Saturday, September 25, 2010

“New York”

By Edward Rutherfurd
ISBN No. 978-0-385-66427-1
Readers of a certain age can be forgiven for getting a sense of déjà vu when they read the jacket copy of this brick of a book. The last time I read “a rich, engrossing saga, weaving together tales of families rich and poor, native-born and immigrant – a cast of fictional and true characters whose fates rise and fall and rise again with the city’s fortunes,” it was the late 1970’s, the story was set in New York, and the book was E.L. Doctorow’s “Ragtime.” Well, we’re still in New York, but given the demands of the Internet generation and an audience of Twi-hards and Potter-heads used to 800-page sequels, the canvas of the contemporary novel now demands a certain length and breadth to satisfy the easily dissatisfied. Often, this results in writing that needn’t be written at all; most of these new books are just run-on descriptions of the same places described in the previous installment of the series (always a series, it seems) dressed up as new episodes. Rutherfurd has the length part down. His “New York” doesn’t just cover an era in the city; it encompasses an almost biblically long eon of time. From New York’s start as a tiny fishing village right up to 9-11, the novel is worth reading if only to admire its mechanics. It’s frankly amazing how far the author can take you in only a dozen pages. Story-wise, it’s an epic, all right. Rutherfurd wisely invests his tale with enough novel twists and clichéd plot points to keep the eye dancing and the brain clicking. The only thing that suffers – as it does with all epics – is the writing, which has to be understated, stately, proper and functional and get you to where you need to go with minimal flourish and description. But as luck would have it, that impersonality gives “New York” a real and suspenseful poignancy. Michael Cunningham (“The Hours”) has publicly expressed a desire to write a novel about the history of a place, the people who gathered there; essentially the dichotomy of the concrete of the structure and the impermanence of the people who built it. Until Cunningham writes it, “New York” is that book.