JANUARY 17, 2014
“THIS IS WHAT I have decided to do with my life just now,” announces the narrator of Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights, her classic 1979 novel — or memoir or autobiographical essay or whatever you want to call it — a book that defies or rejects classification along with plot and narrative arc, instead following its own instincts toward a shape molded not by event and consequence but by thought and feeling: “I will do this work of transformed and even distorted memory and lead this life, the one I am leading today.”
The life Hardwick’s narrator leads is a New York life: she thinks about the city she has occupied for years, remembers a number of its inhabitants, and meditates on their lives in relationship to her own. She jumps from memory to memory, presents artifacts without context, imagines herself in the consciousness of other people. The book becomes a conversation between her present and past selves, between the New York she drifts through now, and the one into which she arrived decades earlier.
After rereading Sleepless Nights several times, I’ve come to think that New York isn’t the book’s subject so much as its form. This is the city transformed into language, with all its contradictions and complexity: its beauty and chaos, its layers of history, its imposing structures containing transient lives. I can’t imagine the book being written or taking place anywhere else, and, with it in mind, I can no longer imagine a book about New York being written any other way — without abrupt shifts in time and perspective, oscillation between observation and thought, and a cast of ghostlike characters drifting into and out of the narrator’s view as the city churns around them.
Whether or not Roger Rosenblatt knows Sleepless Nights (I imagine he does), in his lovely new book — The Boy Detective: A New York Childhood — the structure similarly evokes and is shaped by its subject. Back in New York to teach a memoir workshop, Rosenblatt wanders the neighborhoods he haunted as a boy in the 1940s and 1950s, when he regularly imagined himself a detective shadowing criminals, a cross between Sherlock Holmes and Sam Spade. Like Hardwick’s narrator, he is simultaneously living his present life and reliving moments from 60 years earlier; he takes in familiar landmarks and makes note of those that have disappeared, recalling long-dead figures such as his silent and domineering father, and still living but much altered ones, like his teenage sweetheart and now wife of many years.
But the subtitle is misleading. This isn’t simply a book of recollection. It’s a collage of memory, observation, thought, invention, even literary criticism. Child and adult are inextricably linked in Rosenblatt’s travels through memory: we spend as much time, if not more, in the narrator’s present as in his past, as he wanders these almost-familiar streets, remarking on the changes he sees, reflecting on time and memory, fact and fiction, dream and the imagination. When we are seeing the world through the boy’s eyes, we are always aware of the man studying that boy:
I may be a ghost of my own life. Since we never leave our childhood, I see myself as a boy on these streets I walk now as a man. I am the spitting image of myself. How like myself I am. This is why I do not believe in time. How could I if I feel the presence of the boy as completely as I do the man, in many ways more completely since the boy is more completely realized. He who existed in me over half a century ago walks with me today.
The narrator brings back to life people who inhabited Gramercy Park and Murray Hill and the East Village, but not only those he knew as a child. A number of the book’s characters passed through the city many years before he was born, famous residents, literary and otherwise: Theodore Roosevelt, Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville, Dashiell Hammett. Rosenblatt discusses the history of buildings and the plots of mystery novels. He spends much time meditating on the parallels between detective work and writing. He tells stories about the neighborhood and then admits he made them up. He even occasionally addresses his students directly, giving lessons to would-be writers of memoir, encouraging them, for example, to embellish when necessary: “The fanciful touch, if effective and original, functions as an extension of the truth, a dreaming into the truth.”
Since Proust, prose writers who work with memory have had a choice: construct a sequential narrative, or dispense with the artifice of chronology by mimicking the movement of thought. The associative mode has the advantage of seeming more “real,” more natural to our way of making sense of our lives, but it requires sleight of hand. A writer’s leaps from one idea or memory or image to another should surprise us, but at the same time, he has to instill confidence, to make us believe that we won’t be led into random associations or meaningless digressions.
This, of course, is something poets do regularly, and Rosenblatt alludes to poets throughout The Boy Detective: Wordsworth, Coleridge, Wallace Stevens, E. E. Cummings. The most exciting places in the book are those in which Rosenblatt achieves a poet’s sensibility, balancing logic and lyricism, guiding us from concrete image to abstract thought. One of my favorite passages comes about a third of the way through, when the narrator describes his boyhood fascination with psychological disturbance: “However terrifying and dismaying madness is to those who come in contact with it, still it may be mesmerizing to a child.” He moves from a description of the film They Might Be Giants, in which the main character, played by George C. Scott, believes he’s Sherlock Holmes and pursues the evil Moriarty, to an image of a delusional woman in his childhood apartment building, constantly searching for a lost infant daughter who has long ago grown up and moved away. Her real-life madness, however, unlike Scott’s in the movie, doesn’t lead to a discovery of hidden truth. Her voice simply “echoed like an ambulance siren in the hall,” helping the narrator to realize that “not every tunnel has a light at the end of it.”
Elsewhere a striking image from memory allows Rosenblatt to launch into lyrical flight, and the result is exhilarating. He describes “an institution for unwed mothers” in his old neighborhood, in front of which he “would stop in [his] tracks” and “just stare at the silent door.” Then, following a section break, he gives us this gorgeous moment, without any context other than the memory preceding it:
Between the secret and the sigh. Between the laughter and the sin. Between the lies. Between the lines. Between the nights and the mornings and the pale shocked face in the glass. Between land and sea, and the silence, and the bursts of anger and the sentimental word. Between the daring and the tremor. Between the real and the weak, and not telling them apart. Between you and me. Between you and me and the lamppost.
I don’t know exactly what it means. I don’t know exactly what it has to do with the home for unwed mothers. But it’s evocative and mysterious and moving, and when I first read the passage I shivered.
There are times when Rosenblatt’s associative connections seem forced, a little too clever, maybe, and because they interrupt the book’s dreamy quality, they stand out. Usually they come when the narrator calls our attention too directly to his writer-as-detective analogy, which feels heavy-handed after the first few iterations. In these moments we confront a mind that takes a little too much pleasure in its intelligence, in its conscious ability to impose patterns, when what we want instead is to lose ourselves in the illusion of preconscious thought, the dream state of a mind open to whatever memories or ideas the external world will trigger next.
For what makes The Boy Detective so absorbing is the way its unconventional structure reflects the spontaneity and surprise of discovery in process, as the narrator pieces together his past and present, as well as the past and present of his beloved city. Most of the time that structure creates a vital intimacy between narrator and reader, as if we are stumbling upon connections at the same time, and as if neither of us knows what will come next. The more unpredictable the associations, the more they seem to arise out of the unpredictability of the city itself, its never-ending array of possibilities.
I wonder, then, if a more appropriate subtitle for Rosenblatt’s genre-blurring memoir (though a less marketable one, I suppose) might have been A New York Mind. Above all, this is a book about thinking about New York, or thinking about a life shaped by New York, a place where everything is happening at once, where some buildings have stood for two centuries and others are demolished after a dozen years, where history and progress coincide, where there are far too many sensations to take in and yet every sensation is a crucial one. “Who could tire of New York?” the narrator asks, and then answers himself. “The roses in the window of an old bar and grill. The stick marks on the sidewalk made when the cement was still wet. The courage of small birds. The courage of people coming from work, going to work.”
The structure of the city, for Rosenblatt, is the structure of memory, always shifting, elusive but essential: “The walk lays out its own street. Does this mean that when the walkers are removed, the city itself no longer exists? That the space they defined is unreal?” The city, he suggests, is no more concrete than dream, and neither are the accumulated details of an individual life. What is most real is the walk itself — through city streets, through memory and the imagination, through the pages of a book, this book.