And then three days after Thanksgiving, you fly back to New York, and in your taxi, on the way in from the airport, you realise that you moved here because you wanted to be somewhere that wasn’t nowhere, and if you don’t want to be nowhere, you’re going to have to stay here forever. And you’ll never make it, you’ll never be able to leave, because this is not where you are from.
Until you meet the right boyfriend. And then New York is where you are from.
— Jennica Green, Maynard and Jennica by Rudolph Delson, p. 120
How much does the setting matter in a work of fiction? Obviously, a lot – even the most inward-looking psychological novel has to have something to ground the protagonist in. And a good setting goes a long way towards creating the book’s atmosphere. It can be well-trod territory, or show us a entirely new place, or an aspect of somewhere we may not have seen before.
However, there’s a problem of mine with settings that are over-exposed. New York, for example, has been the home of so many stories over the decades that any new story set there raises the issue of investment and authenticity. Is the narrative written (or read, for that matter) from the perspective of a real city, or from the grand fictional construct of New-York-on-the-page-or-screen? Are we taking in the author’s vision, or a melange of so many other fictions we’ve consumed before?
Rudolph Delson’s Maynard and Jennica is set, for the most part, in an unmistakeably turn-of-the-21st-Century New York City. There is a little of Woody Allen and J.D. Salinger’s New Yorks in the book, that of a large, indifferent city of sardonic people bouncing off each other, but the overall tone is much more expansive, open and big-hearted. There is a genuine sense of New York as a city of differences, and of possibilities.
But the ease with which these kids talk about girlfriends and boyfriends, and the ease with which you can join the ranks of the happy. I say girlfriend, people take me at my word. Forget race, forget money. The real divide in New York City is between the content and the discontent. I am ready, I am ready! I want to be a member of – that upper class.
Maynard Gogarty, p.124
This is not to say that the novel as a whole is constantly wide-eyed and optimistic. Written in an oral-journalism format that records the story through interviews with a wide cast of characters, the novel gives them all room to pontificate, self-justify, rant, contradict each other and themselves. They’re a strange and wonderful bunch, including David Fowler, a sketchy lawyer, Puppy Jones, a hip-hop artist turned amateur lexicographer, and Ana Kaganova, a Russian-Israeli-German con artist with a taste for the finer things in life. This is to say nothing of the two principal characters.
Maynard Gogarty, a onetime classical composer who now makes a living giving music lessons to children, talks pompously of the most bloody-minded and inconvenient aspects of city life uniting to form an esprit de pays. And Jennica Green’s friends and family mock her teenage self for wishing her middle-class San Jose upbringing was “more illustrious”, contrasting this adolescent longing with her current existence as a harried worker for a Manhattan investment bank.
Their first meeting, on a Number 6 subway car travelling uptown, takes place amid a chaotic misunderstanding involving the emergency brake handle and a group of boisterous schoolchildren. Treated by Delson with a deft comic touch, the scene snowballs through digressions and interjections from multiple characters, whether centrally involved, peripheral or absent altogether. This is such a New York story that even the emergency brake on the subway train gets an interview segment. (For the record, it says “Meee!”)
Make no mistake, this is a love story. Maynard and Jennica end up together – but that isn’t the happy ending we’re promised by rom-com convention. There are a hundred or so pages still to go, and trials aplenty for our happy couple.
Up next, Part Two of my review.