No Last Words
New York City—imagine that!
Todd McEwen’s new novel positively pulsates with vigorous life, which is odd, as superficially it’s a novel about dealing with the knowledge of death. MacKenzie (MacK, in the novel’s deliberately hectic typography) has been informed of his imminent demise to lung cancer. His response is to walk the city, opening the metropolitan space to his musings, memories and antics, meditating all the while on which of the (roughly) 273,750 cigarettes he’s smoked may have been the root cause of his predicament, cigarettes and death being intimately, cruelly linked in this novel.
Who Sleeps with Katz has legitimate claim to entering several ongoing competitions—best novel of city life, great American novel, great comic novel, most forthright exploration of smoking—and perhaps demonstrates how such critical attempts at categorisation ultimately overlap, so that the great American novel seems, suddenly necessarily, to need to be a great novel of city life, and the ludicrous habit of smoking fuels the engines of fictional comedy.
We’re in capable hands here. McEwen knows his literary history (think Joyce, Ulysses‘s Bloom meandering around Dublin; think Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway pondering sanity and mortality in London, June 1923; think Dos Passos, finding a form to match the new chaos of the modern city in Manhattan Transfer; think DeLillo, Amis and the postmodern city novel). Who Sleeps with Katz melds together different elements from these and other 20th Century experiments, to produce a novel whose form corresponds to its theme, and whose hyperactive narration embodies the few carnival days around Thanksgiving in New York of its setting.
New York is imagined here in all its diversity, all its immensity, all its menacing and joyous vitality, a city full of life and love and lost souls and debauchery and indulgence and deprivation. MacK and his sometime companions Isidor and Mary- Ann wander the city day and night, from bar to bar, eatery to eatery, and encounter the metropolitan mirror of themselves, cursed with self-knowledge, burdened by their histories and the impossibility of returning to them. McEwen hymns the city in language that alternately thrills and numbs the reader, demanding and responding in equal measure:
So he would gradually get to the IRT at 14th and Seventh, having journeyed blotto through this, one of the sleepiest parts of town there is. St Vincent scatters sand in your eyes around one-thirty. It is frightening to recall, the next morning in your bed of acute pain, the city in such a deranged state, everything so hysterically slow, so stretched and zinging. Indeed it is remarkable that a person in such a blasted and forlorn condition can make himself understood, to the genial news vendor, to the priest of the tokens, make himself presentable enough to his own doorman to be let in the building (Boris has standards after all). It is, in fact, a tribute to New York.
New York works hard as an environment in this novel. It offers both place and time, space and memory, to the characters who populate it, and is never reduced to those characters or their society but maintains an aloof, depersonalising distance, so that the city becomes both character and backdrop to the novel. “Each man, woman, child, dog and cat in New York has to spend all day choosing in which city to live—it’s different for each.” Such variety is exquisitely captured in McEwen’s writing, in its sometimes wild typographical variations, its juddering lurches from consciousness to consciousness, its demotic willingness to allow.
Isidor, the ‘Katz’ of the title, whose role as argumentative realistic foil to MacK’s despondent tendencies is fully exploited, offers the central insight of the novel: “this city, in case you didn’t know, contains all our moral history as a nation and living in it constitutes a necessary embrace of our achievements and failures [ . . . ] Don’t you see this means, on a human level, as one human being to another, that I CAN NEVER TRUST YOU?” The double-bind of the necessity and impossibility of trust offers one of the axes along which McEwen portrays human relationships, which find more sinister expression in a typographical image:
At the elevator bank she kissed him, with a meaningful tenderness he’d never have imagined, even his romantic fantasies having only to do with the surfaces of things, the taste of a cigarette at a moment of declaration. First words, never last words. You could say it was because she had been through the ‘same thing’—all these doctors, all this coffee and thinking about the end of life—wishing you could call all your life to you at one moment, at your desk—but that had ended and she was going to live—was living—her life become the usual question mark—the downward curve of which toward that
we choose to ignore.
Not last words but words embodying the sense of last things (there’s that cigarette again, shadowing death itself as the ultimate question mark)—echoes of Paul Auster’s very different hymn to New York (in Stillman’s reduction of the city to letters, ‘Tower of Babel’, in Auster’s City of Glass) overlaid with a post-Hip- Hop generation sense of the city’s ethnic mix, in turn erased by the commonality of all our destinies.
McEwen, himself a native of California now resident in that most unlike New York of oldworld cities, Edinburgh, has written in comic, intelligent and sometimes haunting prose a brilliant, convincing, human, emotionally raging portrait of a city and the people it makes, and who make it.