Artists of the Floating World
Reflections on the conjuration of urbanity in contemporary literature.
Wednesday, 2008-06-25 | Cyberpunk
New York is the 'fifth lady' on the show.
I've finally put my finger on it. It's taken years, but I think I finally have the words to describe the difference between genuine, hard-boiled urbanity and the mawkish approximation thereof that one tends to find on triumphant display (cf. The Emperor's New Clothes) in the thousands of worthless and very nearly meaningless publications released annually.
You know the type: they're the ones that are cluttered at the drugstore POS between the Vitamin Water and whatever potentially lethal mix of diuretics and stimulants is currently being marketed as "Dexatrim", the ones tucked into the rickety, spinning display that stands at the end of the greeting/birthday card aisle, threatening to topple over with each passing toddler and the ones that clog the entryways of retail book outlets and deprive talented, working writers of the general attention and notoriety upon which they depend to support themselves.
And no, those are "the words". Though, for the record, I am genuinely annoyed when, for example, William Gibson's Spook Country enjoys a week or two atop the "Bestsellers" kiosk in the retail book shop before his tight-lipped 8x10 is rudely supplanted by the manicured shoulders and penetrating gaze of the debauched New York socialite or disgraced Washington insider whose provocative, phrase-length title shamelessly implores consumers to throw 20 perfectly good dollars at the hardcover of the legal thriller or celebrity tell-all du jour.
Honestly, it's not something as inconsequential as mere subject matter that separates authentic depictions of the lurid gristle of the rat's nest in every basement and the fugitive ache of sleep deprivation behind every set of eyes that are to be found in every honest depiction of every city from Jericho to Tokyo to Megacity 1 from the clapboard facades and Potemkin villages hastily erected by the witless hacks of New York and LA to serve as the backdrop for their interminable soporific recapitulations of the "sharp elbows, warm hearts" story that everyone (including the miserable prick responsible for this screed) seem to really, really enjoy.
No, it's something much more substantial than the story itself that separates a good urban tale from a bad one.
It's style. Style is the difference between the bone fide literary work (e.g. Gibson's latest, currently unfolding trilogy) and the airplane terminal page-turner.
And, accordingly,"the words", the ones to which I have been alluding, are these: a writer is a conjurer and if he makes any direct references to literary or social history in the conjuration of "the city", his spell is sure to fail.
A perfect example of this could be one of any number of well-sold writers who tend to set stories in cities. For the sake of mean-spiritedness, however, let's briefly consider the bad example set by Joan Didion, a writer towards whom I developed a deep antipathy as an undergraduate studying the English language.
In a desperately transparent and misguided attempt to conjure the tendency towards self-mythology that urban badasses characteristically exhibit, Didion opens Play it as it Lays thus:
What makes Iago Evil? Some people ask. I never ask.And, believe it or not, this cloying bullshit-ass nonsense is a celebrated opening line in 20th century literature.
It should be obvious by now that my objection to her opener is that it makes a direct appeal to real-world literature. And the real-world--the one right outside your door--is the antithesis of the urbane. This is a fact that is easily verified by traditional, empirical methods.
Step one: live in a major urban center. Step two: go out on a Friday night to do whatever it is that people in urban centers do. Step three: reflect upon how urban you felt.
The fact of the matter is that urbanity is a part of the so-called Floating World of the Geisha; it is, by definition and necessity, fleeting. One most approach it softly and from an oblique angle. To attempt to call it forth by making undisguised appeals to the ever-present, tangible history of the arts and of politics is a wasted effort.