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Reconnaissances

Replacing the "Urban Sublime": The City in Contemporary American Fiction

Heinz Ickstadt
p. 249-258

Abstract

La ville a indéniablement perdu l’attrait mythologique qu’elle avait pour les écrivains modernistes. Pourtant, elle n’a pas totalement disparu de la fiction américaine récente. Elle pourrait être considérée, de manière concrète, comme l’environnement où s’inscrit l’expérience d’un quartier spécifique ou comme un lieu de transaction transculturelle (en particulier dans les romans récents consacrés aux communautés ethniques) mais aussi, de manière abstraite, comme le signe visible de forces invisibles qui simultanément transcendent et absorbent la ville dans des romans où semble se perpétuer la tradition moderniste du sublime urbain. Cet article s’intéresse à plusieurs romans contemporains où la ville est à la fois représentée comme localement concrète et globalement abstraite—comme un espace d’expérience sensuelle mais aussi comme un référent sémiotique où se rencontrent des forces nouvelles et désincarnées. De même que Dos Passes explorait les "merveilles" du sublime urbain dans Manhattan Transfer, ces romans—Lookout Cartridge de Joseph McElroy et Cosmopolis de Don DeLillo—entretiennent et transforment à la fois la tradition moderniste en révélant les possibilités et les limites d’une nouvelle réalité virtuelle.

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  • 1 See Bart Keunen, Bart Eeckhout, "Whatever Happened to the Urban Novel? New Perspectives for Literar (...)
  • 2 Robert E. Park. "Suggestions for the Investigation of Human Behavior in City Environment", American (...)

1Although the expansion of cities has reached mega-dimensions, and conferences on a New Urbanism proliferate, the city has become fairly obsolete as a literary topic.1 Or so it seems. The challenge of the metropolis as a new and overwhelming social fact at the turn of the twentieth century and after, the wonder and the promise it held for those who saw it for the first time (and the abysmal disillusion when it failed to keep that promise), its assault on human consciousness, its reconstruction of behavior, of ways of seeing, feeling, speaking: all this had been the great topic of Dreiser’s novels, even before urban sociologists investigated "human behavior in the city environment".2 If, in Sister Carrie, Dreiser reinvented the myth of the West under the new conditions of the big city, Dos Passos, twenty-five years later in Manhattan Transfer (1925), thoroughly destroyed that myth, at the same time that he wrote the most brilliant city novel in American literary history. While for Dreiser the city was essentially a natural phenomenon, Dos Passos conceived of it as artefact, as a machine-like technological environment that processed its daily influx of heterogeneous human raw material into a standardized urban product. Living in Manhattan meant succumbing to the city’s constant sensuous, economic and social pressures, to become either part of its machinery or be discarded with its mass of daily trash. And yet, if Dos Passos debunks the hope that Dreiser had once invested in the expanding metropolis, he also reinvests it in a city that is text: his own city of words constructed from the city’s semiotic debris, its "scrambled alphabets" of urban signs and urban speech: popular songs, ads, newspaper headlines. While Jimmy Herf eventually leaves New York with no clear alternative in mind, his creator achieves distance by translating the destructive energies of the city into the energies that drive its aesthetic (re)construction.

  • 3 In the last paragraph of his novel DeLillo juxtaposes the "sound of small kids playing a made-up ga (...)
  • 4 Ihab Hassan, "Cities of Mind, Urban Words: The Dematerialization of Metropolis in Contemporary Amer (...)
  • 5 "Today’s urban fiction"—thus the conclusion of Keunen and Eeckhout—"needs to be reconceptualized in (...)

