Three weeks ago, New York magazine published an article called “Alone Together,” which used an array of statistical and scientific data to refute the myth of urban loneliness. Cities, writes author Jennifer Senior, are the “ultimate expression of our humanity, the ultimate habitat in which to be ourselves (which may explain why half the planet’s population currently lives in them).” One in every two New Yorkers live alone, she acknowledges, but living alone is not the same as being lonely—Manhattan is alive with “transient connections,” which aren’t always easily recognized. (Think of the synchronization of four hundred pairs of shoes across the floor of Grand Central, or the collective roar of the crowd at Yankee Stadium.)
The “myth” Senior is fighting to shatter, of course, is not scientific in origin. It is artistic; more specifically, it is literary. American novelists from Twain to Brett Easton Ellis have long employed New York City as metaphor, sometimes for romanticism, but more often for emptiness. (Senior quotes Twain, who called New York “a splendid desert—a domed and steepled solitude, where the stranger is lonely in the midst of a million of his race.”) In one strain of American literature, Manhattan is the place where particularly vivid idealism comes to die; its skyscrapers, high and jagged, pierce the strongest of dreams.
I’m thinking here of authors as diverse as Don DeLillo, whose early work, “Americana,” vivisected a New York City alive with ambition, regularly denied. Or Edith Wharton, and her subtle condemnation of society life in “The Age of Innocence.” Or Pete Hamill, who called New York “a city of right angles and tough, damaged people.” Or Joseph O’Neill, who so sadly surveyed the post 9/11 metropolis. “At work we were unflagging; at home the smallest gesture of liveliness was beyond us,” O’Neill writes in “Netherland.” “Mornings we awoke into a malign weariness that seemed only to have refreshed itself overnight.” The city defeats us, these novelists argue; it leaves us physically alone, and then—more dangerous still—emotionally adrift.
On Dec. 26, Paramount will release “Revolutionary Road,” a Sam Mendes film adaptation of Richard Yates’ 1961 book of the same name. Although he is scarcely recognized as such now—when he is recognized at all, it seems to be under the tired encomium “the writer’s writer”—Yates is a distinctly New York novelist. He was born in Yonkers, and drifted in and out of the city at various points in his life. (He died in 1992, having weathered a string of mental breakdowns, two messy divorces, and assorted physical ailments, some a product of his four-pack-a-day habit.) Yates saw the city as infectious; in many of his stories, New York incubates or inflates some long-festering moral deficit. He was great with the landscape of the city, which manifested, in its bleakness, the internal torpor of its residents. To Yates, the fact that New York was so full of promise only compounded the injury: newcomers aimed high, only to find themselves mired in a grind no more glorious than the one they left behind.
Such is the fate of Frank Wheeler, the young office worker at the center of “Revolutionary Road,” and the motif is repeated in Yates’ later short stories, which he wrote after his status had been established. (In the movie, Wheeler will be played by Leonardo DiCaprio; Kate Winslet is April Wheeler, Frank’s wife.) Here, for instance, is an excerpt from the devastating piece, “Builders.” The narrator is talking to a friend named Bernard Silver; the subject is a cramped and dark New York apartment:
And where are the windows? Where does the light come in? Bernie, old friend, forgive me, but I haven’t got the answer to that one. I’m not even sure if there are any windows in this particular house. Maybe the light is just going to have to come in as best it can, through whatever chinks and cracks have been left in the builder’s faulty craftsmanship, and if that’s the case, you can be sure that nobody feels worse about it than I do. God knows, Bernie; God knows there certainly ought to be a window around here somewhere, for all of us.