Crème of New York Revisited: On Jonathan Vatner’s “Carnegie Hill”
By Heather AltfeldDecember 27, 2019
Carnegie Hill by Jonathan Vatner
Vatner, who works as the staff writer for the alumni magazine of the Fashion Institute of Technology, uses the Chelmsford Arms Co-op as one part physical construct, one part metaphor to enter the lives of four couples — two older couples, and two younger ones — and in doing so, artfully examines some of the racial and gender stereotypes that transcend generational boundaries. Further, the novel plinks apart the most intimate and vulnerable conversations between couples about such delicate matters as coming out to hostile family members, infidelity, depression, and death. Pepper and Rick, newly married, struggle with Rick’s desire to sleep with other women; he carries condoms in his wallet, so that while he doesn’t want to screw up the marriage, if he messes up he will, at least, be protected. Pepper, constitutionally opposed to the sharing of partners, deflects her pain by alternatively over-involving herself in the politics of the co-op board and in conducting a secret ethnography of Birdie and George, her next-door neighbors. George has become so reclusive that his forays into the outer world are like that of a pigeon, scavenging treats from the East Side to eat alone in his darkened room. Meanwhile, Birdie chases her lost youth in the elegant serums of department stores and in the hands of a plastic surgeon who operates from the “Palace of Beauty.” Francis and Carol are the most secretive couple in the book — Francis hides a significant medical diagnosis while Carol closet-smokes through her advancing age and a cancer diagnosis. Yet of the four, their marriage seems to be the one most conscientiously tended by its inhabitants.
Much of Carnegie Hill is about secrets and private lives; one of the most satisfying parts of its composition is in the author’s clear desire to keep elements of these lives private enough that we are seduced into endearing ourselves to the characters both despite and because of their incomplete personas. We hang on to the conversations taking place in therapy between Dr. Dixon, Rick, and Pepper, since we cannot know, but very much want to know, what will come of a young marriage in which partners have fundamental differences in the importance of monogamy. We turn pages to find out what George does all day in his room, alone, aging uncomfortably beneath an expanding belly and a withering relationship to sunlight and air. We want to understand how the inner life of Caleb, the black porter at the Chelmsford Arms, reveals his perceptions of the nonsense he observes every day amid the ceaseless parade of privilege and pampered Pomeranians. Caleb’s relationship with Sergei — which provides the most heated sex scenes in the book — is the most secretive, literally closeted from the judgment of Sergei’s family. Yet, this is the relationship the reader may find themselves having the most hope for, as each of these younger and more vulnerable men share a kind of openness and desire for honesty and commitment that has eluded the older and or more mismatched couples in the book.
What is most striking about Carnegie Hill, in the generous and oft-comedic voice Vatner brings to the work, is the way marriage becomes not just an institution that wears tedious as time goes on, but a place unto itself that only begins behind the doors and elevators of an old building — it is, in fact, an entire landscape, one in which couples get lost in their own woods and fall prey to the twinned beasts of infidelity and dishonesty. Yet there is no moralizing here for us. If anything, the message seems to be that marriage is an uncrackable algorithm, that some work, some do not, no formulae, even those devised in the most elite offices of New York’s psycho-community, are foolproof, that all are just the canned sorts of “serving suggestions” designed to help us do our best as we try to feel our way around the walls of this room, looking for the switch.
The novel’s most gravitational moment invokes what those who live elsewhere fear most about New York: a brutal encounter in Central Park between Rick and Caleb, replete with ski mask, a “robbery,” and a knife, unfolding in a scene that mirrors some of the central questions of our era and turns what could easily have been a more lighthearted novel into one that takes itself and its characters seriously. As a reader, I had been worried for this pivotal scene. It was clear that Rick’s financial status and whiteness would go very badly for Caleb even before the chapter fully played out. As a writer, I worried too: I am acutely aware of how writing that attempts to convey socioeconomic and racial quagmires is difficult to execute, something like pulling wool through thorns. And yet in the end I found myself convinced by the interaction, and by the ways that the violence — both literal and metaphoric — were conceived. Vatner noted in an interview that “[t]hese characters are deeply flawed, just like many people I know. […] I’m so sick of characters who are all good. Even in great literature, you see them. Where is the empathy in siding with a perfect character?” He succeeds in not only rendering these characters’ intimate flaws, but also giving them, and their secrets, a half-life that has immense potential to endear them to the reader.
The nature of the lives depicted in the fictional Chelmsford Arms reminds me of a moment in another iconic New York story, My Dinner with Andre, when Wally (Wallace Shawn) and Andre (Andre Gregory) are discussing how we perceive reality. Wally tells Andre that he doesn’t think we should all have to go to Mount Everest to experience reality, noting that “I think if you could become fully aware of what existed in the cigar store next door to this restaurant, it would just blow your brains out!” Vatner takes us inside the one-percent equivalent of a cigar store, lifting the curtains for a peek, bringing forth as much a New York novel as Wolfe or Salinger or Helprin have given us, conveying not just the landscape of Manhattan and its domestic innards, but of its inhabitants and their many imperfections. Having grown up on the “left” coast, as a child of parents with Marxist ideals and where the co-ops are synonymous with a more modest (albeit not necessarily any less narcissistic) set of ideals, I will admit that I had reservations about reading a novel that indulged in the lives of characters who would choose to live in a place called The Chelmsford Arms. Such reservations were largely mitigated by the unique complexity of characters like George, whose life reveals a human loneliness so paralyzing that it matters little where he lives, and by characters like Rick and Pepper, who reveal an exacting and painful picture of contemporary marriage, a city unto itself where so many of us find ourselves lost.
Heather Altfeld is the author of two books of poetry and a number of essays. She lives and writes in Northern California.
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