2How could there ever be another city novel after this one? The heroes of much subsequent urban fiction are city kids, formed by it, marked by it. For them the city is an environment born-into and taken for granted, best when remembered in nostalgic retrospection. In DeLillo’s Underworld, city memories are childhood memories of an ethnic neighbourhood, of street-gangs and their rituals of initiation. When Underworld, in its last chapter, moves back into the 1990s, it reveals what has replaced this neighbourhood-city of sensuous immediacy: urban and trans-urban sign systems, networks of communication, electronic circuits with their massive flow of information, the vast space of the Internet.3 More than two decades ago Ihab Hassan spoke of a "dematerialization of the city in contemporary fiction".4 Not only had city representations become more abstract or purely textual (as in Calvino’s Invisible Cities), the non-fictional city, too, could be conceived of in semiotic terms. This, together with the "sociological diversification of city life", has added, as more recent critics argue, to the increasing complexity of "the urban referent" (Keunen/Eeckhout 58).5

  • 6 In his essay on New York Fictions of the 1990s, Günter Lenz discusses Push (1996) by the African-Am (...)
  • 7 In her excellent dissertation "ConspiraCity New York: Perspektiven der GroBstadtbetrachtung zwische (...)

3And yet, the city as experienced space has disappeared neither from our lives nor from contemporary fiction. In much urban narrative, past and present, the city is seen from opposing perspectives: concretely, as embodied in the geographical and sensuous environment of specific neighbourhoods (i.e. in city fictions rooted in the experience of ethnic or multicultural and transcultural locations: the Lower East Side, the Upper West Side, or Harlem; I’m thinking of Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep, Bellow’s Seize the Day, Morrison’s Jazz6); or, abstractly, as a visible sign of the invisible forces at once transcending and containing the city as in fictions that emphasize its cosmopolitan aspects and refer to a modernist (or if you prefer: a white male) tradition of the urban sublime.7

  • 8 Sinclair’s review became the "Preface" to the 1926 edition of Manhattan Transfer by Harper’s. The q (...)

4The novels I shall briefly talk about belong to that second group; yet they contain both perspectives since they respond to the city from complementary if distinctly different levels of experience and abstraction. To some extent, this might also be said of earlier literary representations of metropolis. In Howells’s A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890) the city surely is experienced space but also a symbolic battleground between the forces of Christian altruism and those of competitive capitalism; with Dreiser, it is at once agent and object of insatiable desire, the seductive locus of a new economy of spending. Dos Passos’s New York (the city as Machine) represents, in the visual sublimity of its high-rising towers of steel and stone, a capitalism of trusts and corporations; yet it is also represented as overwhelming sensuous presence: "the smell of it, sound of it, harsh and stirring sight of it", as Sinclair Lewis wrote in his review of the novel.8 In the literary representations of the 1970s and after, however, the city is no longer visible incarnation but rather a sign of, or cipher for, the invisible forces it refers to only metonymically. It is at once local and global: concretely here and abstractly everywhere.

  • 9 Of what Alan Trachtenberg had called, in a book of the same title and with reference to an earlier (...)
  • 10 Perhaps the novel should be read together with Pynchon’s essay "A Journey Into the Mind of Watts", (...)

5One of the earliest texts in which such abstraction becomes topical is, of course, Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, when Oedipa Maas, looking down on the new (and totally artificial) city of San Narciso, is reminded of the printed circuit of a transistor radio: "... a hieroglyphic sense of concealed meaning, of an intent to communicate...". This sense of being on the verge of revelation becomes increasingly intense, although Oedipa is never allowed to cross the threshold of revealed meaning. The circuit she discovers merely suggests the corporate empire of her former lover. Yet it may also refer to an alternative system of communication run by those excluded from the established order. But whether the acronym W.A.S.T.E. denotes just "waste", whether the black figure of Tristero is the agent of a conspirational counterforce, or merely a metaphor of the entropic process of systematisation itself,9 remains undecided. In Pynchon’s novel the city has two faces: "unreal" and fictive San Narciso (as the emblematic city of corporate capital and its homogenizing power) and nocturnal San Francisco as its "real" underbelly of suppressed diversity. It is here that Oedipa encounters the system’s living refuse: its underclass of outcasts and misfits.10

  • 11 "To Pammy the towers didn’t seem permanent. They remained concepts, no less transient for all their (...)

