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New York Post


From 'Bell Jar' To 'Friendship'- NYC In Three Novels Over 50 Years

July 07, 2014

By Nicole Gelinas

'Friendship,” Emily Gould's debut novel, tells us a lot about today's New York City. Just look at how its characters use the subways — rather than let the subways use them.

Amy, one of the book's two 30-year-old heroines, can't drive. “Fifteen years had passed” since she last tried. “To be fair,” Gould writes, “Amy had spent 10 of them in New York City” as a blogger, “pretty much the last city in America where relying entirely on public transportation didn't automatically mean that you were poor.”

That's a big change from the subways in Jay McInerney's “Bright Lights, Big City,” which came out three decades ago, with a similarly low-level media worker at its center. “You wait 15 minutes on the downtown platform,” McInerney's protagonist narrates. “An announcement is made that the express is out of service . . . The voice comes over the speaker again to say that the local will be delayed 20 minutes because of a fire.”

When “Bright Lights” subways do work, crazy things happen on them — making it hard to tell who's really nuts, the man or his city. When a stranger sits on a lady in a subway car, we watch as “the woman is quietly sobbing . . . You keep hoping the man will stand up and leave her alone. You imagine the headline in The Post: GRANNY CRUSHED BY NUT WHILE WIMPS WATCH.”

Three decades before that, in summer 1953, Sylvia Plath's “Bell Jar” heroine, Esther doesn't consider the subway to be a credible transportation choice. Sure, the subways are there. Esther passes each station's “fusty, peanut-smelling mouth.”

But she knows they are not for nice single girls.

Esther and her fellow magazine interns take cabs. They sit in traffic — “nothing moved” — and see a crash. (“There was a terrible shriek of brakes followed by a dull thump-thump,” and “we could see the four girls inside waving and struggling and scrambling up off the floor.”)

Already in the '50s, the city's below-ground infrastructure is not to be trusted — and above ground is chaos that will make you crazy, too.

More than half a century later, the subways in Gould's “Friendship” are notable because nothing happens on them.

In one scene, Amy's friend Bev (the other heroine) tries to fill out her temp-agency application “on the subway ... but the train was so crowded that it was impossible even to reach into her bag.” No one sits on her.

The subways are so reliable, Bev notes that “I have to be on the subway platform exactly 11 minutes from now” to get to work.

The girls can live cheaply and safely in Brooklyn — whereas McInerney's and Plath's characters never stray from Manhattan. The “Bright Lights, Big City” guy has a cousin who “would not accompany you below Fourteenth Street because ... he didn't have a lowlife visa.”

In “Friendship,” Amy lives (alone) “in an apartment under the BQE.” The girls eat sushi and drink wine “on a little ledge,” watching Manhattan skyscrapers “wastefully twinkling.” The traffic on the highway is just scenery — someone else's problem.

Yes, “Friendship,” like other coming-of-age novels, is supposed to be about youthful angst. But a functional city attracts functional people.

The difference between “Friendship” and its predecessors is (spoiler alert!) that Amy and Bev solve their problems rather than succumbing to them. New York is a useful tool rather than an incubator of psychosis.

When Bev gets pregnant after a one-night stand, she doesn't fall to pieces. She decides to become a single mother. As her pregnancy advances, a steady retail-management job (at a Brooklyn maternity boutique, natch) helps her recover from a grad-school stint that led to massive debt.

When Amy finds herself broke and near homelessness, she decides not to return to her high-paying celebrity-blog job. The gig would solve her financial woes, but it would force her to sacrifice dignity for money. She moves in with her parents “until she could afford to move back to New York.”

The penalty for failing in literary New York used to be high.

“Bright Lights, Big City” ends with its hero nursing a cocaine nosebleed as he walks home from an all-night party, making a not-very-credible vow to repent.

Sylvia Plath committed suicide in London. New York surely didn't cause her mental illness — or that of her “Bell Jar” stand-in — but it was a handy mirror.

“Friendship” may make for a less glamorous crack-up novel. But New York has come a long way if the going fictional punishment for failure isn't death or drug-induced stupor but having to learn how to drive, as Amy must, so that she can temporarily survive the 'burbs.

Original Source:



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