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The Uses of Disenchantment: A New Generation of Writers on Loving and Leaving New York

By posted at 6:00 am on October 25, 2013 1

cover“Goodbye to All That,” Joan Didion’s essay about coming to the end of being young and in thrall to New York, is an invincible piece of writing. Didion was in her early 30s in 1967, when she wrote the essay that would become part of her celebrated book Slouching Toward Bethlehem. Now she’s 78, and has become just as renowned for writing about the devastations and indignities of old age. But “Goodbye to All That” endures, as a classic of its genre and a guide to a particular time in a certain kind of life.

Didion moved to New York as a starry-eyed 20 year old — “was anyone ever that young? I am here to tell you that someone was” — and spent eight years in love with the city before her enchantment was replaced by exhaustion and despair. By the time she turned 28, she writes, “I was discovering that not all of the promises would be kept, that some things are in fact irrevocable and that it had counted after all, every evasion and every procrastination, every mistake, every word, all of it.”

In the years between her arrival at the bus station in a smart new dress and her departure for Los Angeles, Didion stayed out all night and went to lots of parties and was struck by her share of indelible moments. She met everyone there was to meet and skulked around her under-furnished apartment, whose windows she had hung (foolishly, and therefore glamorously) with “fifty yards of yellow theatrical silk.” The longer she stayed, though, the more depressed and impatient she got. None of it felt worthwhile, except as material for the deeply romantic cautionary tale that became “Goodbye to All That.”

coverSome might find the essay discouraging, but plenty of young writers read it as an enticement, or at least a challenge. After all, in describing New York as a place of heightened senses and jagged emotions, Didion had described tantalizing working conditions for a writer. In Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York, an anthology edited by Sari Botton that’s explicitly inspired by its namesake essay, 28 writers consider their own experiences in the shadow of Didion’s, with her “Goodbye” as their guide. These writers — including Cheryl Strayed, Ann Hood, Dani Shapiro, Maggie Estep, and Millions staff writer Emily St. John Mandel — bring a decidedly contemporary world-weariness to their reflections on what can’t help but be a pretty tired subject. If living in New York is an established rite of passage, this collection suggests that the act of leaving it behind is an equally important milestone.

As laid out by Didion and the anthology’s contributors, it happens like this: First there’s anticipation, imagining how your life will finally make sense when you arrive. The actual experience of living here is one of finding your place, followed by an intense feeling of ownership. You can stay at that point for years. But eventually, sometimes without knowing it, you begin the slow slide toward a moment of decisiveness. Sometime after that, there’s the actual leaving. And then, the having left. Living in New York turns out to be a process of earning nostalgia — hoarding enough memories to give you the kind of claim on a place that makes it possible to leave it. When you reach your limit and set out elsewhere, memories are your consolation prize. (Bonus points for writing about them.)

If you’re tired of hearing about how New York is the center of the universe, you’re not alone. Even those of us who live here and love it get annoyed at the relentless fascination with the city, the way people project so much onto it and then feel betrayed when it doesn’t live up to their expectations. (Emma Straub, who grew up here, captures this tension nicely in her essay, writing, “because my hometown is New York City, everyone else thinks it belongs to them, too.”) But even in basic ways, the city is still special enough to justify the fixation. It’s concentrated. It’s diverse. It’s where a lot of important things have happened and influential people have lived, and so it is full of history and legend. It’s a place of ideals, “where anything is possible.” And yet it’s also a place of limits, one people leave when their desire for more space or stability — or very often, a family — begins to clash with reality.

It’s not clear how much it matters that Didion’s disillusionment unfolded in New York. There are things about the city that can hasten that feeling, but “Goodbye to All That” doesn’t focus on them. Still, the essay is so inextricable from its setting that when she writes, “Of course it might have been some other city, had circumstances been different and the time been different and had I been different, might have been Paris or Chicago or even San Francisco, but because I am talking about myself I am talking here about New York,” it’s not entirely convincing. The anthologized writers, for the most part, are talking very specifically about New York: its pressures, disappointments, contradictions, cross-streets, and clichés. And they tend to reinforce time-honored New York mythology rather than complicating it. The question of whether or not New York should matter is overwhelmed by the extent to which it plainly does.