6In De Lillo’s Players, 1977, the city functions as a series of interlocking systems which connect exterior and interior space: the architecture of New York’s World Trade Center—office rooms, cafeterias, elevators—share corresponding patterns that are continued in the shape of private apartments or in artificial systems outside of, yet co-extensive with, the city (such as motels and airplanes). Accordingly, the protagonists have absorbed the shifting patterns projected by the media and their corporate environment. Variations of sameness thus mark the structure of a world that has become mere surface and can be rearranged at will.11 And yet, it is precisely through repetition that everyday sameness is broken up when the seemingly familiar suddenly becomes uncanny and brings to consciousness what the rituals of the everyday are meant to hide: the nagging fear of death and emptiness.

  • 12 "The ghost engines droned everywhere—down sewers, under basement stairways, in air conditioners and (...)

7"Empty landscapes", DeLillo said about Players, "seem to inspire games" (LeClair/McCaffery 82). The games of terrorism which his protagonists indulge in issue from the tension between the codified world they have become part of and their desire for greater complexity. However, they do not look for such complexity outside the system but continue the system in their own playful systematizations. Although Lyle’s game leads him to a greater awareness of things outside the limits of his patterned life, he is yet linked to the reproducible sameness of motel space and thus identifiable as the speaker of the opening sentence of the book: "Someone says: Motels. I like motels. I wish I owned a chain, worldwide" (3). It is Lyle’s wife, Pammy, who, after the collapse of her own game eventually discovers a New York she had been unable to see: New York as sensuous "oral city" and as "complex texture". Like Pynchon in The Crying of Lot 49, DeLillo connects the image of the nocturnal city with the chaotic heterogeneity of everything excluded from imposed or accepted system: groups and figures on the social margins as much as the marginal zones of words extending beyond established12

8It is Joseph McElroy, however, who converts this new urban technological environment most rigorously into a map of consciousness and conceives of the city as the source of a "collaborative network" of experience and (self)reflexion (LeClair/McCaffery 242-43). In the preface to a later edition of his Lookout Cartridge, he calls his huge (and hugely complex) novel of 1974 "a tale of two cities [New York and London]", narrated "between these densely-inside-out-described, different but eerily composed spaces" (n.p.). And yet, it would be difficult to call Lookout Cartridge a city novel. Metropolitan space is nevertheless present as a closely observed and densely described cityscape (as map and maze) that also extends into the structures of new media: the circuits of film, television and computer. Or, to phrase it differently, McElroy imagines the novel as a human-made system analogous to other complex systems such as the city or the computer. "Their labyrinthine intricacy can bring us to a threshold of ravishment and wonder", McElroy writes using a metaphor that Dreiser had employed in describing the sublimity of the city of his own experience (Le Clair/McCaffery 244).

9The book projects an intricate narrative system, a network of proliferating and shifting relations. A dynamics of relation drives its action and creates a constant need for re-positioning and re-mapping. "Lookout Cartridge", writes McElroy, "is a journey. But many of its arrivals feel unsettlingly inconclusive.... You are right", he addresses the reader in the 1985 preface to his novel, "this book Lookout Cartridge is in motion—multiple motion. Like thinking your way diagonally across a busy city intersection, or into or out of a picture devised by someone else" (n.p.).

  • 13 "The Art of John Willenbecher", Art International, March 20, 1975, as quoted in Tony Tanner (241). (...)

10Lookout Cartridge is a take-off on the conventions of the thriller. The protagonist and I-narrator, Cartwright, is a businessman who has also been involved in the making of a movie. The film is subsequently stolen and destroyed (or said to be destroyed), and Cartwright engages in the search for the lost cartridge of a film not yet finished and only partially developed. Evidently, Cartwright and his partner had inadvertently filmed a group of terrorist conspirators who, by destroying the film, hope to avoid exposure. In tracking them down in pursuit of his lost movie, Cartwright himself becomes a target of conspiracy. To make things more complex: there are several films, Cartwright’s but also, as he learns much later, another film shot at the same scene from another position by an unknown agent. AND there is "[t]he film and my recollection of it" (McElroy 1974, 81); AND Cartwright’s diary recording the scenes and circumstances of the film’s shooting at London, Stonehenge, Wales and Corsica. This diary of which several copies exist has also been stolen or destroyed, yet is at various moments remembered and enlarged in its mental reconstruction. The reader is therefore drawn into a narrative in which Cartwright’s actions, the recollected film, the envisioned counter-film, the excerpts of the real or remembered diary—i.e. remembered past, experienced moment, and imagined future—blend into each other. At the same time, Cartwright’s memory changes with each new bit of information he acquires, so that events and situations are frequently returned to and retold from different positions and from different states of knowledge. His consciousness is therefore not only a system changed and empowered by "the impingement of other fields on mine" (433), but itself functions as a cartridge (McElroy makes his word-and-name play quite explicit) slit into the chamber of another system (including that of the reader) which is then changed by the insertion: "The real action is in the movement that inheres in relations. While the mind’s eye works along the ruled paths, it also slides more freely back and forth through boundaries as if the maze were of two minds. The mind’s eye feels shapes change, feels change as shape, and even for instants of shifting speculation feels shape as energy and shape as change".13

