by Adam Rapp
New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 403 pages. $15.
In Here Is New York, E. B. White discerns a trio of invisible cities overlaying Gotham: that of the native, the commuter, and the outsider who comes in search of fame, fortune, or freedom, Everybody in this last, romantic category “embraces New York with the intense excitement of first love, each absorbs New York with the fresh eyes of an adventurer, each generates heat and light to dwarf the Consolidated Edison Company.”
Tell that to the Midwestern transplant who narrates playwright Adam Rapp’s debut novel, The Year of Endless Sorrows: “Eventually, Con Ed shut off the electricity in the common area, so coming home at any hour of the evening turned into a kind of silent horror film. We anticipated rapists and stranglers and giant kidnappers on every landing. . . . Stepping safely into the apartment carried with it a historical, emotional weight.”
The unnamed young protagonist—a fledgling fictioneer with an entry-level job at a Viking-like publisher—fits White’s description of “a boy arriving from the Corn Belt with a manuscript in his suitcase and a pain in his heart,” except that he keeps his slowly growing manuscript in the empty freezer of his East Village walkup, and his main wound is the gnarly result of a hoops injury. Limping becomes “a kind of personal theatre,” and he tells anyone who asks that his book-in-progress is about “acute knee pain and the end of the world.” It’s a heartbreaking work of staggering.
Rapp immerses his wide-eyed scribbler in the mundane urban despair that White’s template leaves out: daily office inanities, bad roommate situations, and the less hygienic aspects of la vie bohème. (A small river’s worth of bodily emissions courses through the chapters.) Humming with verbal energy and anchored by a wry, melancholic narrator (think Murakami), The Year of Endless Sorrows manages to be several things at once: an overstuffed Künstlerroman, a pungent lit-world satire, and a backhanded valentine to the New York of the early ’90s. Set in roughly the same era and neighborhood as Rent, it depicts the artist’s life as one of resignation, status anxiety, if not so many dance numbers.
In fact, Rapp’s brother, Anthony, played the scarf-wearing painter Mark in Rent’s original and film versions. He’s reimagined here as the narrator’s younger brother, Feick, an actor whose swift rise to fame (via a dreadful-sounding Off Broadway smash) is the glittering reverse of his sibling’s descent into obscurity. The novel’s title initially scans ironically, amid the first-person-plural declarations of milk-fed normalcy (“We generally look like the people walking through the Indianapolis Metropolitan Airport on any given day”) and caricatures of East Coast literocracy (“I had to protect myself from the arch, homogenized pitch of her speaking voice and the predatory cut of her editorial pantsuit and her English degree from Brown with its concentration on the late twentieth century novel”). Surviving in the city on a tiny paycheck is rough, and Glenwood, best friend and fellow hinterland escapee, devises a mantra to help them stay put: “No westbound buses.”
Of course, the endurance test is completely self-imposed; our hero’s mom would be thrilled if he pulled up stakes and came back home. But when the downhill slide starts, and the city rapidly becomes more prison than promise, The Year of Endless Sorrows fulfills its title in earnest. It’s that rare first novel that finds its inspiration and grandeur in failure.
Though we never read a line of the narrator’s novel in progress, Year itself has a bracing purity to it, as a chronicle of time wasted, as the history of an abortion—as the sort of groping epic one imagines buzzing on the laptops of a thousand of his real-life Village (or Brooklyn) counterparts today. Even the occasional missteps feel right: The reach of a massive first novel about someone laboriously pounding out his massive first novel should exceed its grasp. Rapp’s maximalist style spins out lists and similes and variations at every opportunity; he means to dazzle us, and for the most part he does. The wit works best when hammered into the precise lunacy of early DeLillo: “Our dumbshow took on a strange Eastern European theatre quality when Lacy started meowing,” runs the description of a particularly memorable roll in the hay. Someone on the phone emits “a kind of Las Vegas jackpot laughter that kept topping itself as though she were being continuously and lovingly goosed with a pencil by a good pal.” And preserved for the ages is a conversation we’ve all had. Here our writer (not having known Feick was gay) meets his brother’s boyfriend—in the middle of a blizzard, no less:
“I’VE HEARD A LOT ABOUT YOU,” Ruben screamed.
“OH, NO,” I said.
“ONLY GOOD THINGS,” he assured me.
In Rapp’s electrifying 2003 play Stone Cold Dead Serious, the lead character in the first act hitchhikes from Illinois to New York to participate in the brutal, live-action component of a video game competition; he spends the second act immobilized and mute. The Year of Endless Sorrows features a cautionary tale in the form of a monster of inertia who insists that his roommates call him “the Loach.” Ostensibly a stand-up comic, this character is only funny in his appalling laziness and squalor. He claims he’s “too busy working on his material,” when “in reality he was too busy sleeping and farting and eating our food.” Forever marooned on the couch, he eventually loses the power of speech. Our narrator toils over his novel (an editor at his company is “enthusiastic”) but in the end it’s as though the malodorous settings and bad vibes of the city itself that loom up to silence him. Here is E. B. White’s New York with the seams showing, with the toilet backed up, with the incessant siren call of wherever it is you came from. —Ed Park
—Bookforum, Feb/Mar 2007