Wednesday, March 22, 2006

The Great New York City Novel

The greatest challenge in our The Great [Your State Here] Novel series is almost certainly New York. This one calls for multiple input.

For his insight as well as his wit, I first consulted with Cary Federman--native Brooklynite, Fulbright Scholar, and author of the just published The Body and the State: Habeas Corpus and American Jurisprudence. Here's his take:

What is the best novel dealing with NYC?

It seems a no-brainer that the best novel about New York State (or a city other than New York City in New York State) should come from William Kennedy’s Albany cycle.

But the point of this exercise is not to unearth the Proust of Poughkeepsie. What about NYC?

The list of NYC novels is endless. There's one list here, another one here, and yet another here.

Some guildelines: We’re looking for literary works, mostly, which could include Tama Janowitz, probably shouldn’t include Candace Bushnell, certainly Tom Wolfe. Wharton, James, too 19th century. So let’s say post-WWII novels.

The majority of the novel has to occur in New York City. It could focus only on one borough, like Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn or The Fortress of Solitude, or Auster’s The Brooklyn Follies, or Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn – the only book about Brooklyn that was the subject of an obscenity trial, in England. On the other hand, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is out, because it’s unclear if that book is about trees or Brooklyn, and a tree growing in Brooklyn is a no brainer. It’s a borough of trees. You want excitement, consider raising pineapples, see here.

Novels that cross the George Washington Bridge are out, pending an update on the best novels of northern New Jersey. We leave books about Newark to Philip Roth.

Novellas, like Bellow’s “Seize the Day,” which evokes great images of upper Broadway, are out, but can be submitted for consideration.

Novels dealing with Staten Island get two extra points, unless, of course, Staten Island is used as a dumping ground for “made” mobsters. The same goes for Queens, near JFK airport.

There's obviously more to be said on the question of the Great New York Novel. Thanks to Cary Federman for suggesting the way.

Cary's new book The Body and the State: Habeas Corpus and American Jurisprudence is the most recent volume in the SUNY series in American Constitutionalism. It traces the history of the writ of habeas corpus and its influence on federal-state relations.

Federman’s scholarship is impressive, and he has successfully mapped out and made intelligible the underlying issues that help make sense of the history of the writ—its patterns of expansion and constriction in the two centuries of its application. He makes a convincing case for dividing the writ into discrete historical periods, and he analyzes the interplay between the dominant narratives and counternarratives in each epoch. This is an important work that accomplishes what no other work has so far accomplished. — Richard Weisman, York University

--Marshal Zeringue

For The Great Florida Novel, click here.
For The Great Illinois Novel, click here.
For The Great Michigan Novel, click here.
For The Great California Novel, click here.
For The Great Oregon Novel, click here.
For The Great Texas Novel, click here.
For The Great Louisiana Novel, click here.