New York City is a popular setting choice for stories. Plots can begin in the Appalachians and outer space and, somehow, characters always seem to end up back in New York. There are plenty of reasons for this, but one might be that New York City is the perfect place to allow a protagonist to struggle — to pay rent, to succeed, to be noticed, and establish some kind of identity.
E.B. White, author of Charlotte’s Web, as well as some of the wittiest writing to ever grace the pages of The New Yorker, made what might be definitive statement on New York in his 1949 essay "Here Is New York". White somehow managed to capture a static moment in history that was also an instant of extreme change — the literary equivalent of finding a derivative in calculus. “To a New Yorker the city is both changeless and changing... the city has never been so uncomfortable, so crowded, so tense,” White writes, noting the stress of living cramped among eight million other hustlers. But he never forgets the magic, and one could take his essay as a sort of guide for what to expect for those trying to make it in New York: Enjoy the splendor, accept the strife, and don’t get mad when your favorite bar turns into a laundromat.
Two recent books track the struggles of young folks in the big city. Amor Towles’ Rules of Civility is fiction set in the ‘30s, and Choire Sicha’s Very Recent History is a work of non-fiction that takes place in 2009, but both have a certain E.B. White-flavored attention to class, status, and wonder.
Fake It 'Til You Make It
White observes that New York “managed to reach the highest point in the sky at the lowest moment of the depression” — the Empire State Building, monument to ambition, went up when it was difficult for even the most ambitious people to succeed. Amor Towles brings us the exception to the rule with his narrator of 2011’s Rules of Civility. Kate Kontent, a Brooklynite born to Russian parents, climbs both social and professional ladders against all odds in 1938, just like the Empire State Building did seven years before. Struggles naturally abound. The Empire State was struck by lightning and hit by an airplane; Kate suffers at the hands of fickle friends, dishonest lovers, and good old-fashioned metropolitan loneliness.
Towles doesn’t dispense with Old New York opulence. His city is a New York of Fifth Avenues and Central Park Wests, kindly doormen, and nice prep school grads willing to give you a ride home in a fancy car, expensive gin and house parties on Long Island. E.B. White calls New York’s abundance of the rich and famous the “nearness of giants”; Kate begins to live her life influenced by the nearness of wealth. Yet it’s hard to get a sense that she ever feels like the wealth is hers. The money is always borrowed, the car belongs to someone else, the gin can easily be bought at a much cheaper price and drank in a tenement building on the Lower East Side. It could be depressing to think of her life as being wealth-adjacent and never wealthy, but in a way, by teasing Kate Kontent with the city’s opulence and keeping her anchored to her former life of near-poverty, Towles gives her the ultimate New York freedom: to take advantage of money but never have to be beholden to it, and to always remember poverty just well enough to appreciate luxury. She uses this freedom to her professional advantage, working from secretary to editorial assistant and upward.
“Doesn’t the city just turn you inside out?” Kate’s friend Evie asks her early on in the story. It does, but Kate comes out on top.
Waiting for the Man
In Sicha’s Very Recent History: An Entirely Factual Account of a Year (c. AD 2009) in a Large City, the city certainly turns protagonist John and his pack of capricious friends inside out, and outside in again. To write the story, Sicha followed around a group of young gay men and essentially transcribed their lives, all in a style that reads half like an anthropological text and half like a melodramatic novel. Like Kate Kontent, John and co. are at the mercy of economic turmoil, yet can still dress up nicely enough to fit in at a richer friend’s birthday party. Unlike Kate, they never quite find the right channel in which to slip through toward higher tax brackets and even nicer parties. They perpetually swim upstream, fighting against 2009’s paralyzing recession and incessant layoffs with depressing parties and studied denial.
John doesn’t take advantage of New York’s nearness of giants. He acknowledges the tall building that Bloomberg owns and Beyoncé inhabits. He imagines that “the happier, richer people... were up above in ever-thinner, ever-shinier glass plates” — present, but not a part of his life. John prefers to enjoy what White refers to as the “continuing excitation” of New York. There are bars that are good, bars that are great, and bars that are awful. He and his friends frequent them all, sleep with each other, drink free wine at events, and start fights. To them, New York is the dramatic backdrop to the miniaturized interpersonal dramas of their own making. Success is secondary to elusive personal satisfaction, so John never dreams of living like Beyoncé in a multi-million dollar apartment. How could he, when he hides larger and larger debt collection notices in drawers?
In Here Is New York, White describes a poverty-stricken time in his life similar to John’s and Kate's: “New York hardly gave me a living at that period, but it sustained me.” Kate Kontent and John sustain themselves in their individual ways. Kate begins Rules of Civility mismanaging her meager budget for New Year’s Eve martinis, and ends it with plenty of money but more than a few personal regrets. John is perpetually on his last dollar, and he always spends it on beer. But regarding relationships, he refuses to let an opportunity pass him by. New York silently, knowingly facilitates both kinds of self-sustainability.
So — who is richer?