By David L. Ulin, Los Angeles Times Book Critic
5:13 PM EDT, October 9, 2013
We don’t often think of it that way, but New York is a city for the young. There’s something about its myth, its promise, and also about its hardness; it lures us and then it breaks our will. This is the point of Joan Didion’s 1967 essay “Goodbye to All That” (published in her landmark collection “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”); “All I mean is that I was very young in New York,” she writes, “and that at some point the golden rhythm was broken, and I am not that young anymore.”
Didion’s line serves as the epigraph for “Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York” (Seal Press: 270 pp., $16 paper), edited by Sari Botton and featuring essays by 28 writers including Hope Edelman, Roxane Gay, Dani Shapiro, Rebecca Wolff, Meghan Daum and Cheryl Strayed. In many ways, it can be read as a follow-up to Kathleen Norris’ 1995 anthology “Leaving New York: Writers Look Back,” which reprinted, along with work by Frank Conroy, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Mona Simpson, the original Didion piece, although that book took a more historical overview.
Both collections get at the sense of hope (or ambition) with which New York seduces us, as well as how living in the city can turn, leaving us with wistfulness and regret. I am, I should admit, very susceptible to such a message; as a native New Yorker, I know firsthand the highs and lows of living in the city; I left, also, in my late 20s, although to this day, I continue to feel its pull.
And yet, I’m no longer very young, which is why, perhaps, I relate most viscerally to the writers in “Goodbye to All That” I have mentioned, to their experience and their years. When Edelman tells us, “I felt certain I’d cycle back some day: it didn’t seem possible for me to ever break free of New York’s gravitational pull. But married life developed its own momentum,” I know exactly what she means. I, too, came to California for a couple of years at most – a couple of years that have now lasted longer than two decades.
And when Ann Hood describes, in her magnificent “Manhattan, Always Out of Reach,” the experience of losing her 5-year-old daughter Grace to “a virulent form of strep,” she exposes the key lie we tell ourselves about iconic places: that they will save us, protect us, in some way, from ourselves. “New York didn’t matter,” Hood writes of the aftermath of Grace’s dying. “Nothing mattered.... I locked myself in my bedroom and thought, I will never leave here.”
Unfortunately, such depth is missing from a lot of “Goodbye to All That,” which in places reads like a scrapbook of notes about New York as fantasy turned sour. Too many of the essays are too similar, too safe, reflections on the desire to become a writer, on living in a small apartment, or the realization that, as Didion so brilliantly put it, “not all of the promises would be kept, that some things are in fact irrevocable and that it had counted after all, every evasion and every procrastination, every mistake, every word, all of it.”
That’s a tricky but essential point, and it infuses Didion’s essay with a sense not just of loss but also of inevitability, of the innocence that living strips away. Still, for all that they refer back to her – Didion’s name comes up in most of these pieces – too much of the writing here does not share her depth.
That's because so many of the contributors seem inexperienced somehow, lacking perspective, as it were. This leaves their work unsettled, a litany of impressions – "Even before I'd ever set foot on its teeming streets," Marie Myung-Ok Lee declares in "Misfits Fit Here," "New York City represented to me the perfect place" – that feel less lived than received. What they lack is Didion's sense of tragic understanding, her recognition that the lesson of her time in the city "was that it was distinctly possible to stay too long at the Fair."
Does this seem unfair? Perhaps. But “Goodbye to All That” begs such comparisons by setting itself up as a response.
“Maybe you’ll be an actress. Maybe you’ll do stand-up.... maybe you’ll wear intense glasses and make dramatic proclamations into a swank office telephone,” Elisa Albert writes in “Currency” – one of the strongest essays in the collection because of its longing for “the reckless girl” the author once was.
In the end, though – and despite the good stuff – not enough of the work here feels quite reckless enough.
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