11The novel’s progress is thus defined by the information Cartwright gathers on the fate of his lost film. Yet it is also possible to see the book as following "a rhythm of gatherings together and dispersions" (thus McElroy in LeClair/McCaffery 242). The dispersions are connected with Cartwright’s being pushed down the stairs of a New York subway escalator at the beginning of the book. It is the first in a series of pushes (or "shtips") which set things in motion. According to Cartwright, they exemplify "the multiple and parallel sorties which raise our brain above the digital computer to which it is akin" (477). "The gatherings", on the other hand, are associated with a quasi-mystical moment of his Brooklyn childhood when he, leaning out of a high window, caught a baseball, playfully thrown up to him, precisely at the stationary apex of its curve (282). This is the dreamlike "lookout" or in-between state which, for Cartwright, is a form of self-empowerment. He seems to achieve this godlike state, if only momentarily, in the hallucinatory tour-de-force of the last chapter, simply called "Cartridge", which transforms New York and London into a spatial continuum, gathers persons and information from past and present into a constantly moving and yet strangely disconnected and stationary network of convergence—a "system of accident" as it is also called (327)—in which he is center but only one of many and thus part of an open and ever expanding field of interactive consciousness.

12At one point Cartwright thinks of his film as "lurking on the margins of some unstable, implicit ground that might well shiver into revolution" (245). "Revolution" surely refers to the throes of the sixties, the social tremors of the Vietnam War, but is also linked, throughout the novel, to the cycles of an evolution which contains Maya hieroglyphics, Stonehenge’s undecipherable geometry ("a Stone Age computer", 346) as well as the postmodern local/global city of Manhattan over whose bulging grid Cartwright, in the first and the last chapters of the novel, hovers—birdlike—in a helicopter that is on the verge of crashing. The novel appears to imply that these are stages in a constant revolution/evolution of an ever expanding human bodybrain, unfolding modes of consciousness generated through the interplay of the mind with its urban and technological environment. Except that, in a final "dispersion", Cartwright’s belief "in the multiple and collaborative impingement of many systems beyond my own" (530) suffers a relapse. Accident reigns when the TV-set he helps to throw out of the window of his friend’s apartment in an instinctive act of Luddite "collaboration" kills the murderous antagonist waiting for him below.

