Wednesday, June 24, 2009

A City Underneath the City: Wednesday's Written Word

I'm a Jew, and I love literature. Ergo, I tend to love Jewish literature. But I'm not much one for schmaltzy Holocaust dreck, and I can't stand overly sentimental memoirs. No, much like the Jewish journalism I like (the vintage that says 'We're journalists who happen to write about Jewish issues,' not 'We're professional Jews, who dabble in journalism'), I like Jewish novels that are grounded in some regularly identifiable secular reality. I like the kind of novels that would be interesting, compelling reads even if you remove their niche-market packaging.

So Dara Horn is extra special. She's a brilliant writer, and she's totally accessible to goyim! What more could you want? In The Image is an excellent Book of Job parable, The World to Come paints on the epic canvas of Chagall and Vietnam and her newest, All Other Nights, crafts an old-fashioned Civil War spy epic - with Jews! Here's a (rather long but totally worth it) taste of In The Image:

"Leora is the only person in the world who knows this: There is a city underneath the city of New York.

We are not talking about the subways, or the basements, or the parking garages, or the money vaults, or the underground shopping arcades or the train stations or the sewer systems or the telephone cables or the rat nests. Nor do we mean the organized crime rings or the drug smugglers or the sex merchants or the undercover agents, or the palm-greasing or the deal-breaking or the star-marking or the muckraking, or the illegal immigrants or the sweatshop slaves, or the children crammed into tiny homes, or the secret interlocking passageways that run between private people's hearts. No, we are talking about a real city, a parallel city whose foundations rest on the bottom of New York Harbor. It is a city made up entirely of things that the people in the world above it have forgotten, all that they have decided, deliberately or otherwise, to cast into the ocean.

Now, you probably already have an image in your mind of what this lost city might look like. You probably imagine people riding those giant-front-wheeled bicycles down streets bustling with bustled women, to the tune of ragtime music. Or maybe you envision trumpeting jazz bands, real-live swing dancers, or speakeasies, or white gangsters. Maybe you're thinking of robber barons wearing monocles while smoking pipes in palatial homes, or scrappy, good-natured newsboys in tweed caps shouting "Extra! Extra!" Or perhaps you've even drawn a mental picture, not yet painted-by-numbers, of billowing sailing ships and men in powdered wigs. But the lost city is no warehouse for nostalgia -- not a showcase of the versions of the past that exist only in the present, created out of a mix of thin air and our even thinner ability to see the ability of the current moment. No, the lost city -- and there may well be other lost cities, lurking beneath the Seine or the Yangtze or the Crimean or the Nile or the Baltic or the Ganges or the Amazon or the Danube or the Amsterdam canals, but here we are speaking only of New York -- contains only things that we have truly abandoned, created exclusively out of what we believe to be lost forever.

It is a walled city, this city beneath the city of New York. Its southern wall stands thick and strong, composed of the remains of the wall that once lined Wall Street, the old fortifications built long ago by the settlers of New Amsterdam -- back when the greatest sign of a city was what it was capable of keeping out, rather than what it was capable of letting in. As we have said, the lost city is a walled city, but only nominally so The city is so crowded, so overwhelmingly full, so teeming and screaming and churning and burning with all that we have now forgotten, that it spills out over its walls, the wretched refuse of its teeming shores pushing out in every direction until the walls surrounding its inner core become little more than a technicality. In this underwater sanctuary, however, the huddled masses all breathe free. Its citizens, their bodies remembering the form of a fetus inside a saline womb, breathe through gills in their half-severed necks.

The language spoken here varies from time to time. In the beginning, it was the chirping of birds, vast flocks of birds, sent down below by slash-and-burn farming above., Then, and this has been true for centuries, the lingua franca of this lost city became Manhattan. No, not some metaphorical imaginary language of wealth and poverty and crime and art, but the actual language Manhattan, spoken by the Manhattan tribe of natives who gave up the island a few hundred years ago for sets of beads worth approximately twenty-four dollars. (Some residents of the lost city, the municipality's much-envied elite, wear these beads around their necks.) Of course, other languages are spoken here too. A few hundred citizens speak seventeenth century-Dutch; a dozen or so pride themselves on having mastered Esperanto. And lately, some people are picking up Yiddish.

Outside the walls, the road to the lost city underneath New York is paved with tefillin."

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