Saturday, February 8, 2014

Tova Mirvis' Visible City

Tova Mirvis' new novel shows the reader New York City from a different angle:  we get glimpses into the unseen and hidden city.  Through the eyes of the novel's main center of consciousness, Nina, we see the lives of apartment dwellers behind the personae they take on for their daily confrontations with a chaotic, hostile city.  Nina spends much of the first half of the novel looking into the windows of her neighbors across the street and trying to imagine the lives they lead.  As the novel progresses, Nina moves from spectator to actor, but others explore what's hidden beneath the city's, and their own, exteriors.  Hidden and walled up spaces become the focus of attention, and Mirvis develops a picture of the city as a palimpsest.  As the cityscape evolves, it covers over what has been there, but fragments of the past are occasionally visible. 

Closed subway stations, for example, don't disappear, they are locked up and are transformed into time capsules.  These moments in the novel remind me, strangely, of the way the abandoned city of Pripyat in Ukraine, which housed the families of those who worked at Chernobyl, was frozen in time at the moment when the residents were evacuated after the meltdown.  To see the images of Pripyat is to see the outlines of Soviet life as it was in 1986.  When Jeremy, Nina's husband, sees the closed City Hall station, he, too, sees a snapshot of New York in the early 20th century.  These places may decay, but they continue to be part of the cityscape, however obstructed from view they might be. 

Mirvis is a sharp-eyed observer of city life, but more than this, she understands what I think is a fundamental truth about cities:  that there is not a unified idea of "The City," but rather 10 million ideas and definitions of the city.  In a passage where Nina and Leon, her neighbor across the street, are walking along Broadway, Mirvis explains this succinctly:

“They walked quickly.  Leon had no need to look at the signs to know which block they were on.  The Victoria’s Secret on 85th Street jarred with his inner map, and for those who’d lived here long enough, the storefront with the pink-and-white-striped awning and lingerie-clad mannequins would always be Broadway Farm.  All those who lived here crafted their own internal rendering of the city based on how long they’d been here.  He too carried his own version of the neighborhood—he’d grown up on the West Side and remembered when it had boasted one of the city’s highest crime rates” (37-38).

I grew up in Manhattan, and went to high school on the upper West Side.  Throughout my teenage years, I walked frequently through the spaces Mirvis describes. What I realized, as I got deeper into the novel, was that I was constantly comparing my own "internal rendering" of the city to the one Mirvis creates.  The results of the comparison reminded me that I'm not a "New Yorker" (and I think the novel implicitly challenges the idea that that category even exists), but rather a New Yorker from the 1980s and early 1990s

New York in 2014 is familiar, but much of it has been radically transformed and is unrecognizable.  The most obvious example is Times Square.  Someone who grew up in midtown Manhattan in the late 70s and early 80s, as I did, and returning to it for the first time in 2014, would see a space configured in a completely different way.  The sight of Toys 'R Us on 44th and Broadway is surreal and disorienting--can this really be Times Square?

But back to the novel.  Mirvis develops characters who are interesting and who we care about.  She describes the feelings of the people who inhabit the novel, and their encounters with New York, in a convincing way.  In this regard, the novel rings true.  My one criticism of the novel is that the circle of acquaintances, and the way they tie neatly together, feels contrived at times.  Individual New York streets and apartment buildings are indeed micro-communities, but I think the novel stretched this beyond what seems likely or possible.  

On the whole, Mirvis does an exceptional job of capturing New York City from the inside out.  It is a carefully crafted novel that is a delight to read.

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