13The shaping of the mind by structures outside the mind—corporate structures, speech patterns, architectural formations, the rhythmic flow of numbers on the computer screen—is also dominant in DeLillo’s Cosmopolis which I take to be a contemporary re-vision of Dos Passos’ Manhattan Transfer, with New York as the global capital of cyber-finance, of incessant electronic streams of market information. As in Players, the shifting world of urban surfaces is continued in the highly unstable relationship between the novel’s figures. Thus the marriage of the entrepreneurial self-made man Eric Packer, who made an immense fortune by inspired if ruthless currency speculation, seems to consist mainly of a series of casual encounters interlaced with his equally casual sexual involvements with other women. On a day in April 2000 he decides to have his hair cut on the other side of town—a bad idea in the eyes of his bodyguard since not only is the President in the city and are the streets blocked with cars and demonstrations, but there are also anonymous threats against his life. He nevertheless follows his whim and, in his oversized, noise-and bullet-proof white limousine, is driven along 47th Street from East to West, from First to Twelfth Avenue, from rich to poor New York. The limousine is Packer’s mobile office from which he conducts his financial operations. It is electronically connected to the financial movements on the global market as well as to various news channels. He is not only informed of current events in what is for him the only "real" world but can also see himself constantly on camera, supervised by his corporation’s invisible control center. On his slow progress west (which begins early in the morning and ends only in the early morning hours of the next day), he receives his daily medical check-up, while his TV screens show pictures of VIPs "killed live on the money channel" (33). Around Fifth Avenue the car is stopped by a violent demonstration of anti-globalists, while it also becomes clear that Packer, for once, has miscalculated and is in the process of losing his huge fortune as fast and as abstractly as he had gained it. When he enters New York’s West Side a change of self begins. He gives in to a reckless urge for destruction, accelerates his own financial ruin and pushes the global market toward collapse. In following his new desire for "the business of living", he frees himself step by step from the screens protecting his life, turns off his control system, kills his bodyguard. Until he finally receives the wished-for haircut from his childhood barber, but then, at Twelfth Avenue, meets his assassin, a former employee—his failed alter-ego—who shoots him, in uncanny time-reversal, after Packer has seen the image of his own dead body on the electron camera built into his wrist-watch.

  • 14 This modernist iconography of urban sublimity is frequently referred to: the New York skyscrapers a (...)

14Packer embraces a concept of the future that eats into the present. He bemoans the obsolescence of words as well as objects: "How things persist, the habits of gravity and time, in this new and fluid reality" (83). Accordingly he notes the anachronism of the word "skyscraper". "It belonged to the olden soul of awe, to the arrowed towers that were a narrative long before he was born" (9). The old iconography of an urban sublime in steel and stone has no relevance for him.14 Instead there are the screens of TVs and PCs, or of New York’s gigantic financial towers running non-stop electronic information on the development of markets. Packer has replaced the vision of an urban sublime with that of a digital sublime,—a real but invisible order resting on the presumed affinity between the global flow of money and the movements of the natural world. This new order which extends the range of human consciousness by the infinite possibilities of the digital is a future already present: "... an evolutionary advance that needed only the practical mapping of the nervous system onto digital memory" (207).

  • 15 Packer underestimates "[t]he importance of the lopsided, the thing that’s skewed a little" (200). H (...)

15And yet it is an order that cannot be controlled by calculation, is ultimately ruled by randomness, and therefore always threatened by collapse. Just as the body, with its irregularities,15 resists an abstract utopia of symmetry and digital omnipotence: "So much come and gone, this is who he was, the lost taste of milk licked from his mother’s breast, the stuff he sneezes when he sneezes, this is him... He’d come to know himself, untranslatably, through his pain... and so much else that’s not convertible to some high sublime, the technology of mind-without-end" (207-8). Packer, the reckless capitalist genius who rides high on the world’s financial tides until he drowns in them, is thus also a postmodern "Everyman" who, on his Pilgrim’s Progress toward death, finally discards the vestments of his civilized existence and accepts mortality.

16Cosmopolis is focused on one day of the year 2000. It was published, however, in 2003. It is therefore impossible to read it without thinking of that eleventh of September 2001 about which DeLillo, three months later, wrote his essay "In the Ruins of the Future". Still traumatized by the event, he embraces the cause of Western civilization by reverting, emphatically, to the rhetoric of urban as technological sublime:

  • 16 Although DeLillo thus seems to underwrite, in the spirit of humanist enlightenment, the dominant na (...)

Technology is our fate, our truth... The materials and methods we devise make it possible for us to claim our future. We don’t have to depend on God or the prophets or other astonishments. We are the astonishment. The miracle is what we ourselves produce, the systems and networks that change the way we live and think. But whatever great skeins of technology lie ahead, ever more complex, connective, precise, micro-fractional, the future has yielded, for now, to medieval experience, to the slow furies of cut-throat religion. (The Guardian 6)16

  • 17 Joseph McElroy, "Holding with Apollo 17", New York Times Book Review, 28 January 1973, 27. Much lik (...)
  • 18 Tanner writes this in reference to one of McElroy’s earlier novels (Hind’s Kidnap, 1970) but it als (...)

