and since it was also May when I first moved to the city, once upon a time, a combination of seasonal relief and nostalgia has sent me on an atypical kick of purposefully New York-focused reading. I started with the anthology Never Can Say Goodbye, which I picked up based on the contributor list. I ended up enjoying parts of it, some of which I expected to and some of which surprised me. Other essays fell flat, and for the most part repetitively so. New York in book form!

I haven’t yet read the original Goodbye to All That anthology that this one follows up. Theoretically the first was about leaving NYC, the second about staying—but to be honest the distinction seems muddy at best, since half the authors in NCSG seem not to live here anymore. I don’t imagine I'll tackle GtAT until the next time I find myself this starry-eyed about and meta-aware of living in this city. Maybe the most productive lesson for me in reading Never Can Say Goodbye was a reminder that on the page, no story is interesting unless it’s interestingly told.  I kept on thinking about John Hodgman’s maxim that “specificity is the soul of narrative." It’s a bit of a wonder to me that so many essays ended up in Goodbye to All That (and everywhere else) with the thesis—not an early observation, but an emotional climax—that many businesses in New York are continuously replaced by other businesses. That’s a real and poignant and psychologically challenging phenomenon. But that’s in real life. Observing that New York changes fast, even with an accompanying list of establishments-that-were and their replacements as evidence, is groundwork. It's not enough to make an essay ring. The essays that shone brightest in the anthology didn’t have wildly different subject matter—but they found something (anything) specific, unique, and beautiful to say about the same joyful-melancholy experience of city living.

Purely by accident—and the charms of a beautiful display at my local Brooklyn Public Library branch—I moved directly on to the latest round of One Book, One New York finalists. This was the campaign’s second year; it nominates five acclaimed books set in NYC and asks New Yorkers to vote for which one we should, theoretically, all read at the same time. This year as last year, I was impressed by the diversity and quality of the nominees—and impressed by the justice they did to the diversity and quality of life and literature in this city. This program is not refining toward a gate-kept traditional canon of what the “best” books look like. It’s living and eclectic and democratic and, both years so far, has pointed me toward at least one new-to-me title—and brought home the fact that, in literature as in life, there are infinite different New Yorks as experienced by different individuals. I’m reading Imbolo Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers right now—it’s vastly different from the winning Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan, but appreciating that difference and interplay is the real jewel of the campaign for me. Having just come from the enjoyable but mostly one-note essay anthology, I deeply appreciated the One Book campaign’s mindful curation. It made me think, too, of other novels of place—and the infographic I saw once that listed the fiction “most associated with” my home state of Rhode Island as Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper. I’m guessing “most associated” in that context meant “best-selling book set in the state,” and that the infographic was benign clickbait put together in an hour of googling.  The factoid has still haunted me for years, as I’ve brainstormed other candidates for the slot and, in the process, been aware of the relative dearth and similarity of options. I know RI is small, but jeepers. Enriching the pool has been part of what motivates me in my own writing. And in the meantime, while still grumbling about the cultural spotlight on NYC being brighter than it needs to be, I’ll appreciate living in a place with enough novels set here—of enough diverse experiences—to fill out a One Book, One New York campaign with new, specific, and beautiful stories for many years to come.