Dreaming cities

23 February 2010

Espalanade de les Invalides, Paris, 1900. (Via the Brooklyn Museum’s Goodyear Archival Collection).

— ‘How can millions of people, their homes & streets, be unreal?’
— ‘Very easily. A big city must be like a dream.’

Jean Rhys, Wide Saragosso Sea

Paging through my commonplace book, finding fragments, loose spools of twine, nails, ticket stubs of prose. One of these is a paragraph from Jerome Charyn’s The Green Lantern: A Romance of Stalinist Russia, although what I really want to be excerpting here is something from Paradise Man, which I read before I started copying things out:

“He knew it would come like a fairy tale. No knocks on the door in the middle of the night, though he could hear the shpions hidden between the two thicknesses of walls. Were they discussing The Green Lantern, or only mocking a doomed colonel of the NKVD? He was too much of a hero to drag out of a restaurant or a café like the Oktobr. His superior at the seventh department called, asked him to report to the Lubyanka in his uniform.”

What I always loved about Charyn, or what I remember loving about his work, what beguiled me, is his evocation of a city as an interconnected spectacle, an organism, a stage whose players are long known to each other. Everyone has a history & a part, & it’s the stage that matters. The city isn’t a backdrop for atomized postmoderns to wander through, it’s a coherent whole, mutually constituted, incarnated through the simultaneous opening in the morning of a hundred thousand newspapers. (Or — if that’s too bourgeois to describe Charyn, who memorialized the scraping, two-bit city, the neighborhood guys — the kind of place made of barshop chatter, cop bars, second-string beat reporters.)

Narratives of community, urban narrative distinct from the sort of urban narrative writers make when they come to Brooklyn in their 20s because you can lose yourself & be anonymous. Everyone knows everyone, knew them before the story began; there are multitudes waiting in the wings (Charyn’s prose is characterized by nicknames that verge on mythic epithets, by a murmuring, anonymous plural chorus of gossip & the word on the street). I said I wanted to have Paradise Man on hand because of course Charyn did this best & longest with New York, but he manages the same trick with the theatre scene in Stalinist Moscow (Green Lantern).

Am I explaining well? I’m not sure. I got a feeling like this last November in Paris, walking around the cemetery of Père Lachaise — I don’t mean putting my lips on Oscar Wilde’s tomb to join the hundreds of fresh prints of lipstick (just like they say — covered top to bottom in kisses, really truly, mottled pink-purple-red, even though it’d rained the night before), or watching people crowd around Jim Morrison’s little grave & take endless pictures of the nothing that was there and the nothing that wasn’t. I mean when you wander the endless city blocks of this shadow city, this necropolis, the tombs lined up in various states of disrepair along named avenues & alleyways, some of the doors kicked in, & read the anonymous luminaries, the bishops & administrators & uncanonized authors & rich families, the people who a hundred years ago were important, however briefly, to the workings of that city when Haussman was demolishing medieval buildings  & widening boulevards to make it harder for workers to put up barricades made of paving-stones, easier to move troops (1), & the money was pouring in & those beautiful monuments were being erected. You get this sense of a vast multitude of people devoting themselves to an idea, to the City-as-dream, where your role is affirmed & acknowledged by institutions.

I’m thinking, then, of narratives of collective urbanity, as opposed to suburban narratives of isolated individuals or warring couples, or maybe even of postmodern isolationist urbanity, where newspapers are never opened simultaneously & people live in digital pods connected by invisible & farflung glowing threads. Charyn can’t be the only one, although when I first read him (I was maybe 18?) it tasted very different to me. The Wire, sure.

Maybe, too, the Mexico City of longhaired poets & cafés in Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives, which I stole (in English) from a friend of mine in Barcelona. She has made me promise to mail it back to her within the week, & I’m only 150 pages or so into it, so I’m not making an argument just yet. I want to say something — it’s on the tip of my tongue — about the death of newspapers & the death of the City being the same thing, that maybe the feeling like I get reading Charyn in New York or mausoleums in Paris doesn’t correspond to anything that still exists, but I can’t wade into this without shorting a mass of generalizations, all of them loaded.