Saturday, December 28, 2013

Goodbye to All That, Writers on Loving and Leaving New Yor

Book Commentary:
Recently picked up a copy of Goodbye to All That, Writers on Loving and Leaving New York.

I never really liked the Strand bookstore. Ursus Books and Argosy, those are my kind of bookstores, more like libraries than bookstores, quiet and contemplative. The Strand was always too busy and more of a bargain place. I never seemed in danger of casually spending hundreds of dollars there. Yet recently I found myself nearby and wandered in looking for Emily Dickinson’s The Gorgeous Nothings. Of course they had it. But because three was a long wait at the checkout line I lingered about and stumbled upon a tempting stack of nonfiction books, suddenly endangering my credit card. Through restraint I was able to resist a mass purchase, opting for a single copy of Goodbye to All That, Writers on Loving and Leaving New York.

The ‘love/hate New York’ theme combined with the ‘lived there/done that ’ story is always and forever appealing. People love and hate this city, come and go, for so many different reasons and experiences. Back in the mid 80’s I went on a vacation driving around New England, stopping in each state, visiting artist friends who had left New York. Unlike the contributors to Goodbye to All That these were visual artists not writers. Most had come to New York to start college or finish their education. They then spent a few additional years developing their art and absorbing all they could while living in the center of the art world. Later they moved from New York to places, picturesque and inexpensive places, where they had always wanted to live. They started to raise families and continued to evolve as artists. Their New York experiences, while exacting and transformative, did not seem traumatic. They did not flee. They simply left. They had no lingering anger, doubt or angst.

In Goodbye to All That things are more complicated. There are a couple of former junkies (one a former dominatrix) and no lack of problematic relationships. Some writers were born there, most not. Many had a fear of leaving, some a fear of returning.  It was complicated. The trappings of wanting a career came up often. Many had arrived after New York had become a much more complex, crowded and expensive megalopolis, so debt was a word that often popped up.
Since I had misread the subtitle as Writings on Loving and Leaving New York, I initially hoped to find a couple of visual artists in the mix. Not so. It would have made for a different story. For it was a bit puzzling why writers found the city so expensive. They could live and write in small apartments, couldn’t they? Visual artists, especially sculptors needed space, equipment, materials and perhaps a vehicle in addition to whatever computer, typewriter or writing apparatus of choice an author might use. What were they griping about? What fabrication costs do writers have?
Are writers prone to complaining more than visual artists?

Although these narratives are very personal, sometimes the tone can even sound confessional, transparency is not always paramount. One contributor, writing about her marriage to another writer, grumbled about their busy schedules and the lack of quality time together. Their writing careers developed into a competition. Debt was mounting. And yet in the throes of crushing debt and a bickering and competitive marriage they left New York to live happily ever after (and purchase property!?) on an idyllic island off the coast of Maine! How’d that come about?

Was this fact or fabulation? Gossip or reportage? After all, these are writers. In Goodbye we learn that:
Liza breaks up with current boyfriend because an ex sends her a free ticket for a weekend with him in Puerto Rico.
Hope writes a successful memoir and during the book tour starts adding parts to jazz up her story and loses tract of what she embellished and what’s true.
For Chloe, grooming meant buying a new thong while coked up out of her skull because she was planning on having anal sex that night.
Rebecca snorts lots of cocaine, and makes out with bouncers in exchange for free entry to clubs.

I’m sure Goodbye to All That is as factual as Joan Didion’s essay of the same title published in Slouching Towards Bethlehem. That essay is praised in the Introduction of the new Goodbye and, I assume, is the reason why all the authors here are female. I decided to reread it.
I had remembered it as a period piece, a somewhat tortured account of a young and fragile person finding her way in the New York publishing world of the early 1960s. But upon rereading I now found it especially difficult to relate to a story so full of observations and statements such as “I was making…so little money that some weeks I had to charge food at Bloomingdale’s gourmet shop in order to eat”.
No opening cans of Campbell’s soup or buying hot dogs from street vendors for this woman.

Do writers carp more than other artists? Maybe not, there are the occasional sweet moments in Goodbye. It’s just that ya gotta love the rants:
“New York City manifests itself now shamefacedly as a chump-factory, a chumphouse. It’s Chumptown … It’s well documented: Chumps need artists and artists need chumps, but they’re supposed to stay out of one another’s sight … There have always been chumps in New York, but they used to be bashful chumps who bought the brilliant ones their drinks”.

Yes, it’s that love/hate thing again and it’s all in Goodbye to All That, Writers on Loving and Leaving New York.

PS. Reading the comments section in the New York Times online review of this book is hilarious.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting... but y'know, Pete, Joan Didion stole that title for her essay from the 1929 Robert Graves autobiography, which I'd recalled mainly as a war memoir. Looking up the exact year of publication, I found this sentence: '...(T)he book's subject is also his family history, childhood, schooling and, immediately following the war, early married life; all phases bearing witness to the "particular mode of living and thinking" that constitute a poetic sensibility.[1]' Now I'll go read the comments to the NYT review, but the book doesn't sound like I'll read it (unless I can borrow yours).