Right before we got to New York last week, a youth party wave of U.S.A. craziness washed over America. Yes, it was the celebration of one dude’s death, but all the kids were feeling it: University campuses, city halls, and New York’s tenderest touchstone— Ground Zero— swarmed with youth people partying over you-know-who’s demise. It was something big. Lots of people, particularly under-thirties, really felt relieved. Everybody in New York was talking about it.
Now, after reading three insanely connected New York novels, I think they were simply looking for something, anything, to shush the incessant buzzing in their ears about “the End of the American Empire.” The literature coming out of New York right now is obsessed with it: China rising, the Dollar losing, American greatness withering to a depleted shell. The three books I accidentally read before New York had this thought, and only this, in mind: America is Going Down.
I admit, it was very strange reading three novels in a row with the same theme. In all three, New York City turns into a place where publicists and “Medias” rule and where tweeny adults are attached to “äppäräts” or “handhelds” (aka IPhones.) In all three, people stream and flaunt and judge their lives online. And in all three, loneliness pervades. If you love New York, and you’re freaked about what is to come, this is necessary shit:
1. Gary Shteyngart’s “Super Sad True Love Story” is a super-quick, biting satire weighted with real heart. We follow poor, sappy Lenny Abromov, son of Russian parents and a failing immortality salesman, as he falls for a girl of impossible youth and vigour. Around them, the Chinese are calling on their debt, the war with Venezuela is crashing down, and the “Low Net Worth Individuals” are rioting in the streets. Amazing candour in the love story part, insane imagination in the future part. This is the best American novel of the year.
2. Jennifer Egan’s “Visit from the Goon Squad” won the Pulitzer Prize, and it is an edgy, well-deserved win. It tracks linked characters Sasha and Bennie (a music producer and his assistant) from 1979 to the future, looking at the rock and roll publicity machine through an almost photographic lens. Though the disconnection/fake powerpoints/jump-around timeline seems fancy, this is a beautiful clear read. Her vision of the future is still heartfelt, if a little autistic. Egan rocks.
3. Sam Lipsyte’s “The Ask” is about a loser, pure and simple. We follow this loser through his New York life as it falls apart and reassembles itself, as he is used by millionaire college friends, by his job, and even by his four-year-old kid. Lipsyte’s writing is the best of this trio; each sentence is a hilarious joke that could make you cry as soon as laugh out loud. You’ll fly through it, and feel crazy about it, and then you’ll worry that it’s really about you ten years from now. Only the raddest of New York writers could so acerbically and astutely pinpoint this malaise, this End of an Empire mortality-fear. Maybe this is New York’s way of facing its uncertain future: not by partying in the streets, but with humility, wit, and endless jokes.