17Both DeLillo and McElroy are well aware of the limits of technology, its inbuilt dimension of disaster, but also of the limits of a literary imagination that rejects technology and science as non-human. "Whatever else my imagination gropes for", McElroy once wrote in an article on the Apollo space-flights, "it is neither easily familiar with nor easily insulated from structural steel, violent combustions and printed-circuit electronics. But in fiction—and I don’t mean science fiction—how does one write about technology and its relation to people? Perhaps not directly at all, but rather in accord with some virtue of vision to be found in technology".17 Accordingly, McElroy situates his writing at shifting interfaces: like a cartridge, in-between, yet always on the moving edge of knowledge, between the mind’s push toward systematization and its craving for the immediate sensuous cognition of sight and touch. Tony Tanner therefore praises McElroy’s "unusual ability to describe changing perceptual relationships to the environment... so that the city is not given as mere background, but as it is seen, as it is traversed, as it is thought" (Tanner 23218).

18Both writers have explored the manners of thinking, speaking and behaving under the conditions of the "new and fluid reality" of a digital technology that has absorbed (and is thus also continued in) the urban scene. In this, they are still tied to Dos Passos’s highly ambivalent admiration for the "wonders" of a world of our own making; and, like Dos Passos, they also project the knowledge of the price paid for these wonders into the wish of their protagonists to escape the symmetries of abstract systems and to acknowledge the physical concreteness of their mortal bodies.

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Bibliography

DeLillo, Don, Players, New York: Vintage, 1989 (1977).

DeLillo, Don, Cosmopolis, London: Picador, 2003.

DeLillo, Don, "In the Ruins of the Future", Harper’s Magazine, December 2001; The Guardian, December 22, 2001, <http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2001/dec/22/fiction.dondelillo>.

LeClair, Tom and Larry McCaffery eds., Anything Can Happen: Interviews with Contemporary American Writers, Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1983, 79-90 (with DeLillo), 235-51 (with McElroy).

Lenz, Günter ed., Postmodern New York City, Heidelberg: Winter, 2003.

Lenz, Günter, Friedrich Ulfers, Antja Dalmann eds., Toward a New Metropolitanism: Reconstituting Public Culture, Urban Citizenship, and the Multicultural Imaginary, Heidelberg: Winter, 2006.

McElroy, Joseph, "Holding with Apollo 17", New York Times Book Review, 28 January 1973, 27-28, 30.

McElroy, Joseph, "Interview with Joseph McElroy", LeClair, Tom and Larry McCaffery eds., Anything Can Happen: Interviews with Contemporary American Writers, Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 235-54.

McElroy, Joseph, Lookout Cartridge, New York: Carroll & Graf, 1985 (1974), Preface: "One Reader to Another", n.p.

Pynchon, Thomas, The Crying of Lot 49, New York: Bantam, 1966.

Tanner, Tony, "Toward an Ultimate Topography: the Work of Joseph McElroy", TriQuarterly, 36, 1976, 214-52.

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Notes

1 See Bart Keunen, Bart Eeckhout, "Whatever Happened to the Urban Novel? New Perspectives for Literary Studies in the Era of Postmodern Culture" (Lenz 53-69). See also Gunter Lenz, Friedrich Ulfers, Antje Dallmann eds., Toward a New Metropolitanism, Heidelberg: Winter 2006.

2 Robert E. Park. "Suggestions for the Investigation of Human Behavior in City Environment", American Journal of Sociology, 20, 1915, 577-612. On Dreiser and the city, see Philip Fisher’s seminal essays: "City Matters: City Minds", Jerome H. Buckley ed., The Worlds of Victorian Fiction, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1975, 371-90, 371, "Acting, Reading, Fortune’s Wheel—Sister Carrie and the Life History of Objects", Eric Sundquist ed., American Realism, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982, 274, and "Looking About to See Who I Am: Dreiser’s Territory of the Self", English Literary History, 44, Winter 1977, 728-48. On Dreiser and Dos Passos see also my "A Kaleidoscope of Images—Snapshot and Stream of Consciousness in Early Twentieth-Century Urban Literature", Heinz Ickstadt, Faces of Fiction: Essays on American Literature and Culture from the Jacksonian Period to Postmodernity, Heidelberg: Winter, 2001, 205-20.

