According to two new novels that claim to chronicle (satirize?) our urban lives, our urban lives are incredibly depressing.
In the Times this weekend, Ginia Bellefante concludes that between Amy Sohn‘s “Motherland” (“a story of midlife shenanigans in Park Slope”) and Karl Taro Greenfield’s “Triburbia” (“a story of midlife shenanigans south of Canal Street”), we’re on the cusp of “a new strain of pop domestic fiction” where “erotic destiny is ordained by school district — sexual dalliance facilitated by the Department of Education.” She writes:
In a city that long ago relinquished so much of its mythology to the rapture of upper-income parenting and its attendant diet of chemical-free everything, it was a matter as sure as the rise of transit fares that we would eventually be made to think about the rituals of morning drop-off and afternoon pickup as the predominant context for forbidden sex.
Bellefante argues, sort of, that these books, which walk the line between smug navel-gazing and social commentary, serve some subversive purpose by stripping the “urban bourgeoisie” of “its right to moral imperiousness.” In other words, you can only be so self-righteous about composting your CSA leftovers when you’re doing it in the off hours between romps with the married head of your son’s playgroup (or whatever happens in these books).
She also makes the case that the books are a reaction to the “suburbanization” of Bloomberg’s New York, where lower crime rates have allowed time for us to worry about soda sizes and everyone does yoga while drinking wheatgrass. Reading about the sordid underbelly of Park Slope, with its endless affairs and its cocaine-fueled Coop shifts (or something?) allows us to reassure ourselves that we’ve still got it. Here’s Bellefante again:
Both “Motherland” and “Triburbia” offer postures of narrative defense against the notion that New York is now a boring, commitment-obsessed place. They want to show us that for many people, lunchtime isn’t just for farro. But reading these books, you are left with cause for even further lament — the worry that perhaps even our adultery has gotten lazy. Is proximity the only aphrodisiac?
Obviously, it’s not any one book’s job to capture all the nuances of a time/place/era. It’s a novel, not a senior thesis. But I have trouble — and, not having read either book yet, it’s an issue more with the Times piece than with the books themselves — with one more cultural artifact announcing that here in the Slope we’re all so smug and boring and oblivious to everyone who isn’t us that we’re forced to create our own melodramas, which are as laughably dull as we are. It’s not that there’s no truth there — it’s just that I’m used up. Can’t it be another neighborhood’s turn to be a universal punchline for a while?