In these pages, New York is “the one that got away” and “love at first sight.” It’s personified as a drug, and a seductress. We read about day-to-day things: tiny apartments and crappy jobs and drinking too much. Residents’ (overstated) preference for wearing black, the competing smells of roasting nuts and sweltering garbage — the word “urine” comes up regularly — and the annoyance of shopping for groceries without a car. Some of the writers here have left New York only to return, others have left for good (at least so far). Some are wistful, others recall their time in the city with relief that it’s over. They note the ways New York has changed, and how they’ve changed along with it, in one case raging at the city for not being as cool as it once was. Some say they left because they couldn’t be their “true self” here. Others leave, only to return because they realize this is the only place that thee authentic self can thrive.

Many of them come to New York, as contributor Marie Myung-Ok Lee observes, “with an inchoate sense that writers went there and then stuff happened.” That stuff, they hope, will include excitement and inspiration and connections and book deals, seasoned with just enough struggle to make the whole thing feel raw and real and earned. All of the writers in Botton’s anthology have stories to tell about their lives in New York, things that happened to them here that they’ll forever associate with this place. But then other things happen. Relationships end and rents rise and favorite restaurants close and jobs are lost, and the whole city loses its luster. Those things become stories, too — and in some cases, reasons to live their next chapter somewhere else.

A number of the essays here are thoughtful and vivid, though the anthology as a whole is undercut by repetition. Elisa Albert, who now lives in Albany, N.Y., brings a rare sense of urgency to her essay about coming to terms with her new home. “You actually love it here, it turns out,” she insists, speaking to the difficulty of making her mark in the city she left behind. “Look closely: it’s a promising place…Put your money and effort and energy here, where it’s possible to make a dent.” Melissa Febos, back in New York after a stint upstate, reflects, “Leaving gets harder as you age. You don’t leave out of anger or from coming to your senses, but because your love is not as a strong as your reasons for going.” Roxane Gay grew up fantasizing about living in New York, until she realized she didn’t actually want to: “I had learned the difference between being a writer, which can happen anywhere, and performing the role of Writer, which in my very specific and detailed fantasies could only happen in New York.”

It helps to see New York in contrast to places these writers lived before and after: among them two Portlands (Maine and Oregon), Madison, Wisconsin; a nameless town in Connecticut, Moscow, Paris, and Montreal. One of the best essays comes from Ruth Curry, whose story begins and ends in New York but otherwise unfolds in Christchurch, New Zealand, where Curry moved to be with a boyfriend. The unraveling of their relationship is spurred on by Curry’s status as a foreigner, a resident of an objectively beautiful place where “differences were not so much differences as they were inversions or transpositions just similar enough to fool you into thinking nothing had changed.”

Fittingly, Meghan Daum’s essay “My Misspent Youth” is reprinted here. First published in The New Yorker in 1999, Daum’s unsparing look at how the dream of New York is undone by the all too real cost of living in it has become a kind of next-generation “Goodbye to All That.” Introducing the piece in this collection, Daum says that she regularly hears from people who just discovered her essay for the first time and “felt it to be describing his or her own life…and grieved alongside me for a version of New York — and by extension, a version of adulthood, of being human, or being alive — that was discontinued long ago and may have, in fact, never been the commodity we like to crack it up to be.”

Disenchantment is remarkably consistent across generations, so “Goodbye to All That” invites endless imitation even as it’s praised for being timeless. Reading Didion’s essay today, it’s easy to think nothing has really changed since 1967. Whether you find that comforting or troubling will depend in part on your capacity for moving on — which might have something to do with the amount of time you’ve spent living in New York.





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One Response to “The Uses of Disenchantment: A New Generation of Writers on Loving and Leaving New York”

  1. Geoff
    at 12:48 pm on October 25, 2013

    New York is, along with Austin, TX and Portland, OR, one of the most insecure cultural institutions in America. I have lived here for four years, and the self-reference is endless: “Only in New York.” “What do you expect? It’s New York,” as if needing to reassure one another that being here does matter, is different, is important.

    I’m not sure it is. New York is maybe larger than other cities I’ve lived in, and has a fair amount of history, but I don’t imagine that outside of the constant reassurance (that is nationwide, not just among New Yorkers, by the way), it’s all that different. Tokyo is more modern and fascinating. The West Coast (Los Angeles, San Francisco) is grimier and tougher, with more opportunity, where dreams are actually being made from scratch. New York is stiff with tradition. It’s sort of a corporate playground surrounded by a bunch of spread-out boroughs where the “real people” live.

    I think, 200 years after the country’s expansion West, literary culture is finally following suit. San Francisco has a wonderful publishing scene. Chicago does as well. More writers are choosing to live in Los Angeles, Seattle, Portland, Boston. MFA programs have spread literary culture to little institutions in small college towns.

    I think New York is dying…

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