3 In the last paragraph of his novel DeLillo juxtaposes the "sound of small kids playing a made-up game" to the set computer games described in the beginning of the passage; as much as the objects, lovingly and minutely described in sensuous detail that have "distracted" the narrator away from the computer screen, form a random and alive counter-point to the web’s perfect, yet abstract interconnectedness.

4 Ihab Hassan, "Cities of Mind, Urban Words: The Dematerialization of Metropolis in Contemporary American Fiction", Michael C. Jaye and Ann Chalmers Watts eds., Literature & Urban Experience: Essays on the City and Literature, New Brunswick, N. J.: Rutgers University Press, 1981, 93-112.

5 "Today’s urban fiction"—thus the conclusion of Keunen and Eeckhout—"needs to be reconceptualized in at least two ways: first, by redefining and questioning the concepts of 'metropolis' and 'urban culture' against the background of current research in sociology, social and political geography, political science architectural theory, and cultural studies; and second, by resituating the phenomenon of urban fiction within an emancipatory political context of minority studies... and within the context of major developments in literary aesthetics" (67). The postcolonial dimension of new ethnic urban fiction is discussed in Günter Lenz, "Literary Transfiguration of Intercultural Translations: New EthniCities and Migratory Topographies in New York Fictions of the 1990s" (Lenz 399-449).

6 In his essay on New York Fictions of the 1990s, Günter Lenz discusses Push (1996) by the African-American writer Sapphire (Ramona Lofton) and Dreaming in Cuban (1992) by Cristina Garcia.

7 In her excellent dissertation "ConspiraCity New York: Perspektiven der GroBstadtbetrachtung zwischen Paranoia und Selbstermächtigung im amerikanischen Gegenwartsroman" (Humboldt University Berlin 2008), Antje Dallmann has connected this postmodern cosmopolitan city fiction with the paranoid fears of white males (compared with, and set against, a new postcolonial and predominantly ethnic urban fiction). I prefer a different approach, although I do not deny the pervasiveness of the conspirational/paranoid motif.

8 Sinclair’s review became the "Preface" to the 1926 edition of Manhattan Transfer by Harper’s. The quote is on page 11.

9 Of what Alan Trachtenberg had called, in a book of the same title and with reference to an earlier period, the "incorporation of America".

10 Perhaps the novel should be read together with Pynchon’s essay "A Journey Into the Mind of Watts", published in the same year. Watts, he writes, was an enclave of reality surrounded by an urban landscape of white fantasy. "For Los Angeles, more than any other city, belongs to the mass media. What is known around the nation as the L. A. Scene, exists chiefly as images on a screen or TV tube, as four colour magazine photos, as old radio jokes, as new songs that survive only a matter of weeks". In "Raceriotland", this screen of unreality had been torn apart and a reality of conflict, trash, and poverty was brought into the open that resisted the encroachments of the unreal. In Watts, Pynchon writes, the imagination asserts itself in peculiar ways: using the rubble of the riots of 1965 to create a distinct art of the ghetto. One of those works made from refuse especially appealed to Pynchon’s sense of the macabre and grotesque since it showed a broken TV set whose insides had been replaced by a skull and bore the title "The Late, Late, Late Show" ("A Journey Into the Mind of Watts", The New York Times Magazine, 12 June 1966, 34, 35, 78, 81-82). Much of Pynchon’s (but also of DeLillo’s) city fiction is focused on the possibility of a creative re-cycling of "trash" (objects as well as human beings).

11 "To Pammy the towers didn’t seem permanent. They remained concepts, no less transient for all their bulk than routine distortion of light. Making things seem even more fleeting was the fact that office space at Grief Management [Pammy’s employers in the Twin Towers] was constantly reapportioned. Workmen sealed off some areas with partitions, opened up others, moved out file cabinets, wheeled in chairs and desks. It was as though they’d been directed to adjust the amount of furniture to levels of national grief..." (DeLillo 1977, 19).

12 "The ghost engines droned everywhere—down sewers, under basement stairways, in air conditioners and cracks in the pavement. All these complicated textures. Clownish taxis bearing down. Sodium vapor lamps. The city was unreasonably insistent on its own fibrous beauty, the woven arrangements of decay and genius that raised one’s sensibility a challenge to extend itself. Silhouettes of trees on rooftops. Garbagemen at midnight rimming metal cans along the pavement: And always this brassy demanding, a soul that imposes and burdens and defrauds, half mad, but free with its tribal bounty, sized to immense design. She walked beneath a flophouse marquee. It read: TRANSIENTS. Something about that word confused her. It took on an abstract tone as words had done before in her experience (although rarely), subsisting in her mind as language units that had mysteriously evaded the responsibility of content. Transzhents. What it conveyed could not itself be put into words..." (DeLillo 1977, 206-7).

13 "The Art of John Willenbecher", Art International, March 20, 1975, as quoted in Tony Tanner (241). "These words", Tanner comments with reference to Lookout Cartridge, "could be applied fairly exactly to the experience of the central figure of his latest novel".

14 This modernist iconography of urban sublimity is frequently referred to: the New York skyscrapers as evoked by Dos Passos or in the Utopian sketches of Hugh Ferriss as well as the seagull rising over the bay waters in Hart Crane’s "Proem: To Brooklyn Bridge" (when Packer thinks of "[t]h noblest thing, a bridge across the river", and watches "a single seagull lift and ripple in a fur of air" 9).

15 Packer underestimates "[t]he importance of the lopsided, the thing that’s skewed a little" (200). His dream of ultimate symmetry and balance (especially of the symmetry between the movements of nature and those of the market) is therefore doomed to failure, as he should have known had he recognized the significance of his "asymmetrical prostate" (54, 199, 200).

16 Although DeLillo thus seems to underwrite, in the spirit of humanist enlightenment, the dominant narrative of a struggle between a repressive past and a progressive future, he leaves room for counter narratives. "The World Trade towers were not only an emblem of advanced technology but a justification, in a sense, for technology’s irresistible will to realize in solid form whatever becomes theoretically allowable", thus, in a sense, calling its own "giantism" into question (7). At the same time there is "the primal terror. People falling from the towers hand in hand. This is part of the counternarrative, hands and spirits joining, human beauty in the crush of meshed steel" (8). DeLillo wrote his own counternarrative in Falling Man (2007), a novel that recreates and works its way through the collective trauma of 11 September. See also Joseph McElroy’s "9/11 Emerging" (Bollati Boringhieri 2003): "'9/11 Emerging’ remembers in me our blessed and blasted environments, technology’s mixed futures, the sciences that enrich our contemplation..." (Joseph McElroy, Official Author Website).

17 Joseph McElroy, "Holding with Apollo 17", New York Times Book Review, 28 January 1973, 27. Much like DeLillo in Cosmopolis, McElroy envisions, in his discussion of spaceflight, an evolutionary phase translating us "toward forms more cerebral. Not necessarily a good thing by our old standards. But the next thing" (30).

18 Tanner writes this in reference to one of McElroy’s earlier novels (Hind’s Kidnap, 1970) but it also applies to Lookout Cartridge.

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References

Bibliographical reference

Heinz Ickstadt, « Replacing the "Urban Sublime": The City in Contemporary American Fiction », Caliban, 25 | 2009, 249-258.

Electronic reference

Heinz Ickstadt, « Replacing the "Urban Sublime": The City in Contemporary American Fiction », Caliban [Online], 25 | 2009, Online since 13 December 2016, connection on 15 August 2018. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/caliban/1592 ; DOI : 10.4000/caliban.1592

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About the author

Heinz Ickstadt

John F. Kennedy Institute, Free University Berlin

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Copyright

Licence Creative Commons
Caliban – French Journal of English